A study conducted by the Associated Press and MTV found that 50% of 14 to 24 year-olds have experienced some type of digital abuse. The study, released on Thursday, also found that 30% had either sent or received nude photos on their cell phones or online. But when you break down the numbers, 10% actually sent such messages, which is in line with a previous study done by Cox Communications that found that 9% had sent a "sext."
The AP/MTV study sampled 1,247 youths in what the authors call an "online panel that is representative of the entire U.S. population." Respondents were recruited from KnowledgePanel. Details about the study and a campaign to empower youth to stop digital abuse are expected to be available at ATHINLINE.org.
Females are slightly more likely to share a naked photo of themselves (13%) than males (9%) while youth who are sexually active are more than twice as likely to send such photos (17% vs. 8%). Perhaps more disturbing is the finding that 17% report having passed the image to someone else and just over 9% have distributed the images to more than one person. Twenty-nine percent of respondents who shared a naked photo of themselves report that they shared the image with someone who they never met in person and only knew online. That represents about 3% of the total sample.
The study reported that, "61% of those who have sent a naked photo or video of themselves have been pressured by someone else to do so at least once," but it's not clear from the study how many of these young people actually sent photos to people who pressured them.
Reasons for sending sexts include, "the assumption that others would want to see them (52%), a desire to show off (35%), and boredom (26%)." The study also found that about 30% of teens have shared sexts as a joke or to be funny.
Sixty-nine percent of the youths said that digital abuse is a serious problem for people their age but only 51% said that they have thought that, "things they post online could come back to hurt them later." Only 25% said that they considered the possibility that they could get into legal trouble. Some prosecutors have charged teens with violating child pornography laws for taking, possessing or distributing child pornography.
The study's definition of digital abuse includes writing something online that wasn't true, sharing information you don't want shared, writing something mean, spreading false rumors, threatening physical harm, impersonation, spying, posting embarrassing photos or video, being pressured to send naked photos, being teased and encouraging people to hurt themselves.
Bullies and Passwords
There was some good news on the cyberbullying front. Seventy-eight percent of the respondents said that, "it is always okay to report it when someone harms another person physically," and 55% said that, "if they witness someone being picked on by a group of people, it is always okay to report it to an authority." Sixty-two percent said they are likely to ask the bully to stop if they themselves are victims of abuse or harassment. Fifty-nine percent said they would ask a friend for help.
Sharing passwords can lead to being impersonated and having your online identity stolen yet 26% of youth admit that they have shared passwords online. Girls (31%) are more likely to share passwords than boys (22%). The study found that youth who shared passwords were more likely (68%) to be victims of digital abuse than those who didn't (44%).
Online risk mirrors offline risk
The study didn't conclude any causality between online and offline risk activities but, like previous studies, it did find some significant correlations.
Youths who have been the target of digital bullying were twice as likely (13% vs 6%) to report having received treatment from a mental health professional and are more than twice as likely to have considered dropping out of school (11% vs 4%).
Those who reported smoking a cigarette, drinking alcohol, using illegal drugs or stealing/shoplifting in the past seven days are more likely to have been the target of digital abuse (60%, vs to 48%). Sexually active youth were also more likely to have been victims (62% of those who have had sex in the last seven days have been target compared to 49% of those who hadn't had sex.
This data is consistent with a 2007 report (PDF) from the Crimes Against Children Research Center that found that youth who engage in "aggressive behavior in the form of making rude or nasty comments were 2.3 times more likely to suffer from interpersonal victimization. Those engaged in "frequently embarrassing others" were 4.6 times more likely to be victimized.
The AP/MTV study pretty much confirms what many Internet safety experts have been saying for the past several months. Youths are far more likely to experience problems online from other young adults or from their own indiscretions than from adult predators. As with previous studies, it points to the need for educating young people on how to empower and protect themselves.
To accomplish that, they need to learn and practice media literacy, digital citizenship and critical thinking. While parental and educator involvement is crucial, youths themselves need to embrace and "own" digital safety messages, but they should be taught not as "Internet safety" lessons but as part of a larger campaign to provide young people with the skills they need to thrive in the digital age. For more on this see Online Safety 3.0: Protecting & Empowering Youth from ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit group I help run.