Safer Internet Day: Internet a 'fundamental' part of young people's identities

Millions of young people now see their online personas as a fundamental part of who they are, according to new research.

The UK Safer Internet Centre has released its findings to mark Safer Internet Day when young people, together with schools and organisations across the country, explore what it means to be safe online.

After speaking with over 2,000 people between the ages of 8 and 17, the Safer Internet Centre concluded that online life is a ‘fundamental’ part of a young person’s existence in 2020.

‘Almost half (49%) of young people aged 8-17 said that what they do and see online contributes to their identity, making up an essential part of who they are offline. 54% admit they would feel lost, confused, or as if they’d lost a part of themselves if their online accounts were taken away. 38% said it was easier to be themselves online than offline, seeing it as a safe space to explore and grow,’ the organisation said in a press release.

‘Through support and access to information, young people are using the internet to understand their identity. Because of the internet, 51% have felt better emotionally or less alone, 47% have gained confidence to be themselves offline, and 31% have found support they couldn’t find offline.

‘It also plays a crucial role in building acceptance of others’ identities, as 46% say they understand other people’s identities better because of things they’ve seen online.’

These findings come as online platforms face growing pressure to protect vulnerable people online, amid Government plans to tackle a wide range of online harms.

A Young Persons’ Charter is to be presented to almost 40 MPs and Government officials at Westminster on Tuesday, with a list of requests from young people about making the internet a more inclusive place, such as establishing better protection online and industry accountability.

One in seven of the 2,001 young people questioned by the UK Safer Internet Centre said it is easy for individuals to be abusive online, leading 62% to be cautious about what they share.

While almost a third like to create a second account on the same platform for positive and creative purposes, 40% say they do so in order to change how they are seen online and 36% because someone had been mean to them.

Will Gardner, director of the UK Safer Internet Centre, said while the internet holds many positive experiences for children, we must also acknowledge ‘the pressures, challenges and limits’ it can also bring.

‘It is so 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,’ he explained.

Despite concerns, almost half (49%) believe the internet contributes to their identity, with a similar number suggesting it helps them feel better emotionally or less alone, while others admitted they would be lost without the internet altogether.

The survey also shines a light on experiences of disabled young people, 54% of whom said they find it easier to be themselves online than offline.

Meanwhile, a quarter of 13-17-year-olds say they have been targeted with online hate in the last month because of their gender, sexuality, race, religion, disability or gender identity.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: ‘Used safely, the internet can play an important role in young people’s development.

‘But social media companies must be held accountable for protecting their users from harms on their platforms, including grooming, hate crime, and terrorist content. That is exactly why we are working on legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.’

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