Sex and Violence: Teens' Risky Online Behavior Increases Cyber-bullying

New research shows that they aren’t wrong to be concerned. And, 14- and 15-year-old teenagers are most likely to adopt risk-taking behaviors and overshare online, putting themselves in potentially harmful situations and at risk of cyber-bullying.

The McAfee and the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) research, published in the run-up to Safer Internet Day, showed that early high-schoolers spend more time on social media than any other age group, with a fifth spending more than four hours logged on every day.

All of that “socializing” is translating into these teens making themselves more vulnerable to abusive and bullying behaviors by digitally exposing themselves. In some cases quite literally: 11% said that they had shared revealing videos or photos of themselves.

"By making private information public property, young people are exposing themselves to comment and attention from others, without necessarily having the skills to deal with potential situations which might arise from these online interactions,” said Luke Roberts, national coordinator of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, in a statement. “As adults, it is our responsibility to teach children and young people digital skills and set boundaries so they are able to realize the huge benefits and opportunities that the internet offers in terms of accessing information and making friends, but also ensures that they are safe and free from being bullied both online and offline.”

That age group is also more likely to be given an opportunity to cyber-bully: one in 10 had seen an inappropriate, revealing or pornographic image of someone they know online, and 7% admitted to “liking” an unkind image of someone they know.

The findings showed that children and young people clearly need help to understand what is and isn’t appropriate behavior online, and with recognizing the potential consequences of their actions: Around 34% of respondents had witnessed cruel behavior online. And while 22% had been subjected to it themselves, only half those admitted that it left them feeling upset or angry. Fifteen percent had been on the receiving end of foul or abusive comments and 7% had been told they were fat or ugly.

The same age group displayed a need more clearly understand the difference between ‘banter’ and bullying; only 23% were able to see that their cruel and abusive comments may be considered mean to the person on the receiving end, with the same number seeing these comments as ‘just banter’.

“The digital world is one inhabited by most young people on a daily basis, yet they are clearly struggling to understand online etiquettes, what appropriate online behavior is or how to keep safe,” Roberts said.

There’s also the wider-public aspect to this. The 14- to 15-year-olds are most likely to access dangerous content, be exposed to cruel or mean behavior and encounter unwelcome adult attention. Nearly a quarter (23%) of 14–15 year olds surveyed had seen a porn image online of someone they didn’t know and 19% confessed to visiting a website that their parents would not approve of.

’Peer pressure’ was also most prevalent for this age group, with 19% of respondents admitting they had looked up sexual, violent and other inappropriate content due to pressure from friends, girl/boyfriends.

When it came to stranger danger, one in 10 (11%) 14–15 year olds had been approached by an adult they did not know online. Disturbingly, nearly one third (32%) of those teens approached had then shared inappropriate things such as pictures of themselves with that stranger, which they later regretted. More worrying still, a fifth (20%) reported meeting that adult in person before realizing the relationship was inappropriate.

As scary as it all may be, concerned parents do have recourse, in the form of conversation and engagement with their children on the issues. The reality is that cyber-bullying, the sharing of inappropriate content, the embrace of sexual and violent content and the very real danger of strangers taking advantage of this risky behavior is out there, and burying one’s head in the sand is a reaction that parents can little afford.

“This report highlights the growing need for parents to have frank conversations with their children around threats online, net etiquette and the nature of cyber-bullying, as well as ensuring that household devices are as effectively secured as possible from questionable content,” said McAfee cybersecurity expert Raj Samani.

Kids are savvy, however, and won’t make the task easy for their moms and dads: More than half of 14–15 year olds surveyed also confessed to hiding their online activity from parents, with nearly a quarter (24%) actively deleting their browsing history. The problem is exacerbated thanks to the explosion of screens from which to carry out risky behaviors. Smartphones, tablets and even gaming consoles all offer a portal to an online “minefield.”

“Protecting your child online is an absolute minefield, with easy access to the net through smartphones, tablets and computers, parents need to strike a balance between social freedom and security for teens,” Samani said.

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