In today's world, more children and adolescents are reporting the Internet as their primary mode of communication. They use the Internet for the majority of their social networking behaviors, including sending personal pictures and other personal information,1-5 which could potentially put them at risk. For children, online access can be achieved from almost anywhere, for example, home, school, the community library, or a friend's home. Access can even be free via wireless zones, or video game systems, and most cell phones are capable of providing 24/7 contact with the World Wide Web. The Internet has become the major means of business and personal communication, while at the same time providing individual access to sources of information and education that can feel almost limitless. However, there is also a downside that can be hazardous. Online there is the potential for cyber bullying, harassment, access to pornography, online predators, sexual solicitation, identity theft, and cyber stalking, to name a few.
Most youth studies of Internet behaviors have been based on high-school teenagers. In the National Juvenile Online Victimization study, 99% of the youths were 13 to 17 years old (mean, 14 years), and none were younger than 12 years.6 The early-adolescent, middle-school student population has been neglected. To contribute to a better understanding of Internet activity in this age group, this study addressed the following research questions:
* What Internet risk-taking behaviors are used by middle-school students?
* Are middle-school students communicating online with unknown individuals (strangers)?
* What offline contact with online strangers are middle-school students having?
Risky Behaviors on the Internet
Historically, risk-taking behaviors of adolescents have been seen in the health arena, which includes smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and sexual experimentation; however, now that the Internet is part of daily life, risk-taking behaviors are moving online. National studies have found that the majority of today's youth are using the Internet as a venue for social interaction, sharing of ideas, artistic creations, photography, school work, online journaling, or blogging.2,5,7 They are also being exposed to a variety of sexual and violent material, financial scams, cyber bullying, harassment, and the risk of meeting dangerous people or even sexual predators.2,5 Many youths are also reporting an increase in being exposed to undesired sexual material, online harassment, and aggressive soliciting.8
Individual online risky behavior can be inclusive of more than one behavior. Internet risk behaviors that have been found to cluster together include posting of personal information (name of school, e-mail address, posting pictures of self), corresponding online with an unknown person (meeting the person offline), online-initiated harassment (playing jokes), online-initiated sex sites and overriding Internet filters or blocks.2,5,9
Online victimization can take many forms: children may be sexually solicited or approached by an adult, involving requests to participate in sexual conversation or sexual activities (via webcams); they may be aggressively sexually solicited, which involves offline (in-person) contact with the solicitor; there can be unwanted exposure to sexual material; online harassment, including threats or offensive behavior but excluding sexual solicitation; and lastly distressing events where a child will find themselves upset or afraid due to an online incident.8,10 Adolescents are also reporting an increase in the role of online "friends" in soliciting them or sharing their personal information with a person(s) the adolescent has never met offline.8,9 That there is an increase in the reporting of friends sharing and giving out their information on them is in contrast to the low numbers of youths, only 5%, who have reported any sexual solicitation or harassment to law enforcement or to their Internet service providers.8
Four hundred four students were recruited for this study from two schools; school A was a public school, and school B was a parochial school; both are located in a suburban area in the same Northeastern state. School A (n = 245) represented 60.6% of the sample, and school B (n = 159) represented 39.4%. The student sample consisted of both boys 47.2% (n = 192) and girls 52.4% (n = 212). The mean age for the boys was 12.81 (SD, 1.03 years) (range, 9-15 years) and 12.74 (SD, 0.89) years (range, 11-15 years) for the girls. For the total population, race consisted of 87.6% white, 3.4% African American, 0.4% Hispanic, and 8.1% identified themselves as other (Table 1). There were no statistically significant differences between the parochial and public school students.
The chief instrument used in this study was an adapted form of the Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS) telephone survey developed in 2000 by Finkelhor et al.11 The YISS was developed for use with youth (aged 10-15 years).12 The YISS has been used in telephone interviews of a national sample including 1501 youth who came from households with an annual income greater than $50 000.12 The YISS has been used to demonstrate the Internet usage and characteristics of youth, Internet victimization or solicitation of youth, any pornographic-seeking or delinquent behaviors, and the relationships between caregiver and youth.11,13 In our study, the YISS was adapted for pen-and-pencil administration instead of telephone. A sociodemographic data sheet, developed by the researcher that identified such areas as age, ethnicity, and family background, was also used to collect basic information from middle-school students. The survey for this study was administered during one 45-minute morning class period.
Institutional Review Board
Prior to the beginning of data collection with middle-school students, permission was obtained to conduct this research from the author's institutional review board. Contact was then made with public and parochial middle-school officials regarding their interest in participating in the study. Once the schools agreed to participate, a formal meeting was held with each school's principal to review the details of the study, including informed consent, student confidentiality, and an examination of the questions included in the study. An information sheet describing the purpose of the study and an informed consent form were sent home to all parents of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students with an explanation of the purpose of the study and seeking permission for their child to participate. A signed consent form agreeing to allow participation was required from both parent and child before that student was allowed to participate in the study.
General Online Behaviors
The majority of the students reported using their home computers for access to the Internet (97.4% boys and 96.7% girls). Students were asked about their online behaviors, including the number of e-mail addresses they had during the past year. The girls reported significantly more than the boys (P = < .01), with the number of e-mail addresses averaging 2.09 for the girls and 1.49 for the boys; this question was capped at 10 addresses. Students were then asked a number of questions related to the amount of time they spent on the Internet (Table 2). Differences between sexes were seen with the girls reporting that they spent significantly more days a week on the Internet (P = < .001) than the boys. Students were asked to rate the importance of the Internet to them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most important. Again, sex differences were found, with the girls reporting the Internet as being significantly more important to them, P = < .001 (Table 2).
Online Communication Patterns
When asked who the students were communicating most with online, the most popular answer for both the boys (77%) and the girls (93%) was friends from school; however, the girls communicated with friends from school significantly more than the boys (Table 3). The next most popular answer for the girls was family members (58%), versus the boys (39.7%); again, the girls were significantly more likely to correspond with family members. When asked if they have ever been in trouble at home because of their Internet use, the most popular reason for getting into trouble for the boys was accessing a pornography site (26.7%), and the girls (30.8%) reported being in trouble mostly because of spending too much time online (Table 3).
Risky Internet Behaviors
Students were asked about their online communication and offline contact with individuals they knew strictly from the Internet, identified in this article as online strangers. Fifty-nine of 404 students reported having had communication with someone known only to them from the Internet. Interestingly, differences were noted between the groups in the area of grade level. The higher the grade level, the more likely the student was online with a stranger (P = < .005). Twenty-three percent (n = 30) of the 130 eighth graders reported communicating online with a stranger, more than the 11% (n = 16) of the 146 sixth graders and 10.5% (n = 13) of the 124 seventh graders combined. Additionally, students who are online with strangers rank the importance of the Internet to them at a higher level, three to five (79.7%), when compared with students not online with strangers (62.9%) (P = < .028).
Posting personal information on the Internet found differences between students who had online communication with a stranger and those who did not. More than twice as often (P = < .001), of the group who were online with a stranger (52.5%; n = 31) posted their e-mail addresses versus students who were not online with a stranger (24.8%; n = 84). Additionally, students who communicated online with a stranger were more likely to post a picture of themselves online (P = < .000; n = 27), to post their last names (P = < .008; n = 14), telephone numbers (P = < .000; n = 7), and the names of their schools on the Internet (P = < .001; n = 11), when compared with students who were not online with a stranger. One statistic of concern was that the girls were significantly more likely (P = < .05, χ21= 3.69) to correspond online with strangers (17.9%) than the boys (11.1%).
The use of e-mail found no significant difference between students who were online with strangers and those who were not; however, there was a significant difference between the groups in the use of instant messaging (IM) (P = < .001). A much larger percentage of the group who were online with strangers (98.3%; n = 48) used IM than those not online with strangers. This is important because the current family of software filters for home computers does not check or block IM activity.
Eighty-seven percent of the girls reported that contact with an online stranger occurred as a result of their contact information being given out by a friend or a family friend, in contrast to 55% of the boys (P = < .05). Almost half of the 59 students (P = < .001) who were online with strangers use chat rooms (49.2%; n = 29) compared with the 24.6% of the 345 students who were not online with strangers. Students were asked what age group this site was intended for, and the most common response for both the boys (52.3%) and the girls (50.0%) was teenagers, with only one boy who responded adults. According to the students, a third of the boys and 12.5% (n = 2) of the girls were in open chat rooms; nine students indicated that the site was monitored. Other locations for communication with an online stranger were in a game room (13.6%) for the boys and a Web page for the girls (18.8%).
A surprise finding was the response to the question asking about stealing. From the total sample only 84 students responded that they have stolen something within the last 6 months. Closer examination of this group found that a third of this set, 33% (n = 22), were students who were online with strangers compared with 18.1% (n = 62) of those not online (P = < .001).
Offline Contact With a Stranger
A subset of 38 students (22 boys and 16 girls), from the 59 who communicated online with a stranger, responded to additional questions about their online experience and offline exchanges or meetings with a stranger. These students were asked about the type of relationship they had with the online stranger, and the majority of the students, 63.6% (n = 14) of the boys and 55.5% (n = 9) of the girls, responded that the online stranger was now a close friend. Twenty-seven percent of the boys (n = 6) and 25% (n = 5) of the girls reported having a close and romantic online relationship.
Students reported a variety of offline contact with their online stranger. Twenty-seven percent of the boys (n = 6) and 18.7% (n = 3) of the girls reported receiving regular or traditional mail from the stranger. Most received gift cards or a ticket (movie, bus, music) in the mail; however, two of the boys and two of the girls reported receiving money. Asked about telephone communication, three of the boys (13.6%) and one girl indicated they had spoken by phone to the online stranger, and three boys reported having had the online stranger come to their homes.
Thirty-two of the 59 students (54%) reported that they had met their online stranger in person. Students were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being highest), the level of nervousness they had about meeting offline with the stranger. The majority of the students were not nervous; boys (n = 20) reported a mean of 1.40 and girls (n = 12) reported a mean of 1.69; there was no significant difference. When asked if at the meeting the online stranger did anything to make the student feel uncomfortable or nervous in any way, the majority of the students (78.9%, n = 15) boys and 92.3% n = 12) of the girls answered "nothing," meaning the online stranger did not make them feel uncomfortable or nervous. Of the remaining five students, three boys and one girl indicated they had felt uncomfortable in some way, and one boy reported "other."
Students were also asked to give the age of their online stranger; 18 of the boys reported individuals who ranged in age from 10 to 62 years (mean age, 16.44 years), and 14 of the girls reported an age range of 10 to 18 years (mean age, 13.43 years). When asked the sex of the individual they had met with, 15 boys (88.2%) reported that they had met offline with a female, two indicated they met with a male, and two cases were missing. Six of the girls (46.2%) said they met in person with a boy; another 46.2% (n = 6) said they met with a girl, and one girl reported that she had met with both a boy and a girl.
Offline Assault by an Online Stranger
Ten percent of these students, two boys and one girl (n = 3), reported being sexually assaulted or inappropriately touched as a result of their offline meeting. The youngest boy identified himself as African American, 13 years old, and in seventh grade The oldest boy and the one girl were both in eighth grade, each 14 years old and white. The two eighth graders described themselves as above-average students, while the seventh grader identified himself as a below-average student. When asked about the type of online relationship, the two eighth graders reported having a romantic relationship, while the seventh grader described it as being a close friendship. All three reported having exchanged frequent e-mails and IMs with this online stranger before meeting in person. The 13-year-old boy reported having been sexually assaulted and threatened by a 15-year-old male. The 14-year-old girl was sexually assaulted or inappropriately touched by an 18-year-old male, and the 14-year-old boy reported having been sexually assaulted or inappropriately touched by a 14-year-old girl.
Further analysis of these three middle-school students who reported they had been assaulted offline by their online stranger yielded interesting data. In the area of health-risk behaviors (drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and physical fighting), differences were noted between the sexes. The eighth-grade girl reported she never drank alcohol, while the seventh-grade boy reported having his first drink at age 9 years, and the eighth-grade boy reported his first drink was between the ages of 13 and 14 years. None of these middle-school students reported ever being drunk, and all denied having smoked cigarettes. When asked about being in a physical fight within the last 6 months, only the boys responded in the affirmative. The eighth grader reported having been in only one physical fight, while the seventh grader reportedly had fought 10 to 11 times. The fighting may have influenced their responses to having difficulties in school, specifically the seventh grader who reported having at least one failing grade within this last year, and the eighth-grade boy had trouble with at least one teacher. All three students reported they had stolen something within the past 6 months.
The Internet was rated by all three as being very important in their lives. The two eighth graders each had one e-mail address, and the seventh grader reported having three e-mail addresses. Online behaviors were different based on grade. Both of the two eighth graders reported having a social network page, having posted a picture online, having posted their e-mail addresses, and posted their last names; the seventh grader did none of these risk behaviors. However, the seventh grader was the only one of the three who reported having sent his picture(s) to someone met only online. The seventh-grade boy and the eighth-grade girl both reported that someone on the Internet convinced them to talk about sex when online. When asked about whether the students had ever sought out the topic of sex while online, all three reported they had, and all three reported being able to manipulate the filter or block currently installed on their home computer.
Telling Someone About the Online Stranger
The majority of the students (42.8% boys and 61.5% girls) who had communication with an online stranger reported that their parents were aware of this situation. Thirteen of the boys and 10 of the girls replied they had also told a friend, while three boys and four girls had told a sibling. None of the students reported having talked to a teacher or to authorities about their experience; however, one student, the seventh grader who had been sexually assaulted, reported the incident to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Cyber Tipline.
Still in Contact With Online Stranger
Ten of the boys and 10 of the girls indicated they were still corresponding with their online stranger. Eighteen students were no longer in contact with the online stranger, and answers given for not corresponding found five who reported they just logged off; five blocked the person from contacting them; three left the site; three did nothing; one changed his screen name; and one told the person to stop all contact. All three of the students who reported having been assaulted or inappropriately touched were no longer in contact with their online stranger.
The majority of middle-school students from this study are not engaging in risky Internet behaviors, a finding that occurs in other research.7,8 However, a small group of middle-school students did report online communication with strangers, a variable that correlated for these early adolescents with additional risky Internet behaviors (eg, posting a personal picture online, posting their last name, posting the name of their school, and offline meetings with strangers). Risk-taking behavior is not unique to middle-school students and adolescents, but the consequences, combined with active communication with a stranger online, may be detrimental to their safety, development, well-being, and health.
A major finding from this study was that majority of middle-school students who have online communication with a stranger go on to meet them in person offline. In this study, 59 students acknowledged having communication with an online stranger; the majority of these students (n = 32) reported that they had met offline with an online stranger within the past 6 months. Nearly all of the online strangers in this study were reported by the middle-school students to be younger than 18 years, a finding that is supportive of the study of Finkelhor et al,11 where juveniles made up 48% of the online solicitation population, with only 4% of that population being known to be older than 25 years. In our study, two of the perpetrators who sexually assaulted or inappropriately touched two of the three students were reported by the victims to be in their own age group. Research has suggested that Internet predators are typically not adults who target young children with the intention of abducting and raping them, but rather the vast majority of Internet predators are adults who target teens and seduce them into sexual relationships. Accordingly, the group most at risk is not young children, who are typically more supervised while online and have less technological knowledge, but rather teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 years. This age group has been found to be the most prone to taking risks that involve privacy and attempting to make contact with unknown people, via the Internet.5,14,15 Interestingly, findings from the current study suggest that early adolescents are also at risk for solicitation and offline assault. In this study, there were more eighth graders online with strangers than those in sixth and seventh grades combined. Additionally, while the numbers of middle-school students who reportedly were assaulted from an online stranger are small, approximately 10% of the 32 students who had offline contact, a case could be made for reexamining the identified age group most at risk, with findings from this study suggesting that the age should be lowered to include 13-year-olds.
These middle-school students who communicated online with a stranger had higher levels of participation in additional Internet risk behaviors than students who did not communicate with strangers. Specifically, these students were more likely to post personal information online, send pictures online, to be female, and to meet offline with their stranger. When describing the type of relationship, all of the students who were communicating online with a stranger reported that the stranger felt like a friend, and many students described this online relationship as being a "romantic" one. The formation of close and/or romantic relationships by middle-school students on the Internet could pose a number of emotional and social pitfalls. These relationships can progress quickly without friends and family to question certain behaviors or actions. By changing the venue of their interpersonal interactions to the Internet, where intonation, facial expressions, and even genuine emotions are difficult to convey and interpret, the process of forming meaningful long-lasting relationships may change significantly for the early adolescent.15,16 For a vulnerable youth, an online relationship can be a source of support and comfort, but these relationships can also pose a high risk to these youth with the potential to exacerbate any existing negative situations. Youth who are distressed, are depressed, or have a history of a previous victimization may be more susceptible to harmful online relationships.15,17 Effective and developmentally appropriate education on safe Internet behaviors should include the risks that online relationships can pose, not just from the standpoint of the dangers of a face-to-face meeting with an online friend, but of the emotional impact such a relationship can have.
Ten percent (two boys and one girl) of the middle-school students who had offline meetings reported being sexually assaulted or inappropriately touched during the offline meeting. Interestingly, these three students also reported increased health-risk behaviors in addition to participation in other types of risky Internet behaviors. A large body of research suggests that adolescents who participate in one health-risk behavior are more likely to engage in additional health-risk behaviors.18-21 This pattern appears to also hold true for Internet risk behaviors in this study. Students who communicated online with a stranger had higher levels of participation in additional Internet risk behaviors than students who did not communicate with strangers. The danger is that the combined risk behaviors increase the potential for solicitation from a online predator who will exploit the youth who corresponds online with unknown people about sex or engage in patterns of risky offline or online behavior.14,22 Further research with a larger sample will be needed to determine if there is a relationship between health-risk behaviors and risky Internet behaviors. Interestingly, in this study, the individual with the highest number of combined health-risk and Internet risk behaviors was the seventh-grade sexual assault victim. Specifically, he began drinking alcohol at 9 years of age and reported being involved in frequent physical fighting (health-risk behaviors), in addition to having three e-mail addresses, an ability to manipulate filters and blocks meant to keep him safe, spending time in chat rooms, sending his photo to an online stranger after being solicited, and a report of having actively sought out and talked about the topic of sex while online. His report of being victimized offline suggests that he may be a vulnerable adolescent who may have additional concerns and a history not recorded by this study's questionnaire. His report of risky Internet behaviors combined with his sexual assault outcome underscores the very real danger early adolescents can have online, especially when in association with other risk behaviors.
A surprising finding from this study was the majority of the students who reported that their introduction to the online stranger occurred via a friend sharing the student's contact information. Students also shared anecdotal stories that supported our finding that if a stranger contacted them online but was referred by a known friend then that person was not considered to be a stranger but was considered to be a friend of a friend and openly accepted. This avenue of introduction was important to the middle-school student in that it provided a level of comfort and the sense that they were not communicating with strangers but with friends of friends. A few students acknowledged that they did stop all online contact, regardless of who introduced them, when additional information about the new "friend" was revealed. As one 12-year-old boy stated, "When I found out he (online stranger) was 62 years old I stopped e-mailing him… it was just too creepy." Education targeting students about not sharing a friend or family member's Internet contact information must be included in prevention education. Nurses are in a unique position in that during the history taking or interview phase of the nursing assessment, questions focused on risky behaviors can be asked directly. Questions asking the early adolescents who they are currently communicating with online, where they know the individual(s) from, and how they "met" the individual can provide insight into the student's online behaviors and practices. Answers may also indicate whether the student is participating in risky online behaviors or has a knowledge deficit which the nurse can address, intervene, or teach to.
Students from this study reported that they were talking with their parents and their friends about their online experience(s) with their stranger. Educational programs about safe Internet behaviors and risky behaviors in conjunction with resources available to contact for assistance must target parents, healthcare providers, educators, and other professionals who are in contact with this early adolescent age group. Reinforcing the positive student behavior of sharing with parents, educators, or clinicians about online experiences that are both good and bad should continue. Nurses who are in the community, schools, private practice, or outpatient settings can incorporate Internet education into treatment plans when working with children and their families. Interestingly, the seventh grader who had been sexually assaulted was the only student who reported using the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Cyber Tipline. This action suggests that he and whomever he told had an awareness of where to go when reporting online strangers.
Limitations of this study include using an instrument, the YISS, which had been developed for use in telephone surveying, but in this study, it was adapted for a pencil-and-paper survey. Some of the students voiced their uncertainty about some of the language being used in the survey; for example, the survey asked about e-mail addresses but not IM accounts. Also, some of the language from the survey had been changed at the request of the principals of the middle schools who were concerned about the terms "sexual" and "pornographic" being used, and at their request, the word "inappropriate" was substituted. The rationale given by all participating principals was "our students know what we mean when we use the word inappropriate." Additionally, the small sample size of students who responded having contact with online strangers may be influencing the results and suggests that further research with a larger group is needed to determine if the findings hold up or vary according to age, grade, and sex among this population.
Findings from this study indicate that middle-school students are beginning risky behaviors on the Internet, specifically, chatting with strangers, giving out personal information, starting relationships with online strangers, and having offline contact or in-person meetings. Although this study had a small number of students who reported risky online and offline behaviors, their experiences are important since they highlight how middle-school students are undertaking risks in a new environment that many adults and parents do not fully understand. Nurses are in a key position to assess, intervene, and educate about Internet safety and risk behaviors. Further research and development of educational tools for age-appropriate children and adolescents are needed to better understand their risk-taking behaviors.
The author thanks Deborah J. Cavanaugh and Dr Allen G. Burgess for their the statistical assistance.
© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.