Diaries show teens take online risks in stride

"As adults we see these online situations as problems, as negative risk experiences, but teens see them as par-for-the-course experiences," says Pamela Wisniewski. (Credit: Futurity)

Teens encounter risks like harassment and explicit content online, but new research suggests they can gradually build their own coping strategies to handle these events.

Researchers monitored the online diaries of 68 teens during the two-month study. The teens reported encountering 207 risky events, including sexual solicitations and online harassment, says Pamela Wisniewski, formerly a postdoctoral scholar in information sciences and technology at Penn State, and currently an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Central Florida. In many cases, teens were able to resolve the issues on their own.

While the media may continue to focus on cases of online risk with tragic consequences, the diary entries showed that many teens routinely handle some risky situations on their own.

“Focusing on the more positive interactions dealing with online risk flips this debate on its head and turns the conversation from one of parents trying to keep their teens safe to maybe there’s more we can do to teach teens how to keep themselves safe,” says Wisniewski.

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Teens, in fact, did not see much of a difference between online risks and the risks they encounter in real-life social settings, she adds.

“As adults we see these online situations as problems, as negative risk experiences, but teens see them as par-for-the-course experiences,” says Wisniewski.

The researchers suggest that teens may be better off gradually acclimating to online risk and building resilience by overcoming lower risk situations, rather than avoiding exposure to risks, which is a more commonly recommended tactic today. Parents and caretakers can act as guides in the process.

“In the past, we tended to focus on the higher risk events, not the medium risk events, but I think there’s a missed opportunity for learning some of the coping strategies that teens use in lower risk situations,” says Wisniewski. “So, if they are exposed to a higher risk event, they may be able to exercise some of the skills they already learned.”

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She adds that avoiding the internet is not a realistic option for most teens. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 92 percent of teens have access to the internet daily and 89 percent have at least one active social media account.

The researchers, who presented their findings at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems on May 11, recruited 68 teens, ages 13- to 17-years old, to enter firsthand accounts of their online experiences in an online diary. The experiences were divided into four risk categories: information breaches, online harassment, sexual solicitations, and exposure to explicit content.

Of the 207 events the teens entered into their diaries as risky encounters, there were 119 reports of exposure to explicit content, 31 information breaches, 29 sexual solicitations, and 28 incidents of online harassment.

The National Science Foundation supported this work.

Source: Penn State