Researchers: Forget Internet Abstinence; Teens Need some Online Risk

If adults want to help teenagers learn how to handle the big risks of Internet usage, the best thing they can do is to let them get used to handling smaller risks situations. That's the conclusion from a Pennsylvania State University research project that examined adolescent online safety. This approach includes an important role for teachers as "trusted confidantes" and "educated advisors."

In the study, researchers worked with teens who spent two months reflecting on their weekly online experiences. The teens were asked to keep an online diary to report on four broad types of online risks:

  • Information breaches, in which personal information or photos were shared or used online without teens' permission or were shared by the teen and later regretted;
  • Online harassment, including cyberbullying and other online interactions that made the recipients feel threatened, embarrassed or unsafe;
  • Sexual solicitations, including "sexting" or any requests received by a stranger, acquaintance or friend that was sexual in nature; and
  • Exposure to explicit content, including voluntary or accidental viewing of pornographic or extremely violent or other disturbing material.

When teens reported one of the risk types in their diaries, they were given five follow-up questions to answer:

  • What happened?
  • Did you intend for this event to happen?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What actions did you take when this happened, and did those actions help?
  • Do you feel like this was resolved? If so, how?

Because the teens were minors, the researchers obtained parental consent, and the parents were also asked to report their own perceptions of risks experienced by their teens each week. There was no requirement that parents and teens discuss their respective diary entries with each other. Both groups were notified that if an imminent risk or a situation of potential child abuse arose, the researchers would report that to appropriate authorities. That ended up not being necessary for the most part, because parents or other authorities were already aware of the high-risk situations.

The results, "Dear Diary: Teens Reflect on Their Weekly Online Risk Experiences," were published by the Association for Computing Machinery and presented at the organization's recent Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

The respondents in the project were "incentivized" to participate with gift cards to Amazon and Walmart. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) were recruited from Pennsylvania; however, people from 12 other states also participated.

Of those 95 parent-teen pairs who initially registered for the study, 68 did enough of the diary reporting to be included in the analysis. Among those teens, 82 percent reported at least one "risk event." On average they reported about three risk events during the study; the range was from zero to 15. The most common type — reported by 74 percent of participants — was exposure to explicit content, which in two-thirds of the incidents occurred accidentally. Fifteen percent reported online harassment, 24 percent information breaches and 28 percent at least one sexual solicitation.

The most troublesome incident involved a 14-year-old girl who had sent a boy a naked picture of herself at his request; he shared it with others at her school; as a result she was harassed online and expressed suicidal thoughts, according to the researchers. In that instance the researchers immediately notified the parent.

The teen participants seemed to cope with their online problems fairly well by ignoring the content (40 percent of the time) or leaving the site, confronting the offender or fixing it themselves (47 percent). They were most likely to communicate with someone else regarding an online harassment incident and least likely to communicate about exposure to explicit content. For online harassment, specifically, 77 percent of the reports said that teens told their mothers, 11 percent told their best friends, and 11 percent reported it to the social media website. Nearly half of the reports (49 percent) were considered resolved by the time the teen recorded their diary entries; 17 percent were considered "so insignificant" to the teens that they felt no resolution was required.

Although the researchers said they were concerned about how teens "appeared to be desensitized to their online risk experiences," they also noted that it was "good" that their participants also didn't seem to be "adversely affected" and, in fact, showed resilience in dealing with problems as a matter of routine.

The amount of information teens share online was also a point of discussion for the project. While studies about online safety for young people often focus on prevention — stopping them from sharing or curtailing their online activities — this research suggested that a better approach would be to allow them to experience the misery of making mistakes and learning from those blunders (such as when they post photos they later regret because of subsequent negative reactions from friends).

"Our stance is that teens will inevitably be exposed to some level of online risk; thus, they need to learn how to deal with it before the risk becomes too great," the researchers wrote in their paper, "Resilience theory suggests that lower level risk experiences may actually help inoculate teens from higher risk situations by teaching them to avoid or cope with future risk experiences."

So where does that leave educators? Primary author Pamela Wisniewski, formerly a post-doctoral scholar in information sciences and technology at Penn State and now an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Central Florida, suggested that they can play a role in helping build teen resilience in two ways: by being a trusted confidant when a teen is experiencing problems and by being an informed and educated advisor.

"Often, as adults, we tend to overreact to some online situations since we didn't have the same experiences the current-day teens have online," Wisniewski told Campus Technology. "By overreacting to less serious situations, this closes the door on us being considered trustworthy when teens face even more serious online threats."

Teens frequently dismiss the notion of asking adults how to deal with the problems they're having online because we often come across as clueless, she noted. "Sometimes this is due to lack of technology savvy, and others relevant to the culture and realities of modern youth. So, it is important for us to stay on top of the latest social media trends, understand complex topics like online privacy settings and terms of service. That way, when a teen has a question, we can be a resource for helping them solve the issues that they face."

In the event that teens are getting unwanted solicitations, Wisniewski advised, just telling them to say no probably won't work. Better, she suggested to "coach teens on less combative ways to avoid unwanted peer pressure. For example, if a teen girl is asked for a naked picture of herself from a boy, it would be OK to tell her that she can blame technology and say that her parents have installed monitoring software on her phone so that she can't send the photo without getting caught." Or teachers can arm them with information about the laws related to the distribution of porn of a minor and the possibility of being registered as a sex offender for life if either person is caught.

"Teens have a strong sense of cost vs. reward, so if we can educate them more clearly on the costs associated with their actions, they may make better decisions on their own," Wisniewski said. She added that educators also have to take their roles as "mandated reporters" seriously. "Therefore, if we think it is a situation where we will have to disclose the situation to the authorities due to imminent risk to the teen, we need to be as upfront with that as possible."

The complete paper is freely available on the ACM website.