Lonely kids and the Internet

Learning about safe use of the Internet is as essential as learning how to use the Internet.

Across the globe, parents and carers are monitoring Internet use at home, and educating kids on the potential dangers of chat rooms and other social networking sites.

But for some children, especially those who are socially anxious or lonely, communicating online can help them to relax and feel they belong to a group.  

According to a recent Queensland University of Technology (QUT) study, lonely children and teenagers disclose more personal and intimate information on the Internet than those who are not lonely.

The study, based on a survey of 626 Brisbane primary and secondary school students, found those who were lonely communicated more frequently online, disclosed more intimate information, and were more likely to have contact with adults on the Internet. 

The study of students aged 10-16 by QUT masters student Luigi Bonett, Associate Professor Marilyn Campbell and Dr Linda Gilmore, found lonely students compensated for their weaker social skills by using the Internet to meet people.

Associate Professor Marilyn Campbell spoke with KidsLife about the outcomes of the study.

What is it about the Internet that attracts socially anxious or lonely kids?

  • Kids who are afraid that others might not like them and are socially anxious find that they can ‘hide’ successfully behind a screen.
  • It is not as daunting as having to face someone and make sure you can hold a conversation with them.
  • One isn’t as ‘exposed’ to others physically, people can’t see you blushing or stammering, or being tongue-tied. It is safer and more comfortable.
  • If you are lonely then you can try to make lots of friends online without anyone else seeing that some people reject you, like you can if you are physically in a group.
  • These kids feel they can be themselves more authentically without their physical presence involved.

What sorts of information are kids likely to communicate online?

Most kids communicate online about the same topics as they do offline – relationships, social plans, computer games, etc. Lonely kids talk more about serious problems than other kids.

Can online communication isolate a socially anxious child even more?

This is a hard question to answer but really kids don’t divide the world into parallel universes like the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ world. Only adults do that. We don’t divide our social relationships into face-to-face and telephone contact. We do both for most of our friends and acquaintances, with occasionally a pen pal whom we have never met.

Kids do online and offline in the same way with an occasional online only relationship. Therefore, it is hard to see that using online communication is going to isolate a socially anxious child even more.

Is it likely that kids will apply their Internet social skills to real life?

Anxious children often have adequate social skills. It is their anxiety, which stops them from using these skills effectively.

Lonely children sometimes lack social skills but not always. If being interested in the other person and treating them kindly is a key social skill then that would probably transfer to offline but as I said before, both online and offline is real.

What are the indicators that a child could become addicted to Internet use?

There is a difference between addiction and spending more time on the computer than adults think children should. If the child has other addictions then Internet use could become another one.

Is there evidence that a child will want to meet their online relationship in real life?

I’m not sure what ‘evidence’ there could be for some children at some time wanting to physically meet a friend they have made online. Adults sometimes want to meet their pen friend but sometimes that is not possible; same thing for online only. 

Usually, as I have said before, there is not this divide between virtual and real. You might see someone at school and develop more of a relationship online or vice-versa. Or you could have an entirely online relationship like a pen friend.

What would be your top tips for parents regarding their child’s Internet use?

  • Consider the family rules before you buy a computer; just as you would when you buy your child a bicycle.
  • Teach children there are dangers as well as benefits to the Internet just as there are in riding a bicycle.
  • Conversation and not interrogation is better about Internet activities.
  • Supervision is better than surveillance.

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