Study: 'Digital abuse' hits half of youth

A study conducted by the Associated Press and MTV pretty much confirms what many Internet safety experts have been saying for the past several months: Young people are far more likely to experience problems online from their peers or from their own indiscretions than from adult predators.

But that's hardly to say that there's no need for concern. The AP/MTV study (PDF), released Thursday, found that 50 percent of 14- to 24-year-olds have experienced some type of digital abuse.

MTV launches "A Thin Line" initiative to empower youth to stop digital abuse

The study also found that 30 percent had either sent or received nude photos on their cell phones or online, a practice known as "sexting." Just 10 percent had actually sent such messages, which is in line with a previous study done by Cox Communications.

The AP/MTV study interviewed 1,247 teens and young adults 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 available at AThinLine.org.

The study's definition of digital abuse includes writing something online that wasn't true, sharing information that a person didn'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.

As have previous studies, this one points to the need for educating young people on how to empower and protect themselves. While parental and educator involvement is crucial, young people themselves need to embrace and "own" digital safety messages--taught not as "Internet safety" lessons but as part of a larger worldview on how to thrive in the digital age. (For more on this, see Online Safety 3.0: Protecting & Empowering Youth from ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit group I help run.)

Bullies and passwords
More than two-thirds (69 percent) of the respondents said that digital abuse is a serious problem for people their age, but only half (51 percent) said that they had thought that "things they post online could come back to hurt them later." Only 25 percent 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.

There was some good news on the cyberbullying front. The AP/MTV study reported that 78 percent of the respondents said that "it is always okay to report it when someone harms another person physically," and 55 percent 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, and 59 percent said they would ask a friend for help.

The sharing of passwords can lead to someone being impersonated or having their online identity stolen, yet 26 percent of the study's respondents admit that they have shared passwords online. Girls (31 percent) are more likely to share passwords than boys (22 percent). The study found that youth who shared passwords were more likely (68 percent) to be victims of digital abuse than those who didn't (44 percent).

Showing off via sexting
Females are slightly more likely to share a naked photo of themselves (13 percent) than males (9 percent), while youth who are sexually active are more than twice as likely to send such photos as those who aren't (17 percent versus 8 percent). Perhaps more disturbing is the finding that 17 percent say they've passed the image to someone else, and just over 9 percent have distributed the images to more than one person. Remarkably, 29 percent of respondents who shared a naked photo of themselves report that they shared the image with someone whom they had never met in person and knew only online. That represents about 3 percent 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 percent of teens have shared sexts as a joke or to be funny.

Online risk mirrors offline risk
The study didn't conclude that there was any causality between online and offline risk activities, but like previous studies, it did find some significant correlations.

Youth who have been the target of digital bullying were twice as likely (13 percent versus 6 percent) 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 percent versus 4 percent).

Those who reported smoking a cigarette, drinking alcohol, using illegal drugs, or stealing/shoplifting in the past seven days were more likely to have been the target of digital abuse (60 percent versus 48 percent). Sexually active youth were also more likely to have been victims (62 percent of those who have had sex in the last seven days have been targets, compared with 49 percent of those who hadn't had sex).

This data is consistent with a 2007 report (PDF) from the Crimes Against Children Research Center, which 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.

A version of this post also appears on CNET's sister site CBSNews.com.
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry or follow him on Twitter@larrymagid.

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