Advantages & disadvantages of digital connection
The downsides of digital connection
At the same time as they described the Internet as being highly integrated into and essential to their daily lives, most participants said that they had concerns about being online.
These ranged from the risk of being scammed, hacked or bullied to the harmful impacts of being exposed to content which wasn’t suitable for their age. There was a common feeling that being connected all the time came with downsides in terms of distraction and addiction.
All of the teen parents we heard from worried that their Internet use was a distraction from good parenting.
“It distracts me from [my daughter] to the point I can sit there, and she’s talking to me and I’m not listening.” – Kawerau teen parent group
However they also agreed that having Internet access helped them as parents, and as students.
“It’s half and half. One half, as she’s said, is a distraction, but the other half is good because I don’t like talking to people face-to-face, that’s why Internet banking is so good. And like, online shopping, and the research.” – Kawerau teen parent group
While almost every group identified social connection as a core function of their Internet use, many also talked about the risks of social isolation from over-reliance on the Internet for communication.
Some teenagers described themselves as having had too little in the way of supervision and restrictions on their Internet use, and said they planned to monitor Internet use by their own future children more closely.
“My kids are going to be cybersafe.” – Westport youth Group
One of the themes, therefore, that emerged from this research was the importance of ensuring that all New Zealanders have the skills and confidence to manage their own Internet use, and that of their children, in a way that makes them feel safe and healthy.
It may be counter-intuitive to think of unlimited access to the Internet as a barrier to digital inclusion. But the participants in this research often cited unsupervised Internet use, or a lack of skills and confidence about safe use of the Internet, as being amongst the barriers to ‘realising meaningful social and economic outcomes’ from their Internet use.
And those times when the Internet saves the day
On the other hand, in our discussions we heard stories where Internet use had unexpected benefits to otherwise marginalised or vulnerable people. One example was the daughter of one of the women who had left a violent relationship. Her daughter had used the Internet to find her own alternative to school.
“Actually my daughter used it to find alternative education, because she was not going to school due to severe social anxiety and truancy officers were involved. What’s she’s done is she’s found an online accessible art course down in Wellington and she’s just been accepted into it, and it’s NCEA and everything, and she’s done that herself at 15.” – Women’s Refuge group, Manurewa
Another example came from Westport, where a teenager had arrived in the town after leaving an unhealthy family situation. The social worker who interviewed him about getting social and income support asked where he was from.
“He’s from up north somewhere. How did he land in Westport? Two of his gaming friends live in Westport. So when he left home he came down here to find them. I asked, did you find them? Yeah, he’s living with them. He didn’t know them, but knew their avatars. Comes halfway down the country and introduces himself to people he knows in games and they took him in. … Could’ve gone bad. He didn’t know anything about them. But it got him away from home, he’s on the right track now. So yeah, technology in that case, provided him a pathway, strangely.” – Social worker, Westport