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Is stranger contact a 'cost of doing business' online for teens?

Teens may view stranger contact as a normal 'cost of business' of online social networking. A new Pew/Internet survey reports that when teens are contacted by strangers online, nearly a quarter reported feeling scared or uncomfortable as a result.

A recent Read/WriteWeb post pointed me to a new Pew/Internet Survey that suggests that "teens" (defined in this study as 12- to 17-year-olds) may view contact by people they don't know as a "cost of doing business" in the online social network environment.

The Pew survey found that about a third of online teens had been contacted online by someone with no connection to them or their friends. Overall, studying all online teens, 7 percent of them had experienced stranger contact that made them feel scared or uncomfortable.

It is important to note that when you look at group of teens who had been contacted by a stranger, nearly of a quarter of them say they felt scared or uncomfortable. Girls were more likely to feel this way, 27 percent compared with 15 percent of boys.

What do these results mean for parents? Social networks are becoming the norm for kids and teens, and "networking" means meeting new people. The question is always how to help kids learn to safely negotiate the public contact that comes into our home through online exposure.

Read/Write Web promoted a positive take-home message from the Pew results, quoting YPulse blogger Anastasia Goodstein as saying,

"...most teens are ignoring this contact and only 7 percent reported that these interactions made them feel really scared or uncomfortable.The key take away is that teens don't want to interact with adults on social networking sites unless you're members of a group like a video gaming group on MySpace. They are there to talk with their friends, most of whom they know in person. So if a predator approaches them and says something sexual or creepy, most teens just ignore, delete, block and hopefully report them to the site admins."

But for me this interesting study leaves many questions unanswered. I would like to know more about the amount of online experience the respondents had. Given that the 886 kids surveyed were as young as 12 years old, some of them may not have spent much time on social networks yet. If you surveyed 886 17-year-olds, how would the results be different?

And significantly, this study only takes into account contact that these kids could specifically identify as originating from the online world. Posting personal information online could lead to creepy real-world contact or crime that would not be identified as originating "online." The Pew survey did report that posting photos online was one factor associated with a measurable increase in virtual stranger contact.

As I have written previously, we all need to become educated about the consequences of living our lives in the online spotlight. Andy Warhol's fleeting 15 minutes of fame has turned into a public record for each of us, only some of which is in our control.

My message to parents and teens is: don't panic, don't necessarily unplug, but educate yourselves and realize that online safety is an evolving issue that requires vigilance and ongoing conversation.