Youth and Online Exposure

Students viewing technology

I recently had the opportunity to attend Family Online Safety Institute’s seminar on Youth, Gender, and Online Exposure, which featured several researchers in the field of online behavior and safety for younger generations. Three of the four investigators were from Scandinavia, which provided a unique, international perspective on the digital safety of teens. While many of the research findings complemented those in the general literature and those we find in Everfi’s own data on teens and navigating the digital landscape, several insights were surprising.

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Stephen Balkam, CEO of FOSI, opened the event by emphasizing that “creating a culture of safety for teens online is the joint responsibility of all stakeholders”, including parents, children, educators, and policy-makers in the promotion of digital literacy and digital citizenship using a social norms approach. Following, Helmer Larsen, associate professor of psychology at the University of Copenhagen presented his research on teens and risky online behaviors. While he found no differences between male and female digital behavior, he also found no effect of behavior campaigns designed to increase healthy online habits. He also stated that 60% of his sample met someone offline that they had only interacted with on the Internet and that, surprisingly, most of the relationships were non-sexual and the teens reported primarily positive experiences.

Maria Nyman from the Swedish National Board of Youth Affairs found that while almost 50% of teen girls receive unwanted sexual contact online, they are able to successfully ignore and deflect these advances. The small minority that do expose themselves online tend to experience personal, academic, and social problems, which highlights the need for increased awareness and targeted interventions that are not based on fear or guilt/shame. Kaja Haegg, from Save the Children in Norway reported very similar data, including the finding that a teen’s relationship with their parents was the best predictor of risky online behavior. She posited that talking to kids about relationships (not just online) and their personal responsibilities for their digital lives is imperative.

From the University of New Hampshire, Janis Wolak’s research corroborated that of her Scandanavian colleagues. She also emphasized that sex offenders rarely use the Internet or coercion to exploit children and are much more likely to focus on minors they know in person, using technology mainly for grooming and communication. Because there are more protective factors online than offline, we need to move away from scare tactics and talk openly and frankly with teens about which behaviors will help them to avoid negative consequences online.

During the panel discussion, all of the presenters agreed that the media has a habit of sensationalizing topics like this and while sex offenses have actually been declining since the 90’s, most people tend to believe that sexual abuse has skyrocketed since the onset of the Internet and that online strangers are the most frequent perpetrators. Pairing this with the number of healthy relationships being established through digital interactions, the panel suggested that it is time to stop advising younger generations to “never meet someone offline who you only know online”.

I was able to ask the discussants what they believed was the most important resource we could provide to young teens, as information alone is not sufficient to drive real behavior change. Overwhelmingly, they agreed that discourse with adults about all the facets of their lives (online/offline, sexual and romantic relationships) was the best way to embolden teens to take responsibility for their digital footprints and make sound, healthy decisions about their online interactions.

At Everfi, we really couldn’t agree more. All course content and research in the digital citizenship field endorses inspiring younger generations to take responsibility for their digital footprints and giving them the tool to successfully develop and navigate their digital lives.