Through social media, chats and online communities, we can form relationships with anyone, acquaintances or strangers. This is no small thing, because even though we surf the Web, we have not yet learned how to navigate there safely. We don’t always know what rules we have to follow so we can stay afloat, and keep away from the hidden “traps” on the Internet, in order to benefit from the opportunities it offers.

This applies to adults but even more to young people, who are less aware of the consequences of their actions. Young people struggle more with feelings and emotions as they develop their own personalities and need safe direction and guidance – especially to avoid the concrete risks of online abuse and bullying.

Educating young people in emotional maturity today includes learning to explore the universe of digital relationships, which are not only virtual but also real – although limited in time and space. Undoubtedly, the Internet has changed the nature of social relationships. We explored the topic with Daniela Baudino, a digital education expert and tutor in the Up2Me project for emotional and relationship education for children which is promoted by the Focolare Movement in various continents.

The most obvious thing is that with the digital environment we have all become “neighbors,” and therefore it is easier to enter into a relationship, even just once, with people whom we might never have entered in a relationship in the real world. This, however, means that relationships often risk being quickly over and done with, and therefore, more fragmented. There is a risk that this leads to superficiality and that this attitude will then spread to real-life relationships.

What are some of the illusions that the online environment gives us?

First of all, there is the idea that it is the number, or the quantity, of friends, or “likes” that we have that tells us how much we are worth. Then there is the belief that maintaining a relationship requires very little effort, and there is no need to really get involved, and also that we can truly get to know another person simply through contact on a social network.

How can we deal with these online relationships in a more conscious, informed and positive way?

We must become aware of what each of our digital actions entails, for example, in terms of our privacy, reputation and relationships. We have to understand that the digital environment is only one way of maintaining relationships. It can enhance the other ways, but it must not replace them.

Teenagers in particular are exposed to the dangers of the Web. They can become victims of cyber bullying, revenge porn and grooming by adults. What sort of media education helps young people in these situations?

I believe we need to re-propose the models we already know in “real life.” We have to help young people to understand that not everyone we meet wants what’s best for us and that there are real dangers online, and that everything we do in the digital environment remains there forever. We have to teach them to think very carefully before clicking.

Sexting is a common practice among young people in which they take erotic videos and photos and send them to their boyfriends or girlfriends or even just friends. It’s a game that becomes dangerous if those who receive them, either for revenge or for fun, share these images on public platforms. This puts their friend at risk: it’s called “revenge porn.” Once online, these images can bring the young people to the attention of adult criminal elements. But why do children and young people ignore these dangers? How can we educate them to have real self-respect?

These dangers are ignored because young people in general have no perception of the reality of the risks they are taking. They completely lack awareness that their actions on the Internet can have real consequences. We need to help them understand that online interaction affects our whole self – and therefore, the consequences of the actions we carry out are very real and lasting. We have a lot of work to do to convince young people of the significance of everything they do online.

You are involved in media educational activities, including the Up2Me project promoted by the Focolare Movement. In your experience, does living online have educational potential or is it just a possible trap?

A tutor with some young people during a session of the Up2Me project
A tutor with some young people during a session of the Up2Me project

I believe that the digital dimension can be a fertile ground for education, because it is a meeting place where we can find different people with divergent ideas, and this gives us the opportunity to grow in our own humanity. For example, this growth might mean developing a critical approach to things and the ability to question one’s own point of view, or learning to choose the right words so as not to hurt another’s feelings. These are things that adults often don’t know how to do, so it’s good when young people can become specialists in this.

Claudia Di Lorenzi
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