Online Privacy: American Youth Get It (At Least In MySpace)

There has been, and continues to be, much discussion about online privacy in the context of youths and their use of social networking sites. Last year, this discussion led the House of Representatives to pass an ill-considered law in an effort to limit youths’ uncensored and unfiltered access to social networking sites (the bill was not voted on by the Senate and must be reintroduced in both houses of the 110th Congress). I don’t know if the paranoia is beginning to wear off but the research has been slowly building and, of course, it’s contrary to the common media portrayal.

First, let’s take a look at the assertion that the Internet, specifically MySpace, is full of pedophiles and criminals who prey on youth. Dr. Larry D. Rosen of California State University, Dominguez Hills has conducted research into this asserted phenomenon and found it largely to be overblown. I’m not going to repeat Larry’s but his work can be summarized as “there are much fewer criminals on the Internet preying on our children in MySpace than we believe, youth almost universally ‘blow off’ and ignore the few online solicitations or harassment they encounter, and parents need to play a stronger role in their children’s online lives” (my words, not his). That so many media sources picked up this research but still get the story wrong is quite disappointing.

Next, let’s look at research into how youth view online privacy. Contemporary beliefs are that youths, including young adults, have little understanding of online privacy and are apt to reveal personal information at the drop of a hat with potentially disastrous consequences (kidnapping, sexual assault, loss of a job or potential job, removal from school, etc.). We’ve discussed this perception before and now there is some more research that adds to the conversation. Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Sameer Hinduja, criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University, conducted research into adolescents’ use of MySpace that shows that “an overwhelming majority of adolescents are using the site responsibly.”

Now, let’s briefly compare these two two research efforts. Dr. Rosen’s research combined data from multiple sources and appears to utilize more qualitative data, including surveys of over 200 child-parent pairs. Drs. Patchin and Hinduja, on the other hand, reviewed the MySpace profiles of nearly 2,500 adolescent MySpace users. One interesting limitation from which both efforts suffer is that their adolescent respondents were self-reported as the surveys were conducted online or via telephone; we know there are problems with relying on MySpace users’ self-reported age. On the whole, the two efforts are very complementary and fill in different gaps in our knowledge. It is very interesting to see how different media are spinning the same data from the same researchers very differently. The USA Today story about Patchin and Hinduja’s research is entitled “Most teens are responsible online, study shows” and seems to stress that teens’ behavior is safe whereas the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s news releaseResearchers Find Most Teens Limit Personal Information on MySpace, But Some Youth Still at Risk” seems to stress the negative aspects of the story. I would have expected the viewpoints of the two sources to be reversed (but maybe it’s-all-okay stories from university researchers don’t help secure further research funding…).

I would like to see more qualitative data to explain the results from Patchin and Hinduja’s research as that seems to be a pretty big shortcoming in their methodology. More specifically, I’d like to know more about why these youths exhibit safe or unsafe behaviors – why are so many teens apt to shrug off sexual propositions? Is it because they’ve learned from the few, horrific incidents (real or imaginary) or is some education effective? What kinds of education are most effective, if any? How do these behaviors change over time (both within the particular age-group and as the same age-group grows older)?

In any case, I hope these researchers will continue to update their websites as they conduct more research or further explore the data. Dr. Larry Rosen’s webpage is at http://www.csudh.edu/psych/lrosen.htm and Drs. Patchin and Hinduja maintain Cyberbullying.us, an interesting website with information about “online bullying.”

I particularly like how Larry closed one of his research papers. Before issuing one last call for parental awareness and action, he reminds us that “For the most part, the kids really are ‘alright.’”