How the online world shapes young people’s ideas
The online world is an essential part of young people’s lives, a space for learning, downtime and a way to connect with others. The interactions children experience and the content they’re exposed to online can play a major role in shaping their ideas and views about certain groups of people, and ultimately impact the way they treat others.
I’ve been working with Internet Matters and Samsung Electronics UK on The Online Together Project – a new interactive tool to help children and young people develop their critical thinking skills in order to foster a positive and inclusive digital experience for all. The first phase of the project focuses on helping children and young people challenge gender stereotypes they come across online.
What is the impact of gender stereotypes online?
Recent figures in the Cybersurvey from Youthworks and Internet Matters* show that over one in 10 children aged 11+ has received sexist comments online, increasing to one in five for those children who prefer not to state their gender. With an increase in gender-related harmful content and online abuse, it can be challenging for children and young people to establish autonomous, unbiased opinions and attitudes about genders, differences, and equality.
From online gaming to social media, children and young people encounter gender stereotypes in various ways. One of the problems in recent years has been the way that young girls are objectified online. Boys, on the other hand, tend to be hyper-masculinised – this preconception of gender can impact the way young people interact with others.
Pressure to conform to stereotypes
Children can be easily pressured to interact with others in pre-conceived ways, based on the norms bred by internet culture. Young people seek out what it means to be: good or bad, beautiful or not beautiful, smart or stupid. Children are likely to feel they either need to adhere to these stereotypes, or question those that don’t.
The fact that so much of what they are exposed to online is visual means that many of these complex ideas around how people behave or express themselves online are distilled down to basic and often unhelpful concepts. Children and young people of different sexes feeling like they need to conform to be a certain size and shape to gain popularity and self-worth amongst their peers. In effect becoming caricatures of what it means to be male or female in order to belong regardless of how comfortable this feels. Ultimately this means that the nuance around critical discussions that help a child construct their identity is lost and instead replaced by simplistic often restrictive indicators of femineity and masculinity.
Importance of inclusivity and acceptance
If children and young people feel they need to confine themselves to a particular stereotype they see online based on very narrow ideals, this is going to affect not only their body image but their confidence and overall self-esteem. The more critically children are able to assess, accept and value the images they are presented with the less likely they will be to feel pressure to adhere to them and the more accepting and kinder they will be to others.
Speaking to young people about the importance of listening to others without bias, being welcoming to fresh ideas, and being open to what they stumble across online is key to helping them be tolerant to new views and ideas.
To help children and young people understand the way they think about, gender stereotypes, discrimination and sexual and /or violent content, here are five tips to support them.
5 top tips to support children and young people