The most recent of the always interesting Pew Internet and American Life reports was released today and offers some interesting statistics concerning children online and their experiences being contacted by strangers.

The gist of the results is this: 11% of girls reported that they had experienced uncomfortable or scary contact by strangers online, that number was significantly higher than for boys and many respondents felt stranger contact and the corresponding risks were a “cost of doing business” as a user in online social networks.

The sample size of the survey was 935 and a big grain of salt is required – the write up says that stranger contact can include “a range of direct and indirect communications, including but not
limited to: social networking site friend requests, spam email, or comments on a personal blog or photo sharing site.” Spam email?

None of the results are shocking, but here are the most significant numbers:

  • 39% of girls online and surveyed report having been contacted by someone with no connection to them or their friends.
  • 24% of boys surveyed said they had experienced stranger contact online.
  • 27% of girls who reported any stranger contact said they had experienced stranger contacts that made them scared or uncomfortable, whereas 15% of boys said so.
  • Among all girls surveyed, 11% reported uncomfortable stranger contact. That number was %4 for boys.

The authors of the report said that teens typically felt that stranger contact was a “cost of doing business” in online social networks. It’s also worth asking whether feeling uncomfortable or scared is an unacceptable event or whether it’s an important survival tool, an emotional signal of danger and a better sign than not feeling uncomfortable in the face of a real threat.

I asked Anastasia Goodstein, author of the excellent teen oriented blog YPulse for her thoughts on the study and this is what she told me.

“What should give parents and educators a reason to breath easier is that most teens are ignoring this contact and only 7 percent reported that these interactions made them feel really scared or uncomfortable.The key take away is that teens don’t want to interact with adults on social networking sites unless you’re members of a group like a video gaming group on MySpace. They are there to talk with their friends, most of whom they know in person. So if a predator approaches them and says something sexual or creepy, most teens just ignore, delete, block and hopefully report them to the site admins.”

I would ad the following. Considering the percentage of women and girls in this world who have been subject to abuse by adults and other children and considering how often that abuse is received from a family member or family friend – these statistics are further evidence that inappropriate stranger contact online is significant but receives a disproportionate amount of attention in light of the relative size of the problem.

Ask any but the most ardently anti-feminist women you know and they will likely tell you that any environment where only 1 out of every 10 women have felt uncomfortable or scared is a strikingly safe place in this world.

While some parents may feel a zero tolerance policy on creepiness is important, this survey indicates that actual experiences and beliefs held by children are different. In the vast majority of cases, kids are tough enough to keep themselves safe on the open web.

marshall kirkpatrick