Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

When Strangers Contact Teens Online

Most Such Experiences Are Neither Scary Nor Uncomfortable, but Certain Traits or Activities Can Invite More Interactions with Unknown Persons

While the number of teens who have been made uncomfortable by an online experience with someone they do not know is relatively small,1certain traits and activities are more likely to attract interactions with unknown individuals, whether unwanted or otherwise. In particular, teens who have created profiles on social networking sites (SNS) and those who have posted photos of themselves online are more likely than others to be contacted online by strangers. Girls are more likely than boys to report online contact that made them scared or uncomfortable.

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These findings are based on a survey of 935 teens age 12-17 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project taken from October 23 to November 19, 2006.

Other key findings include:

Among teens who have been contacted online by someone they do not know, gender is the primary predictor of contact that is scary or uncomfortable.

Sample size limitations, and the fact that the majority of teens’ online contacts are benign, make it difficult to disentangle all the factors that are associated with an increased prevalence of scary or uncomfortable online encounters. However, among the factors evaluated in this study, gender consistently has a strong correlation with contact that is scary or uncomfortable. Among teens who have been contacted by someone they do not know, girls (27%) are significantly more likely to report feeling scared or uncomfortable as a result of the contact compared with boys (15%).

Despite popular concerns about teens and social networking, our analysis suggests that social networking sites are not inherently more likely to invite scary or uncomfortable contacts than are other online activities. Among teens who have been contacted by a stranger online, 21% of profile-owning teens say they felt scared or uncomfortable as a result of this contact, compared with 28% of non-profile owners. This result is not necessarily surprising since nearly half (49%) of social networking teens use these sites to make new friends — in other words, connect with people they do not currently know. It may also be the case that profile-owning teens see some level of unwanted contact as a known downside of maintaining a social networking profile and view it as a relatively minor “cost of doing business” in this environment.

Several factors are associated with an increased likelihood of online contact, whether it is uncomfortable contact or not.2

On the general issue of online contact, statistical modeling shows that posting photos online and creating a profile on a social network site3 are the activities most strongly associated with stranger contact, whether it is scary or not.

Although the creation of profiles on social networking sites is strongly predictive of stranger contact among online teens, the specifics of a person’s social networking profile have little influence on the likelihood of being contacted by an unknown person. For instance, there is no consistent association between stranger contact and the types of information that is posted in an SNS profile such as a person’s first or last name, his school name, or his email address. There is also no statistically significant association between stranger contact and having a public SNS profile — that is, a profile that is visible to anyone. Once factors such as age, gender or posting photos online are controlled for statistically, there is little difference between public profile creators and those whose profile information is available only to those designated by the profile creator.

Teens who use social networking sites to flirt are more likely to be contacted by people they do not know once other factors are controlled for, although a similar effect is not seen in teens who use social networking sites to make new friends. The magnitude of this “flirting effect” is roughly comparable to the impact of gender. Girls are significantly more likely than boys to be contacted by someone they do not know when other factors are held constant. However, the association between contact by strangers and gender is not as strong as the association with profile ownership or posting photos online.

Interestingly, while the presence of internet monitoring software on the computer a teen uses at home is associated with a somewhat lower likelihood of stranger contact once other factors are controlled for, there is no similar effect for internet filters that block certain websites. Some explanations for this discrepancy may relate to the different features offered with monitoring versus filtering software, or the fact that parents who use monitoring software may be relatively more likely to take an active role in observing their child’s internet usage habits than parents who rely on filtering software.

Find further information on the analytical approach employed in the study and the survey methodology underlying the study at pewresearch.org/pewresearch-org/internet.


Notes

1About a third of online teens (32%) have been contacted by “someone with no connection to you or any of your friends”, and nearly a quarter of those contacted say that they felt scared or uncomfortable as a result.Please note that this definition of stranger contact may include a range of direct and indirect communications, including but not limited to: social networking site friend requests, spam email, or comments on a personal blog or photo sharing site.

2For the analysis reported here, multivariate regression analysis was used to further evaluate these and other key relationships between teenage behaviors and online stranger contact. For more details, please see the analytic approach section of this report.

3Among profile-owning teens in this study, the overwhelming majority (85%) have profiles on MySpace. While differences may exist between MySpace and other social networking sites, our sample of non-MySpace users is too small to analyze stranger contact as it relates to different social networking platforms.

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