Adolescent Girls and the Internet: CFS Participates in Surveying the Risks
According to the Department of Justice's 1999 Report on Cyberstalking: A New Challenge For Law Enforcement and Industry, there are currently more than 80 million adults and 10 million children with access to the Internet in the United States. The Internet has virtually opened the door to a whole new way of life, providing a one-stop place to work, shop, learn, communicate and voice opinions.
Unfortunately, many risks and dangers are involved as well, especially for children and adolescents who may put themselves and others in jeopardy by agreeing to meet someone in person, getting into "fights" on-line, making threats and prejudicial comments, or viewing inappropriate material.
"When you look at sexual exploitation," said Ilene Berson, "adolescent girls are at a high level of risk." Berson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies(CFS) at the University of South Florida (USF).
With a desire to learn more about adolescent girls' experiences in cyberspace, Ilene invited Parry Aftab, the Executive Director of Cyberangels, an on-line advocacy group to protect children, to collaborate on a study in conjunction with Michael Berson in the USF Department of Secondary Education. Together, they contacted Seventeen Magazine about posting a survey on the Seventeen.com website. Seventeen agreed to a two month posting, and the study team embedded the survey three-clicks deep to capture those sincerely interested in participating.
The survey was modeled after a well-known study by Nan Stein, Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College which looked at adolescent girls and sexual harassment in schools.
"Although we didn't get a complete representation of adolescent girls, we did get a good representation of those using the Internet. We wanted to look at mechanisms to safeguard them in cyberspace and to also find interventions of adults which educated them on the dangers," said Ilene.
The survey, aimed at girls age 12-18, collected information on the frequency of going on-line, sending personal information and pictures, agreeing to meet cyperpals in person, sending suggestive email, as well as visiting sites related to acts of societal violence, e.g. bomb building sites.
"Initially," continued Ilene, "we estimated that there would be a total of 1000 girls responding. That number was reached in just a few days, and at the end of two months, a total of 10,800 surveys that fit into our specifications had been completed."
For Ilene, the greatest area of concern was the amount of time that young people are spending on-line and the number who have actually gone to meet someone in person. "The survey results confirm that a significant number of adolescent girls are engaging in very risky activities when on-line and continue potentially problematic off-line practices as a result of these on-line interactions. The data also confirm that there is a lapse in preventative intervention to create and maintain awareness and safety for young people," said Ilene.
Some girls indicated that by being on-line, they feel empowered to be more of who they really are, without the worry of being judged by appearances and peer pressures. Some girls also noted that Internet exploring led to participating in activities that are more negative, such as prejudicial harassments and using bad language. Also, there is a high percentage engaging in cybersex.
Girls also admitted to pretending to be someone else. They act older, younger, become different genders, etc. and take on multiple roles. "What is disturbing," Ilene added, "is that although they pretend, they often don't take into account that others may also be pretending."
"The study is leading to a lot of interest in this area," Ilene added. "We have received calls from the media, FBI and State Attorney General's offices who need an understanding of young people who are victimized through the web."
With this project completed, Ilene hopes to continue exploring cyberculture as it refers to young children and adolescents. She has recently initiated case studies of actual FBI accounts. Additional funding is being sought to develop a contents of victimology on-line.
For additional information, Ilene Berson can be reached at (813) 974-7698.
The Department of Child and Family Studies (CFS), is a division of the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida. Since its inception in 1984, the Institute's mission has been to improve service delivery systems for children with serious emotional or behavioral disabilities and their families.