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The Cyber Minefield

Thanks to the internet, social communication has been revolutionised. We can have video calls and conferences with people all over the world in real time; or we can chat on-line to friends in the next suburb, even a sister in the bedroom down the hall. It's truly amazing, a convenient way to keep in touch when a person-to-person meeting is impractical. Good, yeah? Well, it could be if everyone was respectful of everyone else and emotions never played a part. Unfortunately, the opposite is frequently true, especially on those social media sites where there is no video link and the written word alone says it all. You'd think it would serve people better, being able to review a message and edit it before sending, so avoiding the repercussion from words spoken in haste. But do they take the opportunity to keep life simple and relationships on an even keel? Young people in particular don't seem to worry about it, not at the time. They type their message sometimes faster than they can speak, a miracle in itself, and send it straight away without considering that it might offend or upset in its present form. Crash, bang - another friend gone! Too late to un-say what has been said. And what about Twitter - or should it be Twit...Der? In this arena, it would seem age is no barrier to stupidity and the sending of dumb, incautious comments!

Of course, misunderstandings happen every day, with or without the Internet, and if they were all we had to worry about, life would be less of a trial; but there are more shadows than a few in the cyber chat-room, some so dark that the evil intent hiding within is almost impossible to recognise until it strikes. Facebook is one of those sites offering both benefits and disadvantages. In the early days, even though they didn't understand it sufficiently to use it themselves, parents probably welcomed it as a diversion that kept the phone bill down. But in recent years, these chat-rooms have spawned an enigma we can well do without. So many young people are developing complexes instigated by comments posted on their pages, hate-filled messages and in some instances bare-faced lies, which undermine their self-esteem and paint a distortion of their personality that they themselves start to believe. The results are devastating, in a few instances fatal. You can't blame Facebook, nor most of the others like it. The element responsible is a cowardly minority which uses social media to inflict hurt, sometimes in a criminal way.

The problem is that they are throwing dirt while remaining unseen, immune to any reprisals other than by a counter-attack in the same format they used to deliver their assault. It sounds like a battle, a war, and it is, but it is being conducted in a way that is still relatively new to us and which is writing its own rules as it spreads. I don't know the answer. I doubt there is one that will satisfy the majority. We probably just have to live with it and help the impressionable grow thicker skins and encourage their self-worth. Once they know who they truly are, the hurtful opinions of others will have less impact.

This on-line bullying is a form of cyber-terrorism, employing psychology as the weapon of destruction. Attacks of this nature exploit the weaknesses of the target using the Internet as cover. There is, however, a greater danger which is not as obvious because the approach is nice instead of nasty. I am referring to the strategy of the cyber-predator. They pretend to be who they are not for the express purpose of luring the victim to an eventual face-to-face meeting. I still find it hard to believe how people can be so naive as to fall for this con. After all, they must know that an on-line profile could be pure fiction - they've probably exaggerated a bit in their own biography. So, why do they simply accept any new contact as genuine? The young boy or girl from across town might actually be cute and interesting as the text and picture suggest; but they could also be as old and ugly as the intentions in a predator's twisted mind. Please beware of taking this road to a dream. Sometimes there is no way back.

I apologise for raking through the negative side of the Internet, but it had to be said. As long as we are aware of the pitfalls, the benefits of using this wonderful medium are boundless. It does bring families and friends together in a way that letters and simple phone calls cannot. Life is made considerably easier when you can buy on-line, anything from a TV programme to a world cruise. Want to know something? Just Google it. You can even check out your cousin's house from across the road via a satellite picture. Who knows where this amazing technology is going? We will find out, in years to come. But let us never forget: we will always be the Masters, while it must only ever be our servant.

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