Although the ubiquity and anonymity of the web are positive attributes for expanding social relationships, the independence afforded by the internet can lead to victimization, especially among teenage and adolescent users.

A study of nearly 1500 U.S. youth examined nine online behaviors believed to increase the odds of online victimization.

Researchers discovered sharing personal information on the Internet was a lower risk than talking to strangers online. Furthermore, engaging in an overall pattern of various online behaviors is more closely linked to online interpersonal victimization than any specific behavior alone.

Online interpersonal victimization is defined as unwanted sexual solicitation or harassment, according to background information in the article.

Approximately 9 percent of online youth are targets of harassment and 13 percent are targets of unwanted sexual solicitation each year. These incidents may lead to psychosocial problems such as depression and physical assault by peers.

The report is found in the February issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Michele L. Ybarra, M.P.H., Ph.D., of Internet Solutions for Kids, Inc., Irvine, Calif., and colleagues analyzed data from a 2005 telephone survey conducted on 1,497 youth in the U.S. aged 10 to 17 who had used the Internet at least once a month for the past six months.

Participants’ average age was 14.2, about half were female and 76.2 percent identified themselves as white. Most came from well-educated households with a high annual income.

The researchers examined the frequency of nine online behaviors believed to increase the odds of online victimization:

    Posting personal information online

    Sending personal information online

    Harassing or embarrassing someone

    Making rude or nasty comments

    Meeting someone online

    Having people known only online on their buddy list

    Talking about sex with someone known only online

    Purposely visiting an X-rated Web site

    Downloading images from a file-sharing program.

A total of 1,125 or 75 percent of the respondents engaged in at least one of nine online behaviors. One in four or 28.2 percent of the youth engaged in four or more different types of online behavior in the previous year.

Those who engaged in four types of online behaviors were 11 times more likely to report online interpersonal victimization than those reporting none of the online behaviors.

“Most Internet safety advocates suggest discouraging youth from sharing personal information and talking with unknown people online,” the authors write.

However, the study found that talking with people only known online under certain conditions is associated with online interpersonal victimization, but sharing information is not.

“Aggressive behavior in the form of making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others, meeting people in multiple ways and talking about sex online with unknown people were significantly related to online interpersonal victimization,” they continue.

“With one in five youth who use the Internet reporting an unwanted interpersonal victimization in one year’s time, identifying effective Internet safety messages is an adolescent health issue of great importance,” the authors conclude.

“Pediatricians and other child and adolescent health professionals should help parents assess their children’s online behaviors globally in addition to focusing on specific types of behaviors.”

The study may be found in Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161:138-145.

Source: JAMA and Archives Journals