Research released today by the UK Safer Internet Centre (SIC) has revealed the extent to which young people are influenced by the internet, with many claiming that their online activities help to shape their identities offline.
With Safer Internet Day 2020 now well underway, the research coincides an annual event that sees millions of children, schools, and UK businesses explore online safety under this year’s theme: ‘free to be me’. This year, the event has garnered more than 1,500 supporters across the UK – including schools, charities, police services, industry bodies, businesses, government ministers, Premier League football clubs, and celebs who are driving discussion and hosting events that promote the safe, responsible and positive use of technology.
The youth’s offline identities are shaped by the world online
According to the SIC’s research, almost half (49%) of young people aged 8-17 today feel that their internet browsing activities impact their offline personalities, forming an essential part of who they are in the real world. On top of this, 54% said they would feel lost, confused, or like a part of them was missing if their online profiles were to be taken down. A further 38% felt they were more comfortable in themselves online, considering the World Wide Web as a space where they are able to experiment, explore and grow.
It is important for all of us – adults, businesses, and government – to support young people to harness the internet for good and make it a place where everyone is free to be themselves – Will Gardner OBE, director of the SIC
With instant access to support via chatbots and 24/7 helplines, young people are using the internet to help them unravel their own unique character. Fifty-one percent told the SIC that surfing the web has helped them feel more emotionally stable or less alone, 47% have gained confidence that has translated to their lives offline, while 31% have found access to support they had not been able to find in the real world. The SIC also found that the internet plays a vital role in social acceptance, with 46% of respondents saying they better understand other people’s identities because of things they’ve seen online.
Driving positive change
The research has confirmed that the internet is both informing and inspiring younger generations, with 34% of participants stating that their online activity and observations have motivated them to take positive action for a particular cause within the last four weeks. Furthermore, 43% said it helped them feel their voice was heard, while almost 52% said they have sent a message of support to someone who they felt was being victimised purely for being different.
Encouraging young people to be themselves
With 61% of respondents saying that certain web platforms empower them to experiment with their identity, it’s clear that the internet has a fundamental role in helping today’s young people creatively explore their inner self. On top of this, 76% believe that the element of fun is important to the development of online personas; while 66% of participants cited their unique thoughts and ideas as the backbone of their online identity.
However, in light of Safer Internet Day 2020, it’s important to note that external pressures still exist. Almost half (47%) of 8-17 year olds are desperate to ‘fit in’ with their peers online, while 61% agree that the internet puts pressure on young people to come across as ‘perfect’. A hefty 70% of young people believe the internet offers a platform for bullying, with 62% admitting to screening their activity to avoid falling victim to negativity online.
Almost a third of respondents reported holding more than one account on the same platform, with many doing so to curate their identity positively and creatively. Conversely, 40% admit to creating multiple accounts to alter how they are perceived by others, with 30% claiming they had done so to escape a bullying situation.
The study surveyed a sample of various UK communities, including disabled, BAME, and LBGTQ+ youth, unveiling just how disparate online experiences can be. Fifty-four percent of disabled youth across the nation said it was easier to express their true selves online, compared with 38% of non-disabled people; 52% also claimed to have found someone online with similar ideas and beliefs as them within the last four weeks. Disabled (47%) and BAME youth (43%) are also more likely to be motivated to pursue positive action because of the internet, compared to 34% of youth overall.
The SIC acknowledges that some of these groups are being targeted disproportionately, with 25% of 13-17 year olds claiming they had been targeted by online hate in the last month because of their gender, sexuality, race, religion or disability, while 45% of disabled teens and 32% of BAME students reporting the same thing.
Parents and carers also have worries and concerns when it comes to their children’s lives online, with 65% worrying that the internet is largely fuelled by negativity, and 39% believing that that the internet has more influence over their child than them. But the views of the youth differ somewhat, with 51% of children harbouring a desire to discuss their online personas with their parents or guardians.
“The internet is primarily a place of positivity for young people. Whether being inspired to be the next campaigner, supporter or friend – it’s a place for them to find their voice, explore their identities, and support each other,” said Will Gardner OBE, director of the SIC.
“We must help people on this journey by acknowledging the pressures, challenges and limits the internet also brings. We can do this by listening to them and starting conversations about our online lives. We know talking works; as a result of Safer Internet Day last year, 78% of young people felt more confident about what to do if they were worried about something online.
“It is important for all of us – adults, businesses, and government – to support young people to harness the internet for good and make it a place where everyone is free to be themselves.”