I was sent a very interesting journal article today that addresses the issue of online solicitation of teenagers. There’s a lot of speculation and fear-mongering in the media around this issue, with the conventional wisdom being that minors are at extreme risk of solicitation from predators. And as it turns out, this is not the case.

The first time I heard someone state that most teenagers were actually only talking to people they know, and not strangers, was when Danah Boyd presented at the Great Blend last year. It seemed to make more sense than the ‘endemic internet predator’ meme, because most teens seem smart enough to not be victims waiting to happen.

And it turns out that some published research supports this. In a journal called Child Abuse and Neglect Mitchel, Wolak and Finkelhor present some really interesting findings about internet behaviour among teens, and relate that behaviour to incidences of two types of dangerous internet activity, solicitation and harassment.

The article is here for you to read yourself, but the gist is this. Online solicitation is not likely to increase if your teen (or, if you’re a teen, you or one of your friends) uses social media like blogs. However, if the same person engages with strangers then they’re statistically likely to experience attempts at solicitation and predation. I doubt that anyone would find that surprising.

Further in the “not surprising” category is that 73% of solicitors are male, and 39% were over 18. The vast majority (86%) were people the internet user didn’t know in person. But, the indicator of risk for these users wasn’t exposure to solicitation, it was the willingness to engage with strangers. In other words, if your internet user is the sort who’s willing to talk to strangers, they’re also likely to be the sort who are at risk of being lured into predation.

What this suggests is that if you have some kind of influence over an internet user, i.e. if you’re their parent, don’t worry about what they’re doing online. Worry about them being uncomfortably friendly with strangers, a behaviour you might be able to see in the real world. Also worry if they display other risk factors like isolation from their peers, or you, their parents (this wasn’t strongly stated in the article, but it was implied).

The surprising finding to me was about harassment. Apparently 9% of youths in the study had experienced online harassment. But, 50% of the harassers were female, and 58% were 17 or younger! That ran against my assumption that males were more aggressive online… Furthermore, 45% of the harassers were known to the internet user. This suggests that real world bullying translates online.

Overall, the study is probably good proof that what’s needed isn’t scare stories about the dangers of the internet, but better instruction in how to deal with unwanted attention. Kids, and people in general, probably just need to learn how to switch off particular types of bad behaviour.