PARRY AFTAB, ESQ.
Office of Policy Analysis and Development
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Room 4716 HCHB
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Attention: Sallianne Fortunato Schagrin
Re: Comments on the Effectiveness of Internet Protection Measures and Safety Policies, Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)
This survey summary is being submitted in connection with the Request for Comments referenced above. It is the largest survey of online usage by teenage girls, to our knowledge. Understanding what students do online is key to taking steps to protect them online.
The Seventeen Survey
Described below is a summary of the study of 10,800 teen girls, conducted online at the Seventeen Magazine website. The site was selected by those of us conducting the survey to reach teen girls. It was contained on an internal page to make sure that the group was truly teen girls.
The survey was conducted over a several month period in 1999 and is the largest study in the world as to online usage by teens. This study has been replicated on the ground with more than 20,000 other children, worldwide. The conclusions remain almost identical, but the number of children reporting meeting online “friends” offline has increased from 12% to between 14% and 24% depending on gender and geographical locations of the children polled.
The results were partially published in Parry Aftab’s book, The Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace (McGraw-Hill 2000, in US, UK, Singapore and Spanish-language versions). This is being provided as a courtesy to site visitors. It is not to be published in whole or in part without Ms. Aftab’s written consent.
The results of this survey:
• Sixty percent have filled out a questionnaire or form online and
given out personal information (name, address, date of birth,
phone number, or school name).
• Twelve percent have agreed to meet in person with someone
they have met only online.
• Forty-five percent have told someone they met online personal
information, such as their real name, age or date of birth, address,
phone number, or school name.
• Sixty-one percent have received pictures from someone online.
• Twenty-three percent have sent pictures to someone that they
have met on the Internet.
• Fifteen percent have received suggestive or threatening e-mail
messages that have made them feel uncomfortable.
• Three percent have sent suggestive or threatening e-mail messages
that have made them feel uncomfortable.
• Thirty percent have been in a chatroom where the discussion
made them feel uncomfortable.
• Two percent have explored a bomb-building site on the Web.
• Thirty percent have read hateful messages on the Web.
• Fifteen percent have read messages on the Web that have
A vast majority said that their parents had discussed online safety
with them (70 percent), with the next-largest percentage representing
the number of teenagers who said that their teachers discussed online
safety with them (35 percent). And about half the teenagers said that
their parents sit with them occasionally when they are surfing, and
check their screen occasionally or always, to see where they are surfing.
About 60 percent of the teenagers reported that their parents, caretakers,
or teachers discuss their online activities always or occasionally.
One of the most interesting early correlations we discovered is that
teens whose parents spent time surfing with them didn’t engage in cybersex, while almost 60 percent of the teenagers in general reported engaging in cybersex (without defining what that means).
Also, 65 percent of the teens reported that their parents haven’t installed
filtering software, and another 20 percent didn’t know if their
parents had or not. More than 70 percent said their parents used the
Internet at home.
More teens reported using instant messaging most (over 60 percent),
with the closest other activity being surfing for new things (at 12
percent). (Only 1.5 percent reporting visiting game sites as what they
did most, but a survey of boys probably would have disclosed a much
higher percentage of gaming activities.)
When we asked them to explain if they had done anything online
that they wouldn’t have done in person, here’s what they said (in their
• “Yes, obviously people are more bold and outgoing on the Internet
when they don’t have to deal with the consequences of their
• “Of course! All people do. A computer with a phone line is like a
mask to the world. You can do or say anything and you won’t
ever have to meet this person. For instance, my little brother is
13 and he tells people he’s 16 or older. He’s a sweet guy and has
a very high respect for females. Online, however, he says very
cruel and suggestive things to and about them. He acts like a
monster. It’s disgraceful . . . and a little scary.”
• “Yes, of course . . . our usual boundaries and personal walls are
down and we can act more carefree and outspoken if we feel like.
At least this is true for me . . . you can act like a goddess.”
• “I have cursed out a lot of ppl [people], and when my bud comes
over, we go into places like the African American room and yell
“KKK ALL THE WAY” or go to the Jewish room and say “HEIL
HITLER,” but I haven’t done that since I started going back to
church and was saved by Jesus Christ. We were just joking, we
weren’t really racist.”
• “Yes, but I’d rather not describe what I did. Instead, I’ll just say
that online, you can be absolutely ANYONE you want to be,
which is why a lot of people do things that they would not
normally do. In real life, people everywhere judge you based on
your looks, actions, and who knows what else, but online, all that
really matters is your attitude and personality.”
• “Uh well, I tried cyber sex before and I wouldn’t ever do that in
real life. Sex period. I don’t believe in premarital sex. I think
that is a great gift you give your husband. I once told someone
off because he/she was being perverted and talking nasty to me
and I didn’t like it.”
• “Well, once I told this guy I met in a chat room all about me and,
like, my phone number and stuff. I now realize that this was
really stupid of me and will never do anything like it again
cause although it’s not likely, he could be a psycho or
• “I feel I can speak more freely to someone online about my
problems because most of them don’t go to my school or even the
same state. I can ask them advice and they would probably give
me the best because they aren’t in favor of a certain person. I
can introduce myself and meet new people because it isn’t as uncomfortable
to look into their eyes and if you become really uncomfortable
I can just get out of it by blocking them or getting
• “I have had cyber sex . . . that’s something I never have done and
never will do until I’m married in real life.”
• “I am much more bold online than in real life. I am VERY shy
and I say things on the Internet that I normally wouldn’t say in
• “I have lied for no reason. Actually, I told a guy I couldn’t give
him my number cause my mom doesn’t want guys calling me
cause it was during the school year. My mom doesn’t really care
who calls me I just didn’t know what to say.”
• “Yeah, I wouldn’t flirt with people I just met in person, unlike on
• “Flirt more easily, say things I wouldn’t say in person, not bad
things, just more honest things.”
• “Yeah, because it’s a lot easier to talk and get to ‘know’ someone
online because you can’t see their face. I never have done any-
thing bad but I’ve been a lot more easy going and free for what
I’d say online then in a live situation which in someways have
helped me to be more comfortable talking to new guys in person.”
• “Well, honestly . . . yes. I had cyber sex! I will never have real sex
until I am married, after I engaged in cybering, I totally felt
grossed out, like I know I was doing something wrong! I will not
make that mistake again.”
When we asked them if they ever pretend to be someone else in cyberspace, here’s what they answered (in their own words):
• “Of course I’ve pretended. Everyone does. You pretend to be
older . . . or you pretend to be a guy . . . or you just pretend to be
whoever you wanna be.”
• “Yes, I just changed myself to be someone I wasn’t because I
wanted to get a different reaction from people. It gave me a way
to see myself as who I wanted to be but by doing it I realized
that that is not who I want to be and that I just want to be me.”
• “Yes. If I am ever in a chatroom I always make up things about
myself. This is why I say don’t trust anyone because everybody
else does the same thing.”
• “Since nobody seems to be eager to talk to a 15 year old, I always
pretended I was 18 year old female. However, that sometimes attracted
bad attention from guys.”
• “Yes. I pretended to be anyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to a
• “I once pretended to be a 16 year old girl. I wanted to talk to my
boyfriend to see if he would agree to meet her in person. He did
and I told him who I really was and we broke up.”
• “Yes, I’ve pretended to be so many people. It’s fun and safe and
because nobody knows who you really are.”
• “Well we’ve ALL pretended to be older or have a different name
or something. Who doesn’t? It’s part of the fun about being
online . . . you can be whoever you want to be for a little while.”
• “Yes, I pretended to be someone that I wish I could be like a
• “I haven’t pretended to be someone else, but I have pretended to
be a couple of years older than I am, because not many people
my age are online to talk to, and if they are, they must be lying
about their age, too.”
• “No, I think it is wrong to lie to other people about who you are.
I wouldn’t want someone to do it to me so I don’t do it to them.”
When we asked them if they had ever been in a situation online that frightened them, here’s what they said:
• “My friend agreed to meet a guy she met online when he came
to our hometown, and she wanted some of us to come along to
keep them company. I told my parents but luckily the guy’s
game got canceled. I wouldn’t have gone and I would not support
her decision to meet anyone in real life. She kinda felt betrayed
but at least she’s still alive.”
• “Once I was scared because this guy kept telling me all this stuff
about me, like my name, address, friends’ names, etc. he said he
knew where I lived and stuff, and I better watch out. It ended up
being a joke from a friend of a friend, but I was still scared, and
I was very angry at the friend who gave the person the info just
to scare me. It wasn’t funny.”
• “Once I was on ICQ talking to a bunch of my friends when this
guy I had been chatting with sent me a file. Unknowingly, I
opened it and then I realized that the person had hacked into
my system. Suddenly, my CD-ROM drive started opening and
closing and annoying (but not threatening) messages started appearing
on my screen. Soon after my mouse buttons switched
functions. I had just finished a big assignment, so I was afraid
the hacker would do something to wreck it. I shut down my computer
and that was about all I did about it. One of my friends
had a similar experience, only hers was scary and threatening.
When she got hacked, pictures of a dead girl with her face
smashed in appeared on her screen, along with threatening
messages and sound clips.”
• “I know this is normal in fact it doesn’t bother me I just laugh.
Most kids are always exposed to this stuff not just on the
Internet so its no big deal in fact sometimes it makes it interesting.
But one time this dude got really mad at me and he knew
my parents were out of the state and he could have called one of
my friends and found my address but instead he kept calling
every 5 minutes. . . .”
• “There was one time, when I got online to check my e-mail. I
ended up going into my regular chatroom, and when I arrived,
some guy started giving out my personal information. I don’t
know how he knew anything personal about me, but he was
telling everyone in there about the frightening and terrible
things that were done to me as a child. My best friend doesn’t
even know what happened to me when I was little. All I did was,
denied all of what he said and logged off. I cried all week long.”
• “This guy IM’d [instant messaged] me and my best friend and he
knew all this information about us . . . and we hadn’t even talked
to him before. He knew who we were, where we lived and
everything and he kept playing with our minds trying to tell us
that we started IMing him first and so on. I told my parents
about it but they didn’t really care. So this went on for an hour
and a half. I had friends try to get him to stop. He told us where
he worked and he kept insisting that we go places with him like
out to lunch or dinner and he would buy us x-mas and b-day
presents even though we had never met him. He would leave
them on his car at work for us to come and get, we would go get
them and just smash them all over the ground . . . thinking he
would get the point. He was convinced that him and my best
friend were dating then I came along and I’m the one who
stopped it all. No one could get this guy to stop.We changed our
screen names plenty of times but he had already hacked into our
account so he could always find us. Well he hacked into mine.
Well in December we got a new computer and we both changed
our screen names and he hasn’t been able to find us since.”
• “[A]bout a year ago I met a guy online and I told him my phone
# and found out he lived about 5 minutes away from me we
talked 4 about a week then he asked me out and I agreed. We
met up at the mall he was totally normal 15 year old guy. He
wasn’t some psycho or anything but I got in a lot of trouble from
my parents and I will never give out any personal information
again. It’s not safe and its a stupid idea. If anyone who reads
this is thinking about giving out info to someone on the net
PLEASE think twice about it you could get yourself into a lot of
• “I received a threatening E-mail from someone on my E-mail
address. I immediately changed my password, and made sure
that I didn’t have information on my profile. I never E-mailed
the person back, since that is what lets them know your account
is active and they can find out more about you. Then, I decided
to make sure about it, and stopped checking my E-mail account.
I just got a new one.”
• “I was in a chat room once and this person was threatening to
kill themselves, and I find that scary. So I IM’d them not to do it,
and I chatted with them for a while, and made them feel better
about themselves, and promise not to do anything drastic. And
they did promise.”
• “I told these people to leave this foreign guy alone because they
were making fun of him. They were calling him names and
mocking everything he said. The people I got smart with told me
I better watch my back because they could find out where I
lived. That’s why I left.”
Background and academic conclusions of the survey:
The “Seventeen” Study
In a web-based study conducted in conjunction with Seventeen Magazine
Online, Dr. Parry Aftab, Drs. Berson from the College of Education at the University of South Florida, and the Department of Child and Family Studies at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, an online survey was developed and placed on the Seventeen Online site to assess level of Internet use, involvement in varied at-risk behavior online, incidents involving negative interactions in Cyberspace, and perceived mechanisms to promote safety and well being. The differences in girls' use of technology (AAUW, 2000) combined with data confirming adolescent girls as the group most likely to be targeted for assault (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, www.missingkids.org), established the need to devote the study to investigation of girls' experiences in cyberspace.
The online survey was developed using Cold Fusion software which allows online responses to be stored in a database. Since this was placed on an open web site, we were unable to exclude participation; however the survey link specified criteria for participation (i.e., girls from 12-18 years of age), the survey was hidden within the site, and the study was not
advertised in any forum. The number of responses that we received after we cleaned the data (i.e., removed incomplete surveys, surveys completed by individuals not targeted in the research, and multiple surveys submitted
from the same source) was approximately 10,800.
The results of the survey were
intended to assess online risks to adolescents that may result in abuse and
exploitation and to assist in the design of prevention and safety programs for
adolescents engaged in online activity. Survey results confirm that a
significant number of adolescent girls are engaging in very risky activities
when online and continue potentially problematic offline practices as a result
of these online interactions. The data also confirm that there is a lapse
in preventative intervention to create and maintain awareness and safety for
young people. Moreover, our research team uncovered a preponderance of reported
online experiences which challenged students to confront choices conflicting
with the development of attitudes, values, and
social functioning. In a medium devoid of standards for conduct and codes of ethics, many young people falter in the quality of their online
interactions with others, demonstrating instead a paucity of respect,
responsibility, honesty, kindness, justice, or tolerance.
The baseline demographic data has been reviewed; however, conceptualization of a victim profile for youths at risk for crime, exploitation and subsequent trauma associated with their online activities is still needed. Among the study sample 6% of the respondents were age 12, 16% were 13 years, 24% were 14 years, 24% were age 15, 16% were 16 years, 10% were 17 years, and 3% were age 18. When organized by grade level, 2% of the participants reported that they were in sixth grade, 8% identified themselves as 7th graders, 16% were in 8th grade, 25% were identified as 9th graders, 25% reported being in 10th grade, 13% were 11th graders, and 7% were in 12th grade. Based on the survey, each week 20% of the respondents are online two or less hours; 30% spend 3-5 hours online per week; 24% are online 6-9 hours; 12% spend 10-12 hours online each week; and 15% report that they are online over 12 hours each week (Berson, Berson & Aftab, 1999).
The online experiences of these
young people can influence their emotional well being and safety. The greatest
potential danger is when online exchanges lead to offline encounters. Another
very serious danger results from the sharing of too much personal information
online, where the teenager can become the victim of cyberstalking and torment.
The most common place for the participants to access a computer is in their own home (92%). 2% report going online at school, and 2% access the Internet at a friend's house. Libraries are the access site for 1% of the
respondents, and another 1% go online in their work setting. When online,
58% of the respondents spend their time sending instant messages or emails to friends, 20% surf for new things on the web, 16% primarily spend time in chatrooms, 1% work on building a web site, 1% read discussion boards, 1% spend time at game sites, and 1% engage in homework and research.
While surfing online, less than 1% of the respondents indicated that a
caring adult always sits with them at the computer; 15% occasionally have an adult sitting with them; 33% report that an adult rarely sits with them at
the computer; and 48%are never accompanied by an adult when surfing online. Similarly, periodic monitoring by adults never occurs for 24% of the respondents, rarely takes place for 36% of the participants; occasionally takes place for 32%; and only 3% report always having an adult check their screen when online. Discussions with caring adults about online activities always takes place for 4% of the participants; occasionally occurs for 25%; rarely takes place for 37%; and never occurs for 31% of the responding adolescent girls. Only 3% of the survey respondents indicate that their parents, teachers, or caretakers always use software that reports on young people's online surfing; 6% report that software is used occasionally; 9% rarely noted the use of software; and 60% indicated that software is never used by significant adults to monitor online surfing.
Patterns of Interaction Online
In the study, many of the reported online interactions focused on a culture
of deception in which students primary activities involve the exchange of
verbally harassing or sexually suggestive chat. It appears that there is a
pervasive confusion that equates the legality of behavior with the ethics of
behavior. For example, there is nothing illegal about lying about one's age
or identity in cyberspace, disseminating sexually provocative messages
regardless of age (i.e., Cybersex), using profanity online or exploring
sexual fantasies (Lanning, 1998). As a result of the perceived lack of
consequences, some young people have begun to escalate their behaviors to
violent fantasies online (including stalking and death threats), computer
hacking and other computer crimes (Aftab, 2000)-all which have serious
offline legal consequences. Since computer activities appear to be
victimless and faceless crimes the true repercussions may not be discernible
to a young person looking for some afternoon fun. Moreover, even when the
behavior remains relatively benign researchers have warned that increased
reliance on electronic social interactions may negatively impact
relationships with real life family and friends and increase the risk of
depression and isolation (Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukopadhyay,
& Scherlis, 1998).
Studies are still investigating the differences in online usage between teen
boys and girls; however, initial information seems to suggest that boys have
a preference for games and entertainment while girls spend the majority of
their time engaged in email communication, instant messaging, and chat
(AAUW, 2000). Generally, girls are using the Internet to engage in more
relationship oriented activities. Some young women also are using online
dialogue as a way to empower themselves and find a voice.
In face to face interactions they may perceive that superficial characteristics (body size, facial features) are judged as more important than personality. These visual cues are not available during online exchanges. Boys report enjoying tech sites, buying games and computer equipment online, while girls report enjoying community sites, buying music CD's and clothing online.
In AAUW's study of teenage girls (1999) many girls
admitted repressing their authentic self in order to fit in with peers.
However, in cyberspace, the pressures to fit in and act a certain way are
moderated by the perceived anonymity and false security of being protected
behind the computer screen, often in the comfort and safety of one's
home. Cyberspace provides girls a context where they can shed their
traditional expectations and explore alternative aspects of themselves.
In emails and chatrooms where respondents to our study described spending the majority of their online time, adolescent girls report insulting each other, exchanging sexual quips, attacking the opinions of others, and
engaging in generally outrageous behavior. They sometimes don't care if the person that they flirt with is an adult or a young person. They often view it as pretend, and they play the game of make-believe by stating that they are older, more popular, smarter, tougher, and/or more experienced than in the real world. Girls may pretend to be boys, and boys may pretend to be girls. After all, "the computer can't see you blush" when you enter this fantasyland where the innocent can be sexy, the obedient can be naughty, and even the meek can swear with the best of them.
We presently rely on anecdotal data and narrative accounts to devise
preventative messages and interventions. We need to further refine and
evolve our understanding of the effect of these online experiences,
including incidents described by our respondents as "Cyberrape," "Cybersex," and cyberstalking.
Using the results from the Seventeen online survey of adolescent girls, our
continuing studies will focus on development of a victimology profile based on probability of online risk. Logistical analysis will be used to isolate variables that predict at-risk activity. The participants reported online experiences which challenged them to confront choices conflicting with the development of attitudes, values, and social functioning. These dependent variables include giving out personal information online, agreeing to meet with someone, receiving or sending photos, receiving and sending suggestive or threatening email, and participating in chatrooms where the content resulted in discomfort. They also identified factors which may moderate risk (independent variables) which will be used to develop odds ratios and subsequent log of the odds through a logistic regression model. These include preventative activities (supervision, education, discussion) by significant adults (parents and teachers). Initially the log odds will be modeled as a linear function of the predictors, and then more advanced measurement analysis will result in consideration of multiple predictors simultaneously.
Since this ongoing study is based on a secondary analysis of an existing
dataset there are limits to the detail available on specific characteristics
of risk and preventative intervention. A measure of the severity of risk
would be valuable in further developing the model of victimology.
Additionally, the generalizability of the study results to the larger
population of adolescent girls needs to be considered. One of the
limitations of the original research design is the possibility that the
survey respondents did not represent the experience of all adolescent girls.
We acknowledge this limitation and regard this study as a baseline
investigation to begin informing the direction of future research
However, it should be noted that
there is established support
for computer-based survey design which shows that responses in this forum are as accurate or more accurate than face-to-face interviews, and there is evidence that researchers yield similar results with standard and web samples. Also, although this was a sample of "convenience," many samples in studies are neither random nor representative. In a recent article in the American Psychological Association publication "Monitor on Psychology," Beth Azar (2000) quotes Scott Plous regarding his review of web-based samples vs. lab studies. As for the diversity of study participants, "most studies on the representation of Web-study participants suggest that, if anything, those populations are more representative of the public than samples from more traditional lab experiments."
However, people on the Internet tend to represent higher socioeconomic groups with greater levels of education. The resulting model of risk and intervention will be used to inform knowledge of the experience of a large sample of adolescents and will contribute to more intensive projects to understand mental health issues associated with online victimization of youth.