Megan E Call & Jason J Burrow-Sanchez. Adolescent Online Social Communication and Behavior: Relationship Formation on the Internet. Editor: Robert Z Zheng. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2010.
A large number of adolescents in the United States use the Internet. In a recent survey of 935 youth, who were between 12-17 years old and lived in the United States, 93% of the sample reported using the Internet (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). More specifically, 89% of the sample stated that they used the Internet at least once a week and 61% used the Internet daily. Parent salary and education mediated Internet behavior among the youth in this study. Youth were more likely to use the Internet if their parents had a college education and a higher income in comparison to their counterparts whose parents had less education and earned a lower income. These youth reported using the Internet for a variety of reasons including educational, social, and entertainment purposes. Other research suggests that most parents view the Internet as a helpful tool for their children, believing that it is associated with academic success (Turow & Nir, 2000). However, despite the benefits the Internet provides for children and adolescents, there are negative aspects and risks associated with going online (Wolak, Fineklhor, Mitchell, & Ybarra, 2008).
The Internet has been described as a misleading medium because it provides a sense of privacy and anonymity to users but in reality, the Internet is a public entity where complete strangers can contact anyone via e-mail, SPAM messages, chat rooms and advertising (Gross, 2004; Jordan, 2002; Turow, 2001). Youth are not immune to this type of interaction. In their study, Lenhart and Madden (2007) found that 30% of their sample reported being contacted by or receiving messages from a complete stranger while using the Internet. Approximately 20% of these adolescents stated they were curious about these messages and replied to the sender for more information. Prior research has reported similar online behavior among teens and inferred that some online relationships are formed through these types of interactions. For instance, in a study of 1,511 youth and parents from the United Kingdom who were surveyed about their Internet use, 30% of participants reported that they had met a person online, 46% had given personal information to someone they met online, and 8% had face-to-face meetings with someone they met online (Livingstone & Bober, 2005). Similarly, the first Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS) evaluated the online behavior of 1,501 youth from the United States who were between 10-17 years old and reported that 14% of their sample had formed close relationships with individuals met online (Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Wolak, 2000).
Some adolescents report finding solace in forming online relationships stating that it is more comfortable to share personal information via the Internet than in a face-to-face conversation (Gross, 2004). Unfortunately, a proportion of online relationships result in victimization where youth are solicited and groomed by sex offenders to participate in sexual and other harmful acts either on-or offline. Prior research indicates that certain factors place some youth more at risk for being victimized online in comparison to their peers (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2001). Professionals in school or health settings are likely to encounter adolescents who have been victimized online; however, not all of these professionals routinely assess for risky online behaviors or previous victimizations when working with teens (Wells, Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Becker-Blease, 2006). In addition, these professionals may feel unprepared to address issues related to online victimization and Internet safety (Finn & Kerman, 2004) as there is limited information available in general on how to assist youth and their families with Internet safety issues (see Rosen, 2007; Wolak et al., 2008). The purpose of this chapter is to review the risk factors associated with online victimization as well as describe the protective factors that promote Internet safety and prevent online victimization from occurring.
There are three types of online victimization (Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Wolak, 2000). The first is sexual solicitation, where teens are requested to engage in wanted or unwanted sexual talk or sexual behavior with an adult. Unwanted exposure to sexual material is the second type of victimization. Sexual material includes images of naked individuals or people having sex that appear in conjunction with conducting online searches or opening e-mail messages.
The third type of victimization is Internet harassment, which is defined as aggressive or embarrassing comments made to or posed about a person online. Current research indicates that unwanted exposure to sexual material and sexual solicitation are the two most common types of online victimization. In the second Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS-2), Wolak and colleagues (2006) found that among their sample of 1,500 adolescents, 34% were exposed to unwanted sexual material, 13% received a sexual solicitation and 9% were victims of Internet harassment during a one-year period. In contrast, Livingstone and Bober (2005) reported a greater occurrence of sexual solicitation in their survey findings where approximately 33% of youth received an unwanted sexual or nasty comment from strangers while online. Lastly, in their survey research on Internet harassment with 1,388 adolescents, Hinduja and Patchin (2007) determined that youth were more likely to be harassed online via instant messaging (males: 17%, females: 19.7%) in comparison to e-mail (males: 9.6%, females: 13%). Further, as these results suggest, female adolescents were deemed to be more susceptible to Internet harassment as opposed to male adolescents.
The majority of youth in these studies reported that they were not bothered by any form of online victimization; however, some did report experiencing emotional distress, mental health and social problems (Ybarra, Mitchell, Wolak & Finkelhor, 2006). For instance, approximately 25% of youth in the YISS-2 study reported feeling very upset or afraid after being sexually solicited or exposed to unwanted sexual material (Wolak et al., 2006). Youth also endorsed symptoms of stress after both types of incidents including feeling anxious or irritable, experiencing reoccurring thoughts about the incident, decreasing or stopping their online activity, and losing interest in other activities. Patchin and Hinduja (2006) reported similar ramifications for victims of Internet harassment. In their study, approximately half of the youth reported feeling frustrated (42.5%) or angry (40%) after being harassed, while almost one-third stated that the incident affected them at home (26.5%) or school (31.9%).
Even though some adolescents were upset when victimized online, some were unlikely to report these incidents to adults or other authority figures. In the YISS-2 study, approximately 50% of the youth did not report being solicited or exposed to unwanted sexual material. Further, 39% of youth who described feeling extremely distressed from seeing explicit sexual material online decided to remain silent (Wolak et al., 2006). Other research supports these findings where parents indicate that they are often unaware that their child has been victimized online (see Livingstone & Bober, 2005). Reasons why most youth do not report online victimization incidents to their parents, teachers or other authority figures include finding the solicitations or sexual material only minimally distressing, being too embarrassed or uncomfortable to discuss the incident, or believing that they might get in trouble for reporting it (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2001).
Results from the research studies reviewed above indicate that not all adolescents who use the Internet are victimized online. In fact, prior findings suggest that youth are more likely to encounter intrafamilial sexual abuse, date rape, and gang violence than receive an online sexual solicitation from a stranger (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994). Also, less than half of youth who are victimized report feeling upset or disturbed by the incident. Although this information may be reassuring to caregivers and professionals, precautions still need to be taken to prevent online victimization. Especially since certain subgroups of youth are at higher risk of victimization than others (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2001, 2003). Recent findings suggest that online victimization occurs within a confluence of risk factors, including psychosocial issues and general Internet use characteristics (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008). It is important for parents and professionals who work with adolescents to be able to identify these risk factors in order to provide appropriate prevention and intervention. The next section addresses these risk factors in greater detail.
Identifying Risk Factors
Similar to other problem behavior such as substance abuse and violence, there are many factors that place youth at risk for being victimized online (Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992). Current research suggests that certain risk factors appear to be more harmful than others. Also, the likelihood of an adolescent being victimized online increases as the number of risk factors increase (Ybarra, Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2007). In order to discuss the influence of risk factors in greater detail, the following section has been organized into three categories including technology-based, interpersonal, and intrapersonal risk factors.
Technology-Based Risk Factors
Generally speaking, any involvement with the Internet can be considered a technology-based risk because information is shared and obtained in an environment that is typically unmonitored. Also, simple mistakes on the Internet can lead to negative consequences. For example, in qualitative interviews on viewing unwanted sexual material, adolescents reported that they were exposed to images of naked people and people having sex solely because they misspelled a word while conducting a online search (Wolak et al., 2006). A primary technology-based risk factor is disclosure of personal information online, which is defined as making information such as real name, telephone number, age or year born, or a picture of oneself available to others on the Internet (Ybarra et al., 2007). Adolescents share their personal information through many online mediums such as e-mail, social networking sites (e.g., Facebook or MySpace), blogs, chatrooms, or instant messaging. Contrary to popular belief and media reports, recent research suggests that teens tend to refrain from disclosing too much personal information online. Hinduja and Patchin (2008) analyzed 1,475 adolescent MySpace profiles and determined that only 8% of the sample included their full name on their profile and 1% provided a telephone number. These findings indicate that only a small number of youth reveal personal information in their online profiles; however, the adolescents who do reveal personal information are at high risk for being victimized. For instance, convicted online sex offenders report that they devote time to reading online profiles of adolescents prior to initiating contact (Malesky, 2007). Therefore, the more information adolescents provide about themselves online, the greater the risk for being contacted by unknown individuals and becoming potential victims.
Other technology-based risk factors for adolescents include downloading pictures, videos or movies from file-sharing programs or intentionally visiting X-rated websites (Ybarra et al., 2007). These actions are problematic because they have the potential to place youth in contact with individuals unknown to them. Further, teens may be asked to submit their own sexual photos or be exposed to unwanted sexual material at these types of sites (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2007a). Being able to access the Internet in a poorly monitored environment such as home or elsewhere also places adolescents at risk for victimization. Similar to the research conducted on television programming where adolescents who had television sets in their bedrooms were more likely to watch programs their parents would not approve (see Holz, 1998; Reyna & Farley, 2006), youth are more likely to view inappropriate web-sites or communicate with unknown individuals when given the freedom and privacy to do so (Ybarra et al., 2007). Whether a form of rebellion or need to individuate from family norms, teens who participate in risky online behavior often are unaware of the technological dangers of the Internet. Many adolescents do not understand the permanency or accessibility of placing personal information online, whether via an online profile page, chatroom or other Internet forum (Wells & Mitchell, 2008). Also, teens tend to be uninformed regarding the illegality of soliciting for or posting sexual material online. This lack of knowledge can be especially perilous for youth who meet and form close online interpersonal relationships with adults.
Interpersonal Risk Factors
Interpersonal risk factors involve an adolescent’s capacity (e.g., maturity, decision-making skills) for interacting with others in both on-and offline environments. One major risk factor is when adolescents form relationships with unknown people on the Internet (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2007). The risk for victimization increases when teens share personal information or talk about sex with an unknown individual while online. Interviews with convicted sex offenders reveal that the most common characteristic of a potential online victim was willingness to engage in sexual talk or discuss sexually related issues (Malesky, 2007). Therefore, disclosing personal information on the Internet (a technology-based risk factor) increases the adolescent’s risk for victimization as the content becomes more personal and restrictions on accessibility are lowered. Instant messaging and chat rooms are often the mediums used for sexual solicitation and online harassment. However, social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, which are often deemed as safer modes of online interaction, can become dangerous if an adolescent places an unknown individual on their buddy or friend list depending on the program (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2007). It is important to note that the majority of online sex offenders do not disguise their identities or their intentions from their victims. Also, adolescents who meet online sex offenders in a face-to-face environment acknowledge that the purpose of the meeting is for engaging in sexual activity (Wolak et al., 2008). Previous research suggests that many teens report experiencing feelings of closeness or even love toward the online offender (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2003a). These findings highlight some of the deceptive elements of the relationship between a sex offender and a romantically-naïve adolescent.
In addition to online interactions with unknown individuals, adolescents are at risk for victimization if they participate in aggressive behavior while using the Internet (Ybarra et al., 2007). This includes making rude or nasty comments to someone online or using the Internet to harass or embarrass someone in a revengeful manner. Teens may participate in online aggressive behavior with their peers or in a solitary environment (Wolak et al., 2006). Current research indicates that adolescents who engage in online aggressive behavior are more than twice as likely to report having been victimized online in comparison to their peers (Ybarra et al., 2007). Youth who participate in this specific type of risky online behavior are also more likely to have social, academic and other problems (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008). In particular, teens who have experienced offline victimization or have high levels of conflict in the home are more likely to engage in aggressive online behavior (Wells & Mitchell, 2008). It is unknown at this time whether these high-risk adolescents tend to engage in aggressive online behavior because of the issues they face offline, or if their actions online influence the likelihood of being harmed while offline. In any case, there appears to be a connection between negative on-and offline relationships for adolescents.
One of the most influential offline interactions for youth is the parent-child relationship where they receive information, rules and support while navigating their way to adulthood. Lack of parent-child communication about sex and other risky behaviors limit youth from being able to recognize the harm of an online or offline sexual solicitation (Fleming, Greentree, Cocotti-Muller, Elias, & Morrison, 2006) and possibly cause teens to seek information from peers and popular media sources which are not always accurate. More specific to Internet use, many parents do not talk to their children about their expectations for using the Internet at home nor do they adequately monitor the online behavior of their children (Livingstone, 2007; Livingstone & Bober, 2005). Research indicates that adolescents are more at risk to be victimized online if their parents do not establish and reinforce rules for Internet use in the home (Livingstone & Bober, 2006; Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2003). Online victimization is also more likely to occur if there is a high level of parent-child conflict in the home, which may include poor communication, lack of supervision and low emotional attachment. For instance, teens who engage in aggressive online behavior are more likely to report low emotional bonding toward their parents in comparison to adolescents who are not aggressive online (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2004). Similarly, in their study on youth online behavior, Ybarra and Mitchell (2005) found a significant relationship between viewing pornography via the Internet, a technology-based risk factor, and poor attachment with parents.
Lastly, adolescents with histories of offline sexual or physical abuse are considerably more likely to receive online sexual solicitations, especially aggressive solicitations (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2007b, 2001). Research suggests that teens who were physically or sexually abused as children are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression or anxiety, conduct and antisocial behaviors, and suicidal ideation (Fergusson, Boden, & Horwood, 2008). Further, adolescents who were abused as children tend to experience greater difficulty recognizing or responding to inappropriate sexual advances because they are unable to separate acts of violence or sex from expressions of love (Berliner & Elliott, 2002; Rogosch, Cicchetti, & Aber, 1995).
Intrapersonal Risk Factors
In addition to the risk factors associated with interpersonal relationships there are also intrapersonal factors that clearly place some adolescents at more risk for online victimization.
For instance, demographics such as gender, race and ethnicity moderate online victimization. Regarding gender, girls are more at risk than boys for online victimization (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2004). Girls who become sexually active during early adolescence are especially susceptible to online victimization (Wolak et al., 2008) because they are more likely to participate in unsafe sexual practices (Ponton & Judice, 2004) and be intimately involved with older adults (Leitenberg & Saltzman, 2000, 2003; Manlove, Moore, Liechty, Ikramullah, & Cottingman, 2005). In terms of race and ethnicity, girls of African and African-American decent are more at risk to receive online requests for sexual pictures than their adolescent peers (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2007a).
Research also indicates that teens who form close online relationships are at higher risk for being victimized in comparison to youth who solely converse online with known friends (Wells & Mitchell, 2008; Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2003b). Adolescents may form close online relationships for a variety of reasons. For example, teens experiencing depression and related mental health disorders are more likely to form online relationships to cope with or ameliorate their feelings of loneliness in comparison to their mentally healthy counterparts (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2004). Adolescents who have difficulty forming supportive interpersonal relationships with others may also find solace in online relationships where self-disclosure can occur without the pressure of conversing in a face-to-face manner (Gross, 2004). Another vulnerable group is questioning or homosexual youth who use the Internet to seek contacts or information about their sexual orientation. In fact, one-fourth of online sex offender arrests involve relationships between adolescent males and adult men suggesting that some online offenders target homosexual youth in the guise of assisting with issues regarding sexual orientation (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2004).
One of the primary problems with teens forming close relationships online is that they often to do not have the emotional maturity or decision-making capacity to discern if a relationship with an unknown individual could be beneficial or harmful. For instance, evidence from brain research indicates that the frontal lobe, which controls executive functions such as decision-making, is not fully mature during adolescence (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006). This biological observation is likely related to the finding that adolescents tend to underestimate the harmful consequences and long-term effects associated with risk-taking behavior (Reyna & Farley, 2006). Also, many teens make decisions based on the perceived benefits of their intended behavior as opposed to the perceived risks. This finding is evidenced in Internet research where adolescents are more likely to trust information obtained on the Internet (National Public Radio, 2000) and are more willing to disclose personal information online in comparison to adults (Livingstone & Bober, 2006; Turow & Nir, 2000). Similar to decision-making, emotional regulation is also not fully developed until late-adolescence or early adulthood (Mash & Wolfe, 2005). This finding suggests that youth in early to mid-adolescence may struggle with emotional control when involved in romantic relationships whether on-or offline (Cauffman & Steinberg, 2000; Weinstein & Rosenhaft, 1991). Online relationships may be particularly difficult for adolescents to cope with emotionally because connections can be formed quickly and involve a high level of personal self-disclosure in comparison to the slower development of offline relationships (McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2002). Online relationships also can be isolating because family members and peers are often unaware that such an intense and secretive relationship exists (McKenna et al., 2002). Thus, adolescents are more susceptible to being victimized and exploited online in comparison to adults because teens do not have the developmental capacity to handle the dangers associated with online relationships. In sum, there are a variety of intrapersonal factors that make youth vulnerable to online sex offenders. As discussed above, such factors are complex in nature and interact with other risk factors (e.g., technology, interpersonal), which combines to make the identification of adolescents at risk for online victimization a less than straight-forward process. However, the good news is that certain protective factors can buffer the negative effects of risk factors and this topic is discussed next.
Enhancing Protective Factors
In general, protective factors are anything that decreases the probability of a problem behavior from being expressed (Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992). Some examples of protective factors for adolescents include having good coping skills, associating with pro-social peers, and obtaining good grades in school. The majority of adolescent preventive interventions for problem behavior are designed with the intent to decrease risk factors and enhance protective factors.
Preventive interventions for promoting Internet safety have been slow to develop and primarily ineffective due to the quickly evolving nature of the Internet. Currently, the two most common prevention approaches used are to (1) tell teens to avoid disclosing any personal information online and (2) inform parents to mediate their children’s Internet use at home (Wolak et al., 2008). These preventive interventions do little for Internet safety efforts because they do not address the primary risk factors associated with sexual solicitation and harassment, nor do they assist adolescents who are most vulnerable to online victimization. These approaches also do not incorporate evidence-based recommendations for promoting Internet safety. For instance, previous research suggests that parental involvement with the Internet should be more discussion and education-based as opposed to restrictive (Mitchell et al., 2001). Adolescents also should be better informed as to why they should not disclose personal information via the Internet. Preventive interventions need to be developed and evaluated to properly address the risk factors specific to online victimization and enhance the protective factors associated with healthy and safe Internet use. These approaches should be adapted to both school and home settings in order for teens to receive consistent prevention messages from all aspects of their lives. The remainder of this chapter discusses four components that should be included in future prevention programming to promote Internet safety: (1) educating adolescents about the dangers of the Internet and ways to promote positive online communication, (2) involving peers as agents of positive change, (3) involving family members to promote Internet safety and (4) addressing the needs of teens who are most vulnerable to online victimization.
Internet Safety Education
Internet safety strategies are taught to adolescents primarily in school-based settings and tend to focus on the dangers of posting personal information on the Internet (Wolak et al., 2008). Some schools even utilize scare tactics through films depicting naïve teenagers disclosing personal information via the Internet only to have their actions come back to haunt them in the form of online sexual predators or Internet scams. Previous research on other problem behavior indicates that the use of scare tactics is ineffective because most adolescents do not identify with the teens or scenarios portrayed, believing that they are immune from these types of situations (Lambie & Rokutani, 2002). It is therefore important for Internet safety education to be realistic and informative, applicable to actual adolescent online behavior, and specifically address the interactive aspects of the Internet. This form of prevention can occur in a variety of settings with older peers, parents, educators, religious leaders, mental health professionals, mentors and physicians. Further, the information provided should be both developmentally and culturally appropriate for the adolescent audience (Greenfield, 2004).
A natural starting point for Internet safety interventions would be to discuss the elements of a healthy romantic relationship. It was mentioned previously that many adolescents in their early-to mid-teens struggle with decision-making and regulating emotions (Cauffman & Steinberg, 2000; Reyna & Farley, 2006). Thus, it seems logical to discuss with teens how it is natural to experience sexual and romantic feelings toward another person and though exciting, there are risks involved with committing to a romantic relationship whether on-or offline. Adolescents should be informed that romance and love does not involve manipulation, sexual solicitation or the exchange of sexual images (Wolak et al., 2008). Adolescents need to be educated about the existence of autonomy within a relationship and how it is acceptable to say “no” to situations or requests that seem uncomfortable, inappropriate, or violate their values (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2003b). Specific to online relationships, teens should learn who online sex offenders are and the tactics they employ to seduce potential victims (Wolak et al., 2008). Adolescents should be taught that disclosing personal information via the Internet, whether in writing or images, is an action that could potentially be discovered by anyone including future employers, university selection committees and online offenders. Teens should also understand that it is potentially dangerous to talk with unknown individuals in chat rooms or place them on their buddy or friends list. Further, youth should be informed to never talk about sex with anyone while online, no matter the situation, as this action is strongly associated with online harassment and victimization (Malesky, 2007).
Prevention efforts involving education should also address aggressive online behavior or cyberbullying. Similar to discussing healthy romantic relationships, all adolescents should learn skills that would prevent them from being aggressive toward others whether on-or offline. These basic life skills could include problem-solving, decision-making, effective communication, stress management and anger management (Greenberg, 2003). Preventive interventions use a variety of settings to teach these skills including individual, group, and family interventions as well as in classrooms. Schools in particular are in a unique position to develop adolescent social skills and also deliver anti-cyberbullying messages and training. Feinberg (2003) recommends that cyberbullying prevention programs remain consistent across schools within the same district in order for students to receive the same training and information as they change grades or move to a different school. Cyberbullying education can be provided as a classroom curriculum or through school assemblies, media presentations and even peer mentoring (Diamanduros, Downs, & Jenkins, 2008). School personnel have also been encouraged to form specific committees to address cyberbullying in the schools and ensure that effective preventive interventions are implemented (Storm & Storm, 2005).
Lastly, it is important that prevention efforts address what adolescents should do if they are solicited or harassed online. Teens should be encouraged to report these incidences and receive information regarding whom to talk to (e.g., parent, teacher, school counselor, law enforcement). Adolescents should also be taught how to respond to an online sex offender. Appropriate actions would include blocking the offender from being able to read their online profile page, staying away from chat rooms, and removing the offender’s name from their friend or buddy list. In the instance of cyberbullying, teens should be informed to not retaliate against the offender as this action will only perpetuate the cyberbullying problem and could also cause the victim further harm (Diamanduros, Downs, & Jenkins, 2008). Overall, adolescents should feel empowered to report these types of online incidences and understand that they will not be punished for doing so. Adolescents should also know that they play a valuable role in educating their peers about Internet safety and preventing online victimization and harassment from occurring.
Adolescents have been utilized as peer educators or peer leaders in interventions designed to prevent substance abuse, violence, teen pregnancy, diabetes, cancer and even oral health problems. Findings from prevention research suggest that peer-led preventive interventions are just as, if not more, effective than adult-led interventions (Cuijpers, 2002). More specifically, adolescents are more likely to endorse a preventative behavior if they receive the information from a peer as opposed to an adult (Erhard, 1999). Teens are knowledgeable resources for Internet safety education efforts due to their unique understanding of teenage online behavior and therefore, they should be included at all levels of online preventive interventions. For instance, adolescents should be consulted when designing a program curriculum in order to guarantee that the information being provided is developmentally appropriate and relevant to teen Internet use. Youth could also be involved in delivering the intervention such as teaching part of the curriculum, sharing personal and relevant stories, designing media campaigns, or even composing an informative newsletter or blog for their classmates. In addition, all adolescents should be trained to be agents of change in promoting positive online communication. Teens should be informed that online harassment occurs not only between an adolescent and adult online predator, but also among peers in the form of cyberbullying (Ybarra et al., 2008). Youth should be taught how to recognize and report inappropriate online behavior as well as how to enforce responsible and positive standards while using the Internet (Wolak et al., 2008). It is well known that peers become more influential during the period of adolescence; however, an adolescent’s family still continues to exert considerable influence during this period of development.
Although it has been recommended for the majority of online prevention efforts to be focused on adolescents, parents can also serve as an important protective factor. For instance, Greenfield (2004) reports that having a warm and communicative parent-child relationship can serve as a protective factor for many problem behaviors. Parents can promote Internet safety in the home by openly talking to their children about the benefits and dangers of the Internet (Wolak et al., 2008). As mentioned in the education section above, parents can discuss with their children who online molesters are, how they manipulate and deceive youth, and what to do if they are solicited or harassed while online. These conversations should also inform adolescents why relationships with online predators are inappropriate and how they can cause harm. Fortunately, some resources are available for parents to talk to their children about online predators and cyberbullying (Willard, 2007). For example, Hinduja, Patchin and Burgess-Proctor (2006) created conversation starters for parents to engage their children in discussions about cyberbullying. Parents can also use Internet contracts that list parent expectations for safe and appropriate online behavior, which are signed by both the parent and adolescent (Hinduja & Patchin, 2007). There are many other ways to encourage and promote Internet safety in the home. For instance, parents can participate in their children’s Internet activity or place the computer in a public space (e.g., kitchen) for easier monitoring. Parents should also establish and reinforce developmentally appropriate rules for using the Internet (Livingstone, 2007) such as what types of websites are appropriate to visit, time limitations with using the Internet for academic and entertainment purposes, Internet use when youth are home alone, asking permission to use the Internet, what type of personal and family information youth are allowed to provide to others on the Internet, and who youth are allowed to converse with online (Greenfield, 2004).
Some parents try to use restrictive mediation, or filtering and blocking software, as a way to control Internet use in the home. These programs can create many unintended problems. For instance, some blocking software prevents access to educational or other appropriate types of websites (Fleming, Greentree, Cocotti-Muller, Elias, & Morrison, 2006). Filtering and blocking software has also been found to only modestly reduce exposure to negative online images and material (Mitchell et al., 2005). Unnecessary parent-child tension may be created through the use of restrictive mediation (Turow & Nir, 2000). In their research on adolescent online behavior, Livingstone and Bober (2006) reported that teens in their study expressed more concern about maintaining privacy from people they do know in comparison to unknown individuals. Further, they determined that youth do not like their parents to monitor or restrict their Internet use and therefore, find methods to avoid this invasion of privacy such as deleting their website history, hiding or mislabeling files, and minimizing a window when someone else came into the room. Based on these findings, parents should use interpersonal communication as opposed to restrictive mediation to protect their children from online solicitations and harassment (Mitchell et al., 2001).
Addressing Intrapersonal Risk Factors
Providing Internet safety education, using peers as agents of change, and involving parents are all important protective factors that can help prevent teens from being harmed online. However, more intensive preventive approaches should be utilized to assist those who are most vulnerable to online victimization and harassment. Assessment is the first step in identifying youth who are at risk for being harmed online. Although no questionnaire or assessment instrument is currently available, educators and other health professionals can informally determine an adolescent’s risk level by asking him or her about such things as formation of online relationships, what he or she talks about while online and what types of websites are visited (Ybarra et al., 2007). During the assessment, it should be kept in mind that high-risk adolescents usually communicate online with unknown individuals and participate in at least four other previously mentioned risky online behaviors (Ybarra et al., 2007).
Once an adolescent is identified as being high-risk, he or she would likely benefit from counseling or other mental health services to address the inter-and intrapersonal factors associated with risky online behavior such as depression or self-esteem, previous sexual or physical abuse, sexual identity development, and other mental health issues (Wolak et al., 2008). Counseling services should also focus on decreasing risky online behavior such as forming close relationships online, talking about sex with unknown individuals or aggressively acting out on the Internet (Wolak et al., 2008). Counselors may want to use an educational approach to inform the adolescent about the illegality of online sexual solicitations and provide strategies for how to respond if solicited in the future (Wells & Mitchell, 2008). This could be accomplished by teaching the previously mentioned problem-solving and decision-making skills, as well as the social skills necessary to form positive relationships both on-and offline. Since preventive interventions with high-risk teens are more intensive in nature, they would be most effective delivered in a small group or one-on-one setting rather than in a classroom. It is important to note that not all preventive interventions are effective with high-risk teens. Therefore, it is crucial that assessment results be utilized to determine which preventive approach will work best for a specific adolescent (Wells & Mitchell, 2008).
Teen Internet use has become a recent phenomenon in the last decade and more research needs to be done to understand online behavior among adolescents and prevent online victimization from occurring. Specifically, more effort needs to be devoted toward learning about the risk factors associated with online victimization and harassment (Wolak et al., 2008). For instance, no research studies have measured if risky online behavior is associated with other problem behavior such as substance abuse, violence, or teen pregnancy. It would be important to know if the risk factors for these behaviors are related in order to develop effective prevention programming to target related problem behavior. Wolak and colleagues (2008) recommend that both quantitative and qualitative methods be used to further assess the risk factors associated with online victimization. They further suggest that this type of research be longitudinal in nature in order to comprehend the long-term effects of online victimization. In addition, from a more practical standpoint, a measurement instrument needs to be developed to assist educators and health professionals in identifying adolescents who are most vulnerable to online victimization in order for them to receive the appropriate services. Lastly, there is a great need to develop prevention programming for all youth but specifically those who are most vulnerable for online victimization (Wolak et al., 2008). This curriculum should be developed with the assistance of adolescents in order to ensure that teens are receptive to the program. This type of preventive intervention should be adaptable to both individual and group-based programming. Once developed, the curriculum needs to be evaluated for effectiveness before being disseminated across schools and health settings.
The Internet is a common source of information, entertainment and communication for youth. Although the rate of online sexual victimization and harassment is lower than portrayed in the media, some adolescents are more at risk than others for being harmed while using the Internet. Professionals who work with teens and parents can provide assistance by understanding the technological-based, interpersonal and intrapersonal risk factors that are associated with online victimization. Further, they can implement programming that enhances individual, peer, school, and family-based protective factors to prevent future online and offline victimization from occurring.