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Study Finds Teen Bloggers at Risk for Cyberstalking, Harassing

February 28, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON --- A study of 68 randomly selected weblogs (online diaries) produced by teenagers aged 13 to 17 finds that teen bloggers often willingly reveal their actual names, age and offline locations, putting them at risk for cyberstalking and cyberbullying.

David Huffaker, a Northwestern University doctoral student working in the technology and social behavior program with Northwestern Professor Justine Cassell, presented his study findings within the context of other studies of teenage Internet behavior at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In “Teen Blogs Exposed: The Private Lives of Teens Made Public,” Huffaker finds that half of all teenage bloggers link to other bloggers and often include a “friends list.” Sixty-seven percent of teen bloggers provide a comment section to get feedback from readers of their blogs and send comments on other teen blogs.

From a developmental perspective, Huffaker says, blogs play a positive role by offering teens a place to construct narratives and share stories. “These activities are important to identity exploration which is one of the principal tasks of adolescence,” he says. “What’s more, the mechanics of these online diaries, with their opportunities to link to and get feedback from peers, also aid teenagers in creating and maintaining social ties.”

The randomly selected teen blogs -- equally divided between male and female teens and with a mean age of 15.47 years -- were examined for content and amount of personal or private information revealed.

Seventy percent of the teens disclosed at least their first name, 67 percent revealed their age, and 61 percent provided their contact information either in the form of e-mail (44 percent), instant messenger name (44 percent) or a link to a personal home page (30 percent). Fifty-nine percent of those who provided contact information disclosed the city or state in which they reside.

“Studying teen blogs highlights the fact that blogging is not an individual pursuit in the way teen diaries once were. Instead, blogs are used by teens to form a small or large community,” says Huffaker.

On the positive side, blogs give teens an opportunity to share their stories and feelings. "They provide a venue in which they can reflect upon their experiences,” says Huffaker. "The ability to create a community online also bodes well for future social development.”

Almost half of all the blogs included discussions about boyfriends, girlfriends or attractions to someone in the form of a “crush.” Seventeen percent of those who wrote about their own sexuality discussed homosexuality and their experience of “coming out.”

Not surprisingly, 71 percent included commentary about school-related topics, such as grades, homework, high school, college or college pressure. Almost half of the online diaries discussed aspects of music, including use of MP3 players, songs, lyrics, favorite bands and concerts.

Huffaker found that blogging has positive effects on verbal and digital literacy as well as increased social interaction. “The danger of sexual predation by adult strangers and of bullying by peers, however, are sometimes unfortunate products of the teen blogging phenomenon,” he says.

Unlike the tattered, leather diary of the past, online teen diaries can be read not only by members of the family “sneaking a look” but also by strangers with questionable intentions.

Huffaker cites a study in which 2,500 children aged 10 to 17 years of age reported being harassed or threatened online. In another study, one in five teenage Internet users said they’d been approached or received a sexual solicitation within their last year of Internet use. One in 33 reported being aggressively solicited by predators who asked to meet them, called them on the phone or sent them letters, money or gifts.

Despite their apparent frequency, the incidents are seldom reported to parents, school administrators or other authorities, according to the surveyed teens. Huffaker suggests using blog software packages that offer an opportunity to keep one’s online diary “friends-only.”

Topics: Research