Teens are concerned about personal safety online, pessimistic about future risks

Teens around the world are concerned about their personal safety online and expect internet-related risks to increase in the future, preliminary results of a new Microsoft study show.

Adults and youth share an equally high concern about the current state of online risks, but data show youth are especially troubled by the expectation of sexual threats becoming worse. Results indicate young people are more likely to have experienced or been exposed to “sextortion,” [1] when it happened to them or someone in their immediate circle. (Research shows that especially when surveying youth, respondents are often more comfortable relaying what may have happened to a friend or family member versus the respondent directly.) More than one-third of youth who said they encountered sextortion reported that it happened nearly every time they went online.

In addition, findings suggest it is fairly common for youth to have come in contact with sexual threats in general, with 44 percent saying they’d personally experienced sexual threats or knew of instances among family and friends. Considering other high-incidence risks, youth also scored higher than adults when asked if they were treated meanly online, harassed or encountered hate speech.

Not surprising, youth report higher levels of online interactions than adults; say they encountered online risks more recently and more often, and suffered social and academic losses as a result of those negative online experiences. What may come as a surprise is that youth were more likely than adults to have confronted or retaliated against their offenders.

Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) of young people said they met their offenders in person compared to 43 percent of adults. Youth were more likely to have been in contact with their offenders when negative behaviors involved online meanness, unwanted contact or trolling.

Unwanted contact was the chief compliant among both young people and adults, with 43 percent of all respondents saying they themselves had been the target of unwelcome contact at some point. That percentage swelled to 63 percent considering unwanted contact toward an individual respondent, as well as someone in his or her close circle.

The study, “Civility, Safety and Interaction Online – 2016,” polled youth ages 13-17 and adults ages 18-74 in 14 countries[2] about 17 different online risks, namely:

  • Reputational – “Doxing,” and other damage to personal or professional reputations
  • Behavioral – Being treated meanly; experiencing trolling, online harassment or bullying, and encountering hate speech
  • Sexual – Sending or receiving unwanted sexts and making sexual solicitations; being a victim of sextortion or non-consensual pornography (aka “revenge porn”), and
  • Personal and Intrusive – Being the target of unwanted contact, or experiencing discrimination, “swatting” or exposure to extremist content/recruiting.

These preliminary results are the latest in a series of research studies, both in the U.S. and internationally, on the state of digital civility, personal online safety and digital interactions. Full results will be made available on international Safer Internet Day 2017 on Feb. 7.

We’ve chosen to make this preliminary release, featuring data about teens in the back-to-school timeframe to remind young people about the need for smart, safe and respectful online habits at home, at school and on the go. We will follow with an early look at key data from the adult respondents in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, to learn more about online safety generally, visit our website and review our resources; “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

[1] In sextortion, predators typically pretend to be teens on social media and gaming sites. They befriend young people; gain their trust and entice them to send sexual photos and videos of themselves that the predators then threaten to release to family and friends if more explicit material fails to follow.

[2] Countries surveyed: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, China, France, Germany, India, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

At the time of writing of this post, Jacqueline Beauchere’s title was Chief Online Safety Officer.