Generation net: The youngsters who prefer their virtual lives to the real world

By Liz Thomas
Last updated at 5:29 PM on 8th February 2011

Children are often happier with their online lives than they are with reality, a survey has revealed. They say they can be exactly who they want to be – and as soon as something is no longer fun they can simply hit the quit button. The study also shows that, despite concerns about online safety, one in eight young people is in contact with strangers when on the web and often lies about their appearance, age and background.

Researchers for children’s charity Kidscape assessed the online activities of 2,300 11- to 18-year-olds from across the UK and found that 45 per cent said they were sometimes happier online than in their real lives.

The report – Virtual Lives: It is more than a game, it is your life – lays bare the attitudes of children today to the internet and includes revealing insights into how they feel when they are on the web. One told researchers: ‘It’s easier to be who you want to be, because nobody knows you and if you don’t like the situation you can just exit and it is over.’ Another said: ‘You can say anything online. You can talk to people that you don’t normally speak to and you can edit your pictures so you look better. It is as if you are a completely different person.’

One teenager admitted the only place he or she felt comfortable admitting they were gay was on anonymous internet forums.

Around 47 per cent of children said they behaved differently online than they did in their normal lives with many claiming it made them feel more powerful and confident.

Psychotherapist Peter Bradley, who is also deputy director of Kidscape, said that the desire for so many to adopt a different identity online was a cause for concern because the children were being divorced from reality.

He added: ‘These findings suggest that children see cyberspace as detachable from the real world and a place where they explore parts of their behaviour and personality that they possibly would not show in real life. We can’t allow cyberworlds to be happier places than our real communities, otherwise we are creating a generation of young people not functioning adequately in our society.’

The report found that of those who spoke to strangers online 60 per cent did not tell the truth about their age, and 40 per cent were not honest about personal relationships.

Around 10 per cent said they changed aspects of their appearance and their personality for their online activity. Mr Bradley warned that children were still taking serious risks with encounters, putting themselves or their friends in danger.

‘We were alarmed by the number of risks being taken by teenagers whilst online,’ he said. ‘Safe online behaviour is taught in schools, but teenagers seem to be unable to relate the risks to themselves.
Read more: