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Study has good news about kids' online behavior

A study commissioned by McAfee security and conducted by Harris Interactive reports mostly good news, such as a decline in cyberbullying.

Report shows decline in cyberbullying McAfee / Harris Interactive

commentary The headline of the press pitch I received a few days ago read "McAfee to release shocking findings of teen's online behavior," but the actual data from the study, "Secret Life of Teens," are far from shocking.

McAfee's study (PDF) is actually a reassuring portrait of how most young people are exercising reasonable caution in their use of technology. The study, conducted by Harris Interactive, included interviews with almost 1,400 10- to 17-year-olds.

The survey reported that "almost half of youth (46 percent) admit to having given out their personal information to someone they didn't know over the Internet," but when they break it down, the survey reveals that "when they do reveal personal information online, youth are most likely to share their first name (36 percent), age (28 percent), and/or e-mail address (19 percent). Only around 1 in 10 have given out slightly more personal information like a photo of themselves, their school name, last name, cell phone number, or a description of what they look like.

Considering that Facebook (used by 82 percent of the survey's 16- to 17-year-olds and 66 percent of 13- to 15-year-olds) actually requires use of real names and encourages posting photos and such information as school name, I don't find this at all shocking. If anything, I'm surprised at how little personal information young people are posting online.

And it's also reassuring to read in the study report that "youth draw the line at giving out personally identifiable information such as their parents' names, home address, or school address, and virtually no teens report having given out their Social Security number."

The one statistic that I do find disturbing is that 37 percent of 10- to 12-year-olds are on Facebook, which not only violates the site's policies, but requires the kids to lie about their age to get an account.

Cyberbullying on the decline
When it comes to cyberbullying, the report also paints a more optimistic picture than we've seen from some other studies.

Only 11 percent "admit to ever engaging in some form of cyberbullying behavior.

And even though the press release about the report says "Cyberbullying on the rise," the report itself shows that the percentage of teens reporting that they have "ever been bullied or harassed online decreased substantially from 15 percent in 2008 to 8 percent in 2010. Far from an increase, that's an impressive 47 percent decline in two years.

The press release on the report also says that "Nearly 50 Percent of Teens Don't Know What to Do if Cyberbullied," yet the report itself says that "1 in 4 teens say they wouldn't know what to do if they were bullied or harassed online" and that a "a significantly higher proportion disagree with this statement in 2010 than in 2008, suggesting that teens may now be better equipped to handle cyberbullying."

It further points out that "many youth who have been bullied or harassed online say they have made some adjustments to their online behavior as a result (72 percent)."

I would be interested to know what proportion of that "1 in 4" who don't know what to do have ever been cyberbullied. My sense is that most kids would figure out what to do, though it's important to remember that how young people respond to bullying varies greatly. Some can deal with it while others find it extremely disturbing.

What do parents know?
Finally, there is the issue of what parents know about their kids' online behavior. Some 91 percent said that their parents "trust me to do what's right when I'm online," though 56 percent of all kids in the survey and 70 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds specifically say that their parents and guardians "know some of what I do online but not everything." A heading in McAfee's press release interprets that as "Teens Hide What They're Doing Online," but as a parent of two former teenagers, I call that part of the process of growing into young adulthood.