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Youth cybersecurity concerns & what will reduce them: Research

NCSAThis being National Cyber Security Awareness Month, we might ask how secure young people are feeling online. According to two just-released studies, not so much. But there’s some light in there, so stay with me.

A Microsoft survey of 13-17 year-olds in 14 countries found that 43% had experienced unwelcome contact at some point. The study also surveyed adults and found that 58% of young people said they’d met their offenders in person compared to 43% of adults. [That maps to other research finding that young people generally know their online harassers in real life, which is simply because their online experiences revolve around school life.] The young people in this international study were especially concerned about online contact involving sexual harassment and extortion, with 44% saying either they or their friends or relatives had experienced such unwanted contact.

Young US users’ concerns

That offensive online behavior – such as harassment, bullying and unwanted sexting – is just as concerning to 13-17 year-olds in the U.S., a just-released study from the National Cyber Security Alliance found. But they’re more confident about negative content encountered online and on phones – violence and hate speech – than online behavior. More than two-thirds – 69% – said that, “if directed to online content containing extreme violence or hateful views that made them feel uncomfortable,” they’re very or somewhat confident that they could handle it (48% were very confident).

Among young people’s concerns, NCSA reported 47% “very concerned” about someone “accessing their account without permission;” 43% about “sharing personal information about them online”; 38% about “having a photo or video shared that they wanted to keep private”; and 32% about “receiving unwanted communications that makes them uncomfortable.”

NCSA also surveyed parents, reporting that both youth and adults said preventing identity theft is the number one topic they’d like to learn more about. Second on the list is a real call for digital literacy: “keeping my devices secure.” And No. 3 is a clear call for more media literacy instruction: “how to identify fake emails, social posts and texts.”

Positive signs

Here’s the light amid all this concern: Many teens help each other out when bad stuff happens online: 40% said they’d turn to a friend for help (instead of a parent – more on that in a second); 43% have been asked for help by a friend; and 62% have responded by listening and “providing any advice they could.” This tracks with a lot of research. The Youth Voice Project, which talked with more than 13,000 U.S. students in grades 5-12 about what hurts and helps in bullying situations, found that “positive peer actions were strikingly more likely to be rated more helpful than were positive self actions or positive adult actions,” and what helped the most was when a peer “spent time with me” (least helpful was public confrontation of bullies by bystander peers). What helped the most when students surveyed went to an adult for help was when he or she just listened. As for reasons why young people often prefer to tell a peer are that, developmentally as adolescents, they feel they should be working things out more on their own, they fear adults can make things worse, and – as one student pointed out on NPR – he wanted to keep home a refuge from the drama, not a staging ground for fighting it, and this refuge was a place where he was seen and identified differently from the way he was at school (see this).

To turn the numbers around

Three things will grow young people’s confidence and safety in today’s very social media environment:

  • Agency: the capacity and freedom to act, to make change. How can we expect young people to come to each other’s aid (as “upstanders”), exercise their digital citizenship or “be the change” they want to see online if we don’t allow them to? Balancing online and offline time is always good, but banning social media – as some celebrity parents and private schools have proudly announced they’re doing – doesn’t ultimately protect them. Three reasons why:
    1. In a fast-developing user-driven media environment, media safety depends to a greater than ever degree on user agency. It works from the inside out as much as the other way around – from inside the kid (see this about internal safeguards) and inside the online communities. It requires context – an understanding of what behavior does and doesn’t hurt a community and its members. This is the power of #ICANHELP (see this) and helplines that provide social media services with context for what’s happening in specific cases, making abuse reports more actionable. [See this at Engadget about how YouTube has increased the power of “trusted flaggers.”]
    2. Keeping our kids out of social media can marginalize them socially. As we all know, young people socialize online as much as offline. We know it’s not all good in either space, but shutting them off from a key space for their friends’ and peers’ sociality can have real impact on their social lives.
    3. Agency gives hope, said millennial author Nathan Schneider in an interview on public radio. Telling people there’s nothing they can do and treating them only as potential victims breeds the opposite: despair. Agency fuels positive change.

    “The most unsafe thing you could do is not let your kids start to understand how to interact with the world,” author, educator, and scientist John Seely Brown said in his keynote speech at the Digital Media & Learning conference in 2012.

  • Competency. Competency always increases confidence, right? It empowers us. It also protects today’s so-very-far-from-passive media users. To be safe, they need three kinds of competency, three literacies: the skills of social literacy (or social-emotional learning) and media literacy, as well as digital literacy (see this credible definition). These literacies not only empower users to participate constructively and effectively, they increase protection against manipulation, harassment, and all the other risks to psychological, physical, social and financial wellbeing people can encounter online. They also grow protective social norms such as perspective taking, respect, empathy and ethics.
  • Practice. There’s a reason why schools are called communities of guided practice. There’s a reason why experiential learning can be powerful. There’s a reason for homework (whether schools assign too much of it is for a different blog, such as this at!). Practice locks in learning. Without practice, young people can’t test their competency, grow their resilience, or level up their powers for good. We need to give our young people opportunities to practice the skills and norms of safe, effective media use, participation and leadership.

Community, a sense of belonging, could easily be a fourth condition of growing security – and a strong sense of security – online. But it’s really the backdrop where all the above happens. Like positive school climates, online communities are safe and feel safe when their members have developed the social norms that protect them individually and collectively. The communities need to support and reinforce those norms (I’m in no way saying it’s entirely up to the participants). So it may take time for those levels of concern about digital security to start coming down, but we’ll get there faster when we help our kids find and consciously exercise their own powers for increasing safety and civility in digital media.

Related links

Teens' Top 10 (from NCSA 2016 report "Keeping Up with Generation App")

Teens’ Top 10 (from NCSA 2016 report “Keeping Up with Generation App”)

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