For these and all other online blessings let us be grateful

Over the next decade, the benefits of being social onlinewill greatly outweigh any hindrances that come with it, according to a study.

With tools like e-mail and social networks at hand, people have a low-cost means of connecting with new people, as well as with old friends, irrespective of geography and normal time constraints, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

In a survey of 895 Internet experts and users conducted between December 2009 and January 2010, 85 per cent said they believe the Internet will be a positive force in their lives in 2020.

About 14 per cent believe the opposite, saying the Internet will mostly have been a negative force by the year 2020.

“Most of the people who participated in the survey were effusive in their praise of the social connectivity already being leveraged globally online,” the study noted.

Study participants said “humans’ use of the Internet’s capabilities for communication — for creating, cultivating, and continuing social relationships — is undeniable.”

“Many enthusiastically cited their personal experiences as examples, and several noted that they had met their spouse through Internet-borne interaction,” the study said.

However, the Internet wasn’t coming up as a positive force for everyone in the survey

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Some respondents said the Internet robs them of time they would have otherwise spent on face-to-face relationships.

Some also noted that the Internet fosters mostly shallow relationships, may make people feel more isolated and can expose people’s personal information.

This Pew study is one of the more positive reports that have come out about the Internet and social networking use.

A study released in March by Retrevo Inc., a consumer electronics shopping and review site, showed that social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter are occupying more of users’ time – to the point of obsession.

In the Retrevo study, 48 per cent of those polled said they update Facebook or Twitter during the night or as soon as they wake up.

And 32 per cent said interrupting a meal for a message is OK, while 7 per cent said they’d even check a message during sex.

Last October, a U.K. study showed that people who use Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites while at work extract a heavy cost on their companies.

Employees who use Twitter and other social networks in the office are costing U.K. businesses about 1.38 billion British pounds, or more than $2.25 billion annually, according to London-based Morse PLC, an IT services and technology company.

And last summer, a report from Nucleus Research showed that companies that allow users to access Facebook in the workplace an average of 1.5 per cent in total employee productivity.

The survey also showed that 77 per cent of workers who have a Facebook account use it during work hours.

Kids exposed to digital dangers

Other recent studies also reveal that parents aren’t doing enough to protect their kids from very real online threats.

This was a core message from the June 2010 Norton Online Family Report: Global insights into family life online.

The report was recently released by Norton, the consumer division of computer security software maker Symantec Corp.based in Mountain View Calif.

The study polled 7,000 adults and 2,800 children aged eight to 17 in 14 different countries, including Canada.

It investigated tech knowledge gaps between children and parents, online codes of conduct, and perceived digital dangers and experiences.

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Parents are slowly wising up to their children’s online lives, a Symantec executive noted at a media briefing on the report.

However, there’s still a huge gap been perception and reality.

For instance, last year parents worldwide underestimated by as much as 50 per cent the amount of time their children spent on the Internet, noted Lynn Hargrove, director of consumer solutions, Symantec Corp. Canada.

Today we see that gap closing, she said. “In India, for instance, parents know exactly how many hours their children spend online.”

Mind the gaps

But as this gap closes, others are appearing.

For example, 17 per cent of children polled by the Norton study reported they have access to the Internet via their cell phones, but only 10 per cent of the parents were aware of this.

Twenty-three per cent of the kids said they access the Internet outside their homes — a fact that only 17 per cent of parents know.

Hargrove said it’s interesting that while children appear to be looking for some home-based structure around online behaviour, they perceive as outdated rules imposed by their parents or guardians.

She said some parents might emphasize limiting online hours but neglect to check up up on sites visited or content downloaded by their kids.

Worldwide, 44 per cent of parents think they should have full control over their children’s online activities.

That number is 61 per cent in Canada. Four out of ten parents say they always know what their kids are looking at online, but about 54 per cent says they only know “sometimes”.Five per cent of parents admit they have no idea what their kids are doing online. Asked the same question, about 20 per cent of the children said their parents are unaware of their online activities.

In some countries such as China, only 11 per cent of parents want to control their children’s online activities.

A possible reason, Hargrove suggested, is because it’s the children who are well-versed with the technology. “Perhaps some parents haven’t caught up and would rather have nothing to do with it.”

Not just fun and games

It’s vital that parents take an active role in monitoring and controlling their kids’ online activities, according to Rob Nickel a cyber safety expert and 14-year veteran of the Ontario Provincial Police.

Nickel used to work in the Ontario Provincial Police’s (OPP) child pornography section.

While many parents might be more concerned about curtailing extended participation in online games, they need to go beyond that, according to Nickel.

“The Internet is not just for fun and games,” he said. “Increasingly children are visiting sites that expose them to images of sex and violence or targets of online crime. They are making friends with strangers who could turn up to be abusers or manipulators.”

Findings from the Norton study bear out this view.

At least 41 per cent of the children were troubled that someone they did not know tried to add them to a social networking site.

Twenty five per cent said they were exposed to nude or violent photos, and at least 10 per cent said someone they only knew online tried to meet them in person.

Nickel said many kids visit a site called Chatroulette.com that enables complete strangers to enter into video conversations online.

The risk is you never know whether you’ll meet a celebrity or a creepy pervert.

While 83 per cent of children’s online activities involve online games, the Norton survey indicates children are also spending time on: Internet surfing, 73 per cent; school homework, 71 per cent; and talking to friends, 61 per cent.

The Internet permeates such a large part of children’s lives that evils such as online bullying have become more common, said Nickel. “The Internet is where kids communicate and live. It has become so simple for kids to crush other kids online.”

For instance, he said demeaning or doctored photos can easily by distributed to wide audience via cell phones and the Internet. Facebook hate pages are very often used by bullies to hurt and alienate their targets.

Angry, upset, worried, afraid, ashamed, confused, distrustful, shocked, helpless, were some words used by children who had negative online experiences to describe their feelings.

He talked about challenges parents may face dealing with online bullying.

“We know all about the other kid. But can we spot the signs when it’s our kid who’s doing the bullying?”

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