Our age is truly an electronic age. It seems you can’t go very far without hearing a cell phone ringing, a radio blaring or an MP3 playing. You can’t much further without seeing a computer or TV screen, a gaming system or a Blackberry. It’s hard to imagine modern life without electronic devices and the electronic infrastructure that supports them. Because of this, it is important to begin to understand and think about the technological phenomenon known as the Internet that is quickly connecting virtually everything together in a truly world-wide web of human production.
What is the Internet?
The Internet is an ever-growing network of “computers of all stripes–mainframes, minicomputers, powerful servers, the desktop PC, and any number of mobile devices” (Battelle, 6-7)–connected via physical and wireless infrastructures. The Internet supports the World Wide Web, a vast browser-accessible system of inter-linked websites.
A Brief History
The earliest forms of wide-area networks and the Internet emerged in the late 1960’s; this early network connected the research facilities at MIT and UCLA. The first email application was developed in 1972 and quickly became the most popular Internet application. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, the Internet quickly grew as an “open architecture network environment” (ISOC REF) where computers and networks of computers could be arbitrarily added by virtually anyone at any time.
In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented a program called WorldWideWeb which created documents in hypertext to be stored on a server and accessed on the Internet through a web browser (which renders hypertext into electronic “pages”). Here, each web page could be linked to any other web page by means of a hyperlink (typically rendered as blue underlined text). The phrase “World Wide Web” quickly became synonymous with the growing system of linked hypertext pages that began to emerge in the early 1990’s.
In 1994, Netscape released its 1.0 version of the first highly popular web browser, Netscape Navigator. In 1995, Microsoft launched its first version of Internet Explorer. The ensuing “browser war” between Microsoft and Netscape effectively brought the Internet into real public consciousness for the first time. Before long, millions of people were signing up with an internet service provider (or ISP) to gain access to this “new” phenomenon of the Internet’s World Wide Web.
The massive and ongoing expansion of the Web quickly created a need for online applications that could “search” its contents for specific kinds of pages. The first search engine designed for the Web was the WWW Wanderer, created by Matthew Gray (at MIT) in 1993. By 1995, as the public began pouring onto the Web, several search engines became popular; these included AltaVista, Lycos and Excite. Currently, Google clearly dominates the world of search, controlling 51% of the global search market (Yahoo and MSN are the closest competitors, at 24% and 13% respectively).
During the past ten years, the World Wide Web has been bolstered by the development of many new web applications which allow individuals to upload, share and store information through and on the web. These applications include:
• Blogging applications such as Blogger and WordPress
• Instant Messaging (or IM) applications such as AIM and Google Talk
• Social networking applications such as MySpace
• Music-downloading applications such as iTunes and Napster
• Video-sharing applications such as YouTube
These applications/websites are particularly popular among today’s teens, as shown below.
Finally, what might the future of the Internet look like? A few things seem reasonably certain. First, the technology that makes up the Internet will continue to drive toward universality: free-wireless access will become standard for metropolitan areas around the globe, every electronic device will be tied into the Web, and new innovations will give us devices and device systems which will weave ever more deeply into the fabric of our daily lives. Second, the Web will continue to become the global marketplace. The search engine business is already pointed in that direction. For example, Google “would like to provide a platform that mediates supply and demand for pretty much the entire world economy” (Battelle, 247). Finally, it appears that the need for the “personal computer” will diminish as connectivity and remote storage capabilities rapidly increase in scope. PC’s will be replaced by extremely cheap (if not free) connection consoles. In sum, the World Wide Web will increasingly be everywhere, virtually connecting everyone to everyone and everything.
Teen Internet Usage
According to a 2005 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 87% of American teens use some aspect of the Internet regularly. So what are they doing when they enter World Wide Web? The following annotated list reports the most prevailing uses among online American Teens:
•Email: Though American teens favor IM communication over email, about 89% access email regularly
•IM / Text Messaging: In 2005, 75% reported regularly using an IM application to communicate with friends. Most of the time, teens IM with people they know already from school or Church.
• Visiting Chat Rooms: A 2001 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 71 % of 15 – 17 year olds participate in chat rooms. Unlike IM usage, teens use chat to interact with people they have met online (about 48% of the time)-people with whom they have not met in person.
•Downloading music:51% report downloading music (we assume both legally and illegally)
•Playing Online Games: 81% report regularly playing online games (e.g. at www.miniclip.com)
•Downloading and Streaming Video: Though the research indicates that only 31% of teens regularly downloaded videos in 2005, you can expect this number to rise dramatically in the next few years. For example, we note the success of video sharing (via video-streaming) sites such as youtube.com.
•Creating Web Content: 61% have created a profile on a social networking site such as MySpace (http://www.netsmartz.org/safety/statistics.htm). 19% have created an online journal or blog.
•Online Shopping: 43% reported making an online purchase in 2005.
Negative Aspects of the Web
There are real dangers woven into the World Wide Web; below is a selected list of the most prominent dangers confronting today’s online teens:
•Porn: On the one hand, it is important to dispel the myth that the Internet is teeming with explicit adult content (reports indicate that pornographic sites make up just 1% of WWW pages). Yet, on the other hand, it is vital to recognize that the number of existing sites does not matter so much as the accessibility of the existing web sites. When there are no Internet filters in place on the computer, an online teen has easy and immediate access to highly explicit images and media. Even when they aren’t looking for it, an increasing number of teens report that sexually explicit messages and media has been sent to them in chat rooms and over IM. Studies have shown that online pornography is incredibly addictive and destructive–some studies even liken it to the effect of street drugs. It is important to talk to teens about the harmful aspects of online pornography and to refer struggling teens to the right source for help.
•Cyber Bullying: These days, teens are taking their harmful trash-talk to the Web. One report indicates that 42% of kids report that they have been bullied online. This bullying takes the form of threats, disparaging remarks, blackmail, and various other communications intended to harm. It is important to talk about cyber-bullying with teens, giving them permission to talk openly about it when they are victims as well as when they are the bullies.
•Online Predators: There are an increasing number of pedophiles using the web to track down young people for abusive purposes. They often find unsuspecting children and teens on chat sites (where people go to meet new friends online) and lure them into divulging personal information. It is important to teach teens the basics of online safety; they should know what information should never be given out (such as last name, phone number, address, school information, etc.).
•Amplified Materialism: The Internet is increasingly becoming the platform for marketing and consumerism. It is becoming increasingly easy to find exactly what you are looking for online; there is a lessening need to go out and shop. Also, advertising is becoming increasingly specific; companies which have access to your “click path” (i.e. your browsing and search history) hold incredibly powerful marketing data. It won’t be long before teens will find themselves overwhelmed with advertising that is tailored specifically to them.
It is important to realize the positive aspects of the World Wide Web as well as the negative. Below is a very broad and selected list of these positive aspects:
•Access to Continuous and Differentiated Education: The Web is a wonderful resource to anyone wanting to learn virtually anything. And, best of all, the information is usually free of charge. However, it is necessary to master the ability to distinguish reputable information sources with questionable material.
•Community Innovation: Whether it is the programming community behind an open-source software, the parenting community contributing to an online discussion about SIDS prevention, or a youth group community contributing to an online toolkit for talking to friends about Christ, there are thousands of ways communities of people are using the Web to build knowledge and innovate together. This website is an example of a community building knowledge online together.
•A Platform for Sharing Creative Work: The Internet provides a great platform for sharing creative work. It is a great place for young artists, musicians and writers to put their work for people to see.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What steps do you need to take to become more familiar with the World Wide Web?
To what degree to the statistics given in this overview match the Web usage among the kids with whom you work?
How can you encourage positive uses of the web among the youth with whom you work? How might you help them navigate through the dangerous parts of the Web?
How can you use the Internet to bolster and advance your work among youth?
1.The Internet is not going away any time soon. It is important to become adept at using the Web for positive purposes.
2.There are real dangers woven into the Web. Adults must learn how to talk with their kids about these dangers. They must also become familiar with the availiable tools for blocking dangerous content.
3.Since young people will always adopt new technology more quickly than adults, adults must regularly learn from teens about the latest developments in online technology.