Are our teenagers psychologically caught in the Internet?
When 12-year-old British schoolgirl Shevaun Pennington ran away from home earlier this year with her Internet "lover", a 31-year old former US Marine, the world was quick to question how the parents had allowed this relationship to happen under their very noses.
Yet the truth of the matter is that as more homes become connected to the information superhighway, it is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to keep track of the extent of their children's computer usage, let alone regulate the relationships they are forming on line.
But despite an understandable sense of disquiet, there is no existing evidence to support the notion that the Internet's psychological influence on adolescent users is predominantly negative
In fact, many parents and teenagers may argue that the Internet has helped dissolve social barriers that once prevented them freedom of communication.
It is this argument that has prompted Dr Mubarak Ali Rahamathulla, a Flinders lecturer in Social Work and Social Administration, to conduct one of Australia's first investigations into the psychological experience of Internet users aged between15 and 17.
Dr Rahamathulla, who has already surveyed international research studies, will be conducting focus groups with high school students across Adelaide, and will develop a subsequent questionnaire in order to construct a more solid understanding of the situation in Australia.
"From a positive view point, the Internet gives teenagers the opportunity to express themselves more freely," Dr Rahamathulla said.
"They meet these new and unknown people on line and as a consequence have no fears in talking about anything or opening themselves up to new ideas; for many of them it gives them the freedom to reveal their Фtrue' selves."
Yet these revelations can have a negative aspect when teenagers are led to believe that the friendships and relationships they have formed in cyber space are deeper and more Фreal' than they actually are.
Prolonged use of the Internet may also have damaging psychological effects on introverted teenagers who are uncomfortable communicating with people in a one-to-one social situation, Dr Rahamathulla said.
He said given their already poorly developed social skills, shy adolescents tend to feel more at home communicating through a technological medium, and as such are in danger of becoming even more introverted or not being able to relate to people in real life situations at all.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend Dr Rahamathulla will investigate is the attraction for some teenagers to use webcams - cameras that allow computer users to get visual images of the person they are speaking to - as a vehicle through which to push their sexual boundaries.
"There are some horrendous things going on inside teen chatrooms at the moment," he said.
"This age group is very curious and are wanting to experiment with and explore their sexuality and with the anonymity the Internet provides them, they are more willing to go to the extreme to get answers.
"I think for many who travel this path, the experience can move far beyond their imagination. However, it is only a small percentage of adolescent users who are travelling this path."
Dr Rahamathulla said he would include SMS text messaging as part of the investigation.
Focus group discussions will start this week and he hopes to have the questionnaire developed and ready to be distributed by early next year.
Flinders Journal No 15: September 22 - October 5, 2003