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Important granularity on Net risk for teens: Study

An article in the medical journal Pediatrics this month makes significant additions to what we know about youth risk online in two areas: parenting and risk factors for older teen girls (the sample was girls 14-17). The authors of “Association of Maltreatment With High-Risk Internet Behaviors and Offline Encounters” pointed to what we already know: that “95% of American adolescents have Internet access, and 80% use online social networking sites.” I would add three other key things we know, cited in the lit review done for a national task force of 2008, which I was interested to find this study reinforcing: that the young people most at risk online are those most at risk offline; that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk than any particular technology s/he uses; and that youth who engage in aggressive behavior online are at least twice as likely to be victimized online (for that last one, see also a 2007 report in Archives of Pediatrics).

Here are just a few insights this latest research includes:

  • Who’s most vulnerable (and the online/offline risk correlation): those with histories of “maltreatment [physical or sexual abuse or neglect], adolescent behavioral problems [e.g., provocative self-presentation], and low cognitive ability”
  • Which online behaviors predict risky in-person meetings: “exposure to sexual content, creating high-risk social networking profiles, and receiving online sexual solicitations”
  • Parenting, not parental-control software, moderates risk behavior: Dismissing “filtering devices” as a solution for either (user-driven) social media or the 14-to-17-year-old age group, the authors refer to “parental presence and the quality of the parental relationship,” breaking that down in various places to being engaged in and informed about their children’s online experiences, “open lines of communication,” together noting what behaviors increase risk, and working together to optimize tech use.

[Caveat: The study mentions that “only 58%” of the teens in this sample (a smaller percentage than teens in general set their privacy settings, though – to the credit of these teens – that percentage still seems high for an at-risk population. It may also be worth noting that this observation assumes that online socializing occurs mainly in Web sites that have privacy settings, so the research is already looking dated, amid growing evidence that teens are diversifying their digitally based socializing and engaging in much of it in mobile apps that have very limited privacy settings.]

Importantly, the authors point out that their findings can’t be generalized to all teens and that parents, practitioners and policymakers “should not be overly alarmed” by the study’s results (please see other important qualifications, based on previous research, in the Discussion section as well). This report was aimed at optimizing Internet safety education through “the identification of unique risk factors and sub-populations of adolescents engaging in high-risk Internet behaviors that are related to subsequent adverse outcomes.”

Time for more tailored messaging & care

My own two takeaways from following all this research are that – because at-risk youth tend to have less “high-quality parenting,” as the authors noted – protective services, victim advocates, and other special services need training in social media (on all devices), and connected technology must be incorporated into safe-practices discussions in sex-education classes in public schools. I’m going farther, here, than the authors’ suggestion that “protective services … should be aware that maltreated adolescents might require additional, proactive guidance and monitoring with regard to their Internet use.”

We’re smarter now, as a society, and it’s time to make our care for youth as granular as our understanding of online risk is getting. Thanks to studies like this, it’s even clearer now that Internet safety is not one-size-fits-all – it can’t be, now that we know online activity is embedded in everyday life and sociality and at-risk youth don’t benefit much from Net-safety messaging aimed at high-quality parenting (most of it, I think). A recommendation for how we get to better, more targeted care and education was in a 2010 national task force report, “Youth Safety on a Living Internet”: Use the public health field’s “levels of prevention,” and address at-risk youth as a “tertiary” group for which care providers are trained to incorporate connected technologies and media into their prevention and intervention work with the subset of teens in their care (see this).

But also space to figure things out

And none of this is to say that care and parenting are anything more than part of the equation for young people’s healthy participation in social media. Just as with our socializing when we were growing up, there has to be room for trial and error too – testing their own intelligence and the wisdom and values they’re growing up with – in digital media as well as everyday life.

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