Limited resources leave youth vulnerable to digital abuse

Youth in the United States are targets of cross-platform digital abuse from peers, strangers, offline acquaintances and even relatives, with threats ranging from harassment and sexual violence to financial fraud, according to a new collaborative study and call-to-action from Cornell and Google researchers.

Aided by firsthand accounts from 36 youth aged 10 to 17 and 65 parents, educators, social workers and other youth advocates, researchers identified the need for more resources to educate youth and parents on digital abuse. They call for better communication and coordination among adult stakeholders in implementing sound protective practices.

The study also calls for human computer interaction (HCI) scholars to study and develop better tools to safeguard youth online, where nearly half of American teenagers experience some form of digital abuse, according to Pew Research.

“We really need to take a closer look at the types of things that young people are experiencing online, because these experiences are not just child problems anymore,” said Diana Freed, a doctoral student in the field of information science and lead author of “Understanding Digital-Safety Experiences of Youth in the U.S.,” which will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Hamburg, Germany this month. “Young people are experiencing what are typically thought of as adult issues, like financial fraud and sexual violence.”

Youth in the study reported being harassed online by peers, intimate partners, acquaintances and strangers. Harassment could involve fielding toxic comments or having fake social media accounts set up without their authorization, but could also shift into more serious forms of digital abuse – like receiving intimate images they didn’t request – or escalate into threats in the physical world.

“Once your nudes get sent out, you’re done. It’s going to spread,” a youth said in the study. “I’ve seen videos spread from state to state in literally five minutes.”

“She told me she needed money for her child,” said another, detailing a financial scam. “I gave out my bank card and also my online banking code. When I stopped, she started harassing and threatening me.”

Just as today’s youth live and seamlessly move between offline and online worlds, threats often follow them from platform to platform, said Natalie Bazarova, M.S. ‘05, Ph.D. ‘09, professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the Cornell Social Media Lab.

“The porousness of barriers between digital platforms and online and physical worlds underscores how easily threats can escalate by crossing social contexts and amplifying harms,” she said.

While kids navigate complex and sometimes risky digital lives, for parents and educators alike, there are few formal options for support and resources to educate themselves and kids on potential online harms, researchers found.

“Whether it was the teachers or the parents, they didn’t really understand exactly what social media applications young people were using, let alone how to address the problems,” Freed said.

In many instances, parents’ knowledge about the platforms their kids frequent was limited to information pulled from quick web searches or conversations with friends; far from ironclad sources, she added.

“Some parents would tell us, ‘Online gaming is very safe, but a particular social media app is not safe.’ But is there an open chat on the gaming platform? Can anyone join it? Do you know who your kids are communicating with?” Freed said. “Well-meaning parents can have a very difficult time understanding what questions to ask their kids to improve safety.”

Among their recommendations, researchers call for better educational resources, such as more robust digital safety educational programs in schools and more accessible, actionable resources, like Common Sense Education’s Digital Citizenship curriculum for educators and Social Media Test Drive, a Cornell-led project that Bazarova co-founded and directs. Other recommendations include engaging youth in app and platform design and improving digital-abuse reporting processes on the online apps and platforms young people frequent.

“We may assume, because they’re digital natives, that kids will just know how to protect themselves online,” Freed said. “That’s leaving a lot on young people, families and schools.”

Other co-authors are: Eunice Han ’21; Sunny Consolvo, Patrick Gage Kelley, and Kurt Thomas, all of Google; and Dan Cosley of the National Science Foundation.

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation and the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Louis DiPietro is a writer for the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.

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