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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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October222007

When a Stranger Calls

A new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project examines the percentage of teens that have received unwanted contacts from strangers over the Internet. And I can’t say I’m surprised by their finding that certain behaviors - such as sharing personal photos or flirting online - can lead to a greater frequency of these stranger contacts.

The report, Teens and Online Stranger Contact, is based on a survey of 935 teens ages 12-17 in October-November 2006. Overall, nearly one-third of the teens surveyed - 32% - said that they had been contacted by someone online with no connection to them or their friends. Girls were much more likely to report receiving contacts such as this - 39% of girls in contrast to just 24% of boys. Regarding the nature of these contacts, seven percent of teens acknowledged receiving some type of contact from a stranger that made them feel scared or uncomfortable. Once again, girls were more likely than boys to report such contacts, with 11% of girls versus just four percent of boys.

The Pew survey suggests that teens with social networking profiles are more likely to receive contacts from strangers. Nearly half of these particular teens - 44% - reported such contacts, in contrast to 16 perecent of teens who didn’t have a social networking profile. But does this translate to social networking teens putting themselves in the line of fire of online predators disproportionately? Pew doesn’t think so:

Despite popular concerns about teens and social networking, our analysis suggests that social networking sites are not inherently more inviting to scary or uncomfortable contacts than other online activities. Among teens who have been contacted by a stranger online, 21% of profile-owning teens say they felt scared or uncomfortable as a result of this contact, compared with 28% of non-profile owners. This result is not necessarily surprising since nearly half (49%) of social networking teens use these sites to make new friends—in other words, connect with people they do not currently know. It may also be the case that profile-owning teens see some level of unwanted contact as a known downside of maintaining a social networking profile and view it as a relatively minor “cost of doing business” in this environment.

One of the reasons Pew draws this conclusion is because another factor that seems to impact the number and nature of stranger contacts is based on whether or not a teen has posted images of themselves online. While 16% of kids who haven’t posted photos of themselves have been contacted by strangers, it’s 49% for kids who have posted photos. And these kids are more than twice as likely to admit to contacts that have made them uncomfortable or scared - 10% of them, in contrast to four percent of kids who haven’t posted photos.

While the posting of photos appears to increase unwanted contacts, posting other types of personal information within a social networking profile and the availability of that information seem to have relatively less impact:

[T]here is no consistent association between stranger contact and the types of information that is posted in an SNS profile such as a person’s first or last name, his school name, or his email address. There is also no statistically significant association between stranger contact and having a public [social networking] profile – that is, a profile that is visible to anyone. Once factors such as age, gender or posting photos online are controlled for statistically, there is little difference between public profile creators and those whose profile information is available only to those designated by the profile creator.

Another factor cited by Pew is what they refer to as the “flirting effect.” According to their analysis, teens who use the Internet to flirt with others are more likely to receive unwanted contacts than those who do not flirt. Pew describes the impact of flirting as similar to that of gender, in which girls were more likely to report unwanted contacts than boys.

The report also touches briefly on the impact of parental monitoring and filtering. Teens who live in households where their parents use tools to monitor their online activities have “a somewhat lower likelihood” of stranger contact. Interestingly, though, the use of filters at home have no impact of lowering stranger contact. As to the reasons for this:

Some explanations for this discrepancy may relate to the different features offered with monitoring versus filtering software, or the fact that parents who use monitoring software may be relatively more likely to take an active role in observing their child’s internet usage habits than parents who rely on filtering software.

The Pew report is yet another wake-up call demonstrating that online safety is a two-way street. While it is often tempting to treat the Internet as a place with dark corners and nefarious individuals who simply need to be cordoned off, we can’t ignore the importance of teaching students online responsibility. By engaging in behaviors such as online flirting and posting personal photos, teens appear to be increasing the chances of receiving unwanted contacts. While there is probably no way of ever eliminating these contacts, teens can certainly become more thoughtful about the types of behaviors that lead to them. -andy

Filed under : Research, Safety, Social Networking

Responses

With so many great arguments out there (like yours above) I wonder if the tide will turn soon…that schools will begin to see that students need to learn the online responsibility that you mention.
There are many reckless drivers out and about and yet we still find it important enough to teach kids how to cross the road.

Children live in IM. The problem isn’t the kids, the problem is the tools. Kids can’t get into bars, because they have “bouncers”. The internet has no bouncer. Therefore, restricting children’s access on the internet, specifically with whom they can interact, is a must. Look for IM Caller ID with unidentified call blocking to help parents lock down IM sessions for their kids. This allows their kids to use IM only with others with whom they are allowed to socialize.

Some kids have online profiles such as facebook and such but you can set it to privacy so people can’t just add you. Whether kids want to talk to strange people is up to them, most know the consequences if there is any in that particular moment. Parents just need to talk to their kids more and have them understand how it could be and what could happen.

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