A European Commission report has found that more than half of all Europeans regularly surf the Internet. That's up 33 percent in five years. So who is surfing, where are they surfing and what are the risks?
Young people are the biggest Internet users
The study found that those aged under 24 years are Europe's biggest Internet users. 66 percent of this age group surf the web every day compared with only 43 percent of the rest of the EU population.
The study found that this young group - dubbed the "new digital generation" - does not want to pay for the services offered on the Internet. Almost 75 percent have used file sharing services – for example, music sharing services -many of which are illegal.
These users wrongly believe many of the services and content available on the Internet to be free, or provided as part of flat-rate Internet connection fees. One third of young people say they don't want to pay for Internet services including video or music content.
Germany leads the field when it comes to downloading computer games, said Martin Selmayr, spokesman for the EU's Commissioner for Telecommunications. However, "when it comes to reading magazines or newspapers online, Germany is only in 19th position (of the 27 member states)," he added.
Are surfers' social skills suffering?
Highly popular are social networking platforms like MySpace, Facebook and the German language StudiVZ. There's increasing criticism, however, that such platforms can cause social skills to deteriorate.
Too many Facebook friends for Bill Gates
Sites like MySpace and Facebook do not “provide rounded communication, so they will not build a rounded community,” said the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph. He said he was concerned that the number of social contacts was taking precedence over quality.
One result is "Facebook Fatigue", as people start to cancel their memberships. Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates recently cancelled his Facebook presence, after "more than 10,000 people wanted to be (his) friends." He just couldn't keep up, Gates said.
Once on the Internet, always on the Internet
Other studies have found that some young people abuse such platforms by placing sexually explicit or other embarrassing or harmful images on the Internet.
“If a relationship breaks down or someone finds a mobile phone (with pictures on it) then the image could und up on a website, a social networking site like Facebook, or even end in the wrong hands, as has happened, and end up on a paedophile network,” said Helen Penn of the London-based Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP).
The Internet has also become a dumping ground for consumer complaints, reports the MSNBC website. Instead of being forced to wait for long periods of time on consumer complaint phone lines, it's easier to write one's complaint on Twitter or Facebook.
Stay anonymous, data experts warn
There have been numerous data scandals in recent months in the digital world. Coupled with the fact that browsers like Google can dig up information on just about anyone, even years later, if it's been published on the Internet, privacy specialists say consumers should place as little data in circulation as possible and seek to retain their anonymity. “Employers have discovered social networking sites provide a source of information about applications and employees,” warns German data protection expert Thilo Weichert. “Internet users should carefully consider what they release, especially when it comes to photographs,” he warns.
Editor: Susan Houlton