Researcher Aaron Smith likens the Internet to a park, mall, or any other public space, where most of teens' encounters with others are fine, but some can be scary or risky. "Just 7% of online teens have ever had an interaction with a stranger that made them feel scared or uncomfortable," though nearly a third (32%) "have been contacted by someone with no connection to them or any of their friends," according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project's press material about Aaron's data memo (and Pew's latest study).
The uncomfortable contacts – which the study found girls have more than boys – aren't terribly surprising, the study says, however, since a full 49% of social-networking teens "use these sites to make new friends." Also not surprising, the Associated Press's coverage suggests, "because Pew counts as 'stranger contacts' comments left on photo-sharing sites and requests to become friends at social-networking sites." It just may be the case, Aaron adds, that teens "see some level of unwanted contact as a known downside" of social networking – "a relatively minor 'cost of doing business' in this environment."
The behaviors the Pew study found to be "associated with high levels of online stranger contact" are: having a social-networking profile, posting photos online, and using social sites to flirt.
Parents, you may want to note that it's the child's intention that is key, here. The study found that "teens who use social-networking sites to flirt are more likely to be contacted by people they don't know … although a similar effect is not seen in teens who use social-networking sites to make new friends." This finding is consistent with another emerging fact in online-safety research – that it's the teens who are seeking out risk in life in general who are more at risk online (see "Profile of a teen online victim").
Interestingly (and consistent, it appears to me, with research at the Crimes Against Children Research Center – see "New approach to safety education suggested"), Pew found that "there is no consistent association between stranger contact and the types of information posted in a profile" (e.g., first or last name, school name, email address) and "no statistically significant association between stranger contact and having a public profile (letting everyone see your profile instead of just friends).
The study also found that despite the media attention social sites have drawn, they aren't the sole source of uncomfortable online encounters. Aaron wrote that "despite popular concerns about teens and social networking, our analysis suggests that social networking sites are not inherently more inviting to scary or uncomfortable contacts than other online activities."
One other key point parents may find interesting: Monitoring software on computers teens use at home "seems to be more effective than filtering software in limited contact with strangers online," the study found. In his analysis Aaron later points out that that may be because parents who install monitoring software tend to be more engaged in their kids' online experiences than those who install filtering (teens know many workarounds for accessing blocked sites, whether via proxy servers or connecting outside the home).
* The page with a link to the full, four-page data memo, "Teens and Online Stranger Contact," in pdf format.
* "Online victimization: Facts emerging"
* "Social-networking dangers in perspective"
* "Profile of a teen online victim"
* "New approach to safety education suggested"