On the internet nothing is real, it’s all “virtual” – merely bits on a screen – and yet the internet has very real consequences for many people, from identity theft to the abuse of young children, as well as the positive side of making friends, buying and selling, and keeping up with news and entertainment. How do you “stay real” in the world of the internet?
It’s a challenge to enjoy the internet, yet still remain skeptical. In the United States, critical thinking is frequently not people’s strong suit, and so it is not their habit to routinely question things. It’s seen as spoiling the fun or cynical, but it’s just wise. Americans have become the target of many international scams for this reason, as well as their relative wealth and less active global awareness.
The biggest challenge on the internet is to recognize the magic lamp effect. “Your wish is my command,” the internet says. And yet, as in the tales of old, you must sometimes face consequences for your wishes. If you want a cool ringtone for your cell phone, you may visit an attractive site only to be gifted with viruses, spyware and other unwelcome intrusions. You may find that you are addicted to online gambling, or porn, or chatting with alluring strangers, and you may suffer the consequences in your real life. You may find that the instant mode of communication means that your aborted trip to the mailbox with that angry letter becomes an email whose “send” button press you will regret for some time.
Doing business online has its own challenges, too. Anyone who can put up an impressive web site, perhaps costing less than fifty dollars a month to operate, can create a “store” similar to that of a multimillion-dollar company’s operation online. Let the buyer beware is more true than ever. You might not get what you ordered; in fact, you might get a lot more than you bargained for, in legal issues around the use of your credit card number, merchandise never received, and other surprises.
How do you avoid becoming cynical on the web? For those who are new, it may seem reasonable to request your password or personal information to resolve a bank issue, and you may reply innocently to such an email request, only to find that you’ve been had. It’s called “phishing.” Do you know to check the address of the website you are actually using? Does the expression “https:” mean to you that the connection is secure and unlikely to be observed in transmission?
When you watch the television news, you know that they are held to a standard of ethics, that their stories must have some basis in fact or there will be consequences. You know that this is not so much so for the weather reporter, who has mostly predictions and opinions to report! On the web, everyone is the weatherperson and worse. Until you know, as with online stores, which you can trust and not, you may be quoting, acting on, or reacting to stories that have no basis in fact, anywhere. Rumor mongers put forth daily the most amazing stories, and they are repeated by those who don’t know any better, would like them to be true, or just like to get a rise out of their friends. See sites like snopes.com for help sorting things out – but even they are sometimes based on opinion! Even legitimate news sites run by the networks may have a slant, but other official-looking sites may be telling you our next president will be the man in the moon.
Initially, spending time on the internet is like the country boy in the big city: there’s a different standard, a different morality, and people tend to respond to the relative anonymity by taking care of themselves first and maybe only. Every shady character has its online counterpart, and it’s up to you to recognize the signs with only words and language as clues.
Enjoy the internet, but realize, in a virtual world, even laws and morality are not concrete. Keep your eyes open, think carefully before acting, and keep abreast of the latest issues on the internet such as viruses, scams and other abuses. Stay safe in the virtual world!