Walsh, W. A., Wolak, J., & Mitchell, K. J. (2013). Close relationships with people met online in a national U.S. sample of adolescents. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 7(3), article 4. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5817/CP2013-3-4
Close relationships with people met online in a national U.S. sample of adolescents

Close relationships with people met online in a national U.S. sample of adolescents

Wendy A. Walsh1, Janis Wolak2, Kimberly J. Mitchell3
1,2,3 Crimes against Children Research Centre, Department of Sociology, University of New Hampshire, Durham NH, United States of America

Abstract

The purpose of this research was to explore characteristics of youth who reported close relationships with people they met online. We used data from a national telephone survey of youth Internet users in the United States, aged 10 to 17 years old (N=1,560). One in ten adolescents (11%) reported a close relationship with a person met online. Results of a logistic regression indicated that the odds of forming close online relationships were about twice as high among youth with depressive symptoms, delinquent behavior, high Internet use, who sought out pornography online, had experienced unwanted online harassment, and had experienced an unwanted online sexual solicitation. Only 2% of youth reported such relationships with adults (18 and older) and many of these were with teens aged 18 or 19, less than 1% had an online relationship with someone over 21. Among youth with close online relationships, 3% sent or received sexual pictures and 34% met the person face-to-face. Of those who met the person, 4% of youth reported sexual contact. The great majority of youth were not afraid or uncomfortable during face-to-face meetings and it was common for parents to know of meetings. As youth continue to use online communication in diverse ways, it is important to better understand how youth are using the Internet to develop intimacy in their lives.

Keywords: adolescence; Internet; high-risk youth; online relationships

doi: 10.5817/CP2013-3-4

Introduction

There is often an assumption that forming relationships with people met online is risky, or riskier than forming relationships with people met in person. This assumption stems in part from concerns that the Internet has made it easier for adults, in particular, to seek and lure vulnerable youth online. Some argue that the anonymity of the Internet makes it easy for sexual offenders to introduce sexual communication into online interactions (Davidson, 2011; Berson, 2003). Although research suggests this scenario is quite rare and has declined in the past decade, there continues to be a need for current data on those who are using online contexts to develop close relationships with people they do not know in person (Mitchell, Jones, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2012; Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Ybarra, 2008). Given the changing nature of online communication and that many youth are connecting online with those they already know in person, it is particularly relevant to explore those youth who are using online communication to develop close relationships with people met online. Using data from the 3rd Youth Internet Safety Survey, a national study conducted in the United States, our aim in this article was to examine whether youth who are more marginalized are developing close online relationships more than other youth. Furthermore, there is little understanding of the characteristics of these close online relationships, such as whether sexual pictures are exchanged, whether gifts are received, or sexual contact occurs. Thus, our aim was to address this gap in the understanding of what teens do as part of their close online relationship.

In the past decade there have been enormous changes with how youth use the Internet. Today, adolescents’ online world is an extension of their offline world. Teens report keeping in touch online with friends they already know and report more cohesive friendships because of online communication with their friends (Lee, 2009; Lenhart & Madden, 2007). In addition to connecting more with their friends, young people report behaving differently online than they do in person. The EU Kids Online 25-country survey suggest that for up to half of young people, online communication offers important opportunities for identity and intimacy (Livingstone & Ólafsson, 2011). This study found that half of European 11- to 16-year-olds find it easier to be themselves online than offline, 45% talk about different things on the Internet than when speaking to people face-to-face, and 32% talk about private things online that they do not discus face-to-face. Given the fluidity of online and offline communication and the potential for decreased inhibitions with online communication, it is important to better understand factors that contribute to developing intimacy online with strangers.

Intimacy with Strangers and the Internet

Because of questions about the richness of online communication and the potential for offline contact with strangers, a number of studies have examined close relationships with strangers online. Findings from the 1st Youth Internet Safety Study conducted in 2000 found that 14% of youth reported close online relationships with people they did not know in person, 7% of youth reported face-to-face meetings with people first met online, and 2% reported online romances with people met online (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2002; 2003). Most of these online relationships were with same-age peers (70%), crossed gender lines (71%), and were known to parents (74%) (Wolak et al., 2002). Only 15% of close online relationships were with adults and 12% of youth with face-to-face meetings were with adults. Few youth reported bad experiences with online friends.

Other research also finds few youth report online relationships moving offline. A national survey of teenagers in the UK found that 9% of youth reported meeting someone face-to-face first met on the Internet (Livingstone & Helsper, 2010). Although the authors classified this as a risky behavior, the characteristics of these meetings were not clear. A smaller study in the U.S. (N = 251) found that 30% of adolescents in a sample of maltreated girls and a demographically matched comparison group of non-maltreated girls reported offline meetings with persons first met online (Noll, Shenk, Barnes, & Haralson, 2013). Maltreatment did not independently predict offline meetings. Independent predictors of subsequent offline meetings included having low cognitive ability, creating high-risk social networking profiles, having high-risk sexual attitudes and behaviors, and receiving online sexual solicitations. Because few studies have examined detailed characteristics of close online relationships and because the nature of how adolescents are using the Internet has changed over time, one of the aims in this article was to explore additional characteristics of close relationships with people met online, such as whether sexual pictures or gifts are exchanged and whether phone or offline contact occurs.

Previous research does indicate that online contact with strangers puts adolescents at risk for unwanted sexual solicitation and sexual exploitation, though risks have decreased over the past decade. The three Youth Internet Safety Surveys found decreases in youth experiencing unwanted sexual solicitations, exploitations, and online harassment (Jones, Mitchell, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2013; Mitchell et al., 2012). This is due in part to more privacy controls, better education about Internet safety, and more effective law enforcement. Despite the decrease in online stranger contact and sexual solicitation, it is important to understand which youth are continuing to use online communication to develop close relationships with people met online because we need to understand how youth are using online communication to develop intimacy in their lives.

Characteristics of Youth forming Online Relationships with Strangers

A number of studies have focused on the characteristics of youth who communicate online with people they do not know in person. These studies generally support the Social Compensation Hypothesis in that youth who have more difficulties with peers or are more vulnerable are at greatest risk online (Smahel et al., 2012). Studies have found the more online communication with strangers, the lower the psychosocial well-being among adolescents (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007; Ybarra, Alexander, & Mitchell, 2005). While other studies have found alienation from parents and being highly troubled (e.g. high levels of depression and peer victimization) increased the likelihood of close relationships with people met online (Wells & Mitchell, 2008; Wolak et al., 2003). In sum, generally the early research on the Internet has found troubled adolescents more likely to form close online relationships. More recent research points to some of the benefits of communicating online and forming close online relationships with strangers.

This body of research reports benefits such as helping youth to recover from social rejection and connecting with others experiencing similar issues, such as eating disorders or other illnesses (Gross, 2009; Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008). In their review about online communication and adolescent relationships, Subrahmanyam and Greenfield note that communication frequency and the amount of self-disclosure are important elements in computer-mediated communication, just like they are in the development of face-to-face relationships.

In sum, given the changing nature of online communication and that many youth are connecting online with those they already know in person, it is particularly relevant to explore those youth who are using online communication to develop close relationships with people met online. First, we examined how often youth report close online friendships and how many close online friendships they have. We also examined how often youth report a romantic online relationship with someone met online and how many of these relationships they have. Next, building upon the Social Compensation Hypothesis and the context of anxiety about meeting new people online, we explored whether youth who are more marginalized are developing these types of close online relationships more than other youth. Specifically, we examined whether youth characteristics, such as high levels of parent-child conflict, being withdrawn or depressed, history of past sexual intercourse, substance use, and high levels of delinquent behavior are associated with pursuing close online relationships. We also examined whether aspects of online behavior, such as high usage, aggressive online behavior, seeking pornography, and harassing others online are associated with pursuing close online relationships. Because few studies have explored detailed characteristics of the online relationships, we examined whether sexual pictures were exchanged, whether offline contact occurred, and whether sexual contact occurred. When face-to-face contact occurred, we examined whether youth were afraid or uncomfortable and whether their parents knew about the meetings. We also examined whether any of these behaviors differed for relationships with adults versus other teens.

Method

Participants

The 3rd Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS-3) was conducted in the U.S. to quantify and detail unwanted or problematic technology-facilitated experiences among youth. Data collection occurred between August, 2010 and January, 2011. YISS-3 was conducted via telephone surveys with a national sample of 1,560 youth Internet users, ages 10 to 17 who had used the Internet at least once a month for the past six months, and their parents. A sample size of 1,500 was pre-determined based upon a maximum expected sampling error of +/-2.5% at the 5% significance level. The sample is representative of all Internet using youth, ages 10 to 17, in the U.S. Human subject participation was reviewed and approved by the University’s Institutional Review Board and conformed to the rules mandated for research projects funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Sampling Method

Abt Schulman, Ronca, and Bucuvalas, Inc. (SRBI), a national U.S. survey research firm, conducted the sampling, screening and telephone interviews for YISS-3. The main sample was drawn from a national sample of households with telephones developed by random digit dialing. Using standard dispositions as defined by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) (2011) the cooperation rate was 65 % (AAPOR Cooperation Rate 4-interviews/estimated eligible) and the refusal rate was 24 % (AAPOR Refusal Rate 2-refusals/estimated eligible). Due to increasing reliance of the U.S. population on cell phones only (Brick et al., 2007; Hu, Balluz, Battaglia, & Frankel, 2010), a cell-phone RDD sample was included in addition to the landline sample in the YISS-3 study. The original intention was to include a sample of 300 respondents from the cell phone sample in the final target sample of 1,500. However, due to problems with cell phone sample response rates, and given the required timeframe for the study, a decision was made to complete the survey once a total of approximately 1,500 landline completions had been reached. At the end of the data collection, 45 interviews had been completed by cell phone in addition to 1,515 landline interviews, resulting in a total sample size of 1,560. Analysis of youth demographic and Internet use characteristics between the cell phone and landline samples indicated the cell phone sample were more likely to be of Hispanic ethnicity and come from families with a single, never-married parent.

Procedure

In households with eligible children, interviewers asked to speak with the adult who was most familiar with that child’s Internet use and after receiving informed consent, asked a series of questions about Internet use. The interviewer then asked for permission to interview the child. Interviewers told parents that the youth interview would be confidential and include questions about “sexual material your child may have seen on the Internet,” and that youth would receive $10 for participating. In households with more than one eligible youth, the one who used the Internet the most often was chosen as the respondent, following the same procedure as previous Youth Internet Safety Surveys (YISS-1 in 1999/2000 and YISS-2 in 2005, for more information see Mitchell & Jones, 2011).

After receiving parental permission, interviewers spoke with the youth and asked for permission to conduct an interview. Interviewers assured youth that their answers would be confidential and they could skip any question and end the interview at any time. Steps were taken to help ensure confidentiality and safety for youth participants, including asking many yes/no questions, checking at regular intervals that youth were in a private location, and providing Internet safety resources at the end of the interview. The average youth interview lasted 30 minutes and the average adult interview lasted 10 minutes.

Measures

Close online relationship. Youth were asked two questions about relationships initiated online, that were used to define close online relationships. The first question asked, “In the past year, have you had a close friendship with someone you met on the Internet who you didn’t know in person? I mean someone you could talk online with about things that were real important to you?” The second one asked, “In the past year, have you had a romantic online relationship with someone you met on the Internet? I mean someone who felt like a boyfriend or girlfriend.” Youth who answered yes to either of these questions were considered to have established close online relationships.

If youth reported online relationships, follow-up questions (such as the age of the person) were asked for one type of relationship, with romantic relationships prioritized. If a youth had more than one relationship, follow-up questions were asked for the most recent one. Three participants did not know the other person’s age and were asked whether they thought this person was 18 or older.

Characteristics of the online relationship. Youth with close online relationships were asked the number of people they have had a close friendship and romantic online relationship with. Detailed follow-up questions included the sex of the person they communicated with, the age, and what types of behaviors the person engaged in, such as whether they sent the youth a picture, whether they sent a sexual picture, asked the youth for a picture, asked for a sexual picture, sent something in the mail, called them, gave them gifts, asked to meet them somewhere, met this person face-to-face, came to their house, or had physical contact with the person they would call sexual. Youth who had face-to-face meetings were asked whether a parent knew about the meeting, whether someone went with the teen to the meeting, whether the person came to the youth’s house, and whether teens felt afraid or uncomfortable during the face-to-face meeting.

Demographic characteristics. Adults reported the child’s age, gender, child’s living arrangement (youth living with both biological parents or not), the highest household education (high education = parent with college degree), and the previous year’s household income (low income = <$25,000 versus not). Youth reported their race and Hispanic ethnicity. Parents and caregivers were asked whether their child currently receives special services at school, such as an individualized education plan (IEP), 504 plan, or special education services. Parents and caregivers were also asked whether their child has been diagnosed with a physical disability. (i.e. a physical health or medical problem that affected the kinds of activities that [he/she] can do.)

Psychosocial characteristics. Parents and caregivers reported whether their child has had an evaluation or received any counseling for emotional, behavioral, or developmental problems in the last year. Parental conflict was derived from a factor analysis of three items (i.e., How often does your parent nag, yell, or take away your privileges) scored with a Likert scale (all of the time, most of the time, sometimes, never or rarely). Based upon a common latent factor (Eigenvalue: 1.75; % of Variance: 58.3), a composite variable was created to measure parent-child conflict (M = 1.79, SD = 0.63). Due to indications of non-linearity, this was dichotomized at 1 SD above the mean to reflect high conflict.

Depressive symptoms were measured using the nine item depression subscale of the Trauma Symptom Checklist (TSCC) for Children (Briere, 1996). Raw scores were converted to T-scores using the charts provided in the TSCC manual. T-scores ranged from 32 to 91 (M = 42.03, SD = 6.89). Scores were dichotomized at 1 SD above the mean to reflect higher levels of depressive symptoms. Youth were asked whether they had ever had sexual intercourse (yes/no). Any substance use was indicated if youth said they had drunk beer or wine, smoked cigarettes, been drunk, or used marijuana at least once in the past 30 days.

Any delinquent behavior was coded if youth responded positively to any of a series of six questions referring to behaviors occurring in the past 30 days (e.g., been on suspension; cheated on a test; stolen something from another student). Physical or sexual abuse in the past year was indicated if youth responded positively to either of the following questions: “Did a grown-up taking care of you hit, beat, kick or physically abuse you in some way?” or “Have you been forced or made to do sexual things by someone else?”

Online behaviors. Two measures were used to assess frequency of Internet use. Intense Internet use was determined if youth responded they spent more than three hours a day on the Internet. Daily Internet use was determined if youth responded they were on the Internet every day in a typical week.

Any harassing behavior online was indicated if youth had done any of the following: made rude or nasty comment to someone online; used the Internet to harass or embarrass someone they were mad at; spread rumors about someone through the Internet, whether they were true or not; shared something about someone with others online that was meant to be private; posted or forwarded a video or picture of someone online that showed them being hurt; involved in a group on a social networking site or other online site where the focus was making fun of someone else. Youth also indicated whether they had sought pornography by whether they had “gone to X-rated sites on the Internet on purpose.”

Unwanted online behavior. Youth were asked if they had received three types of unwanted online behavior: harassment, unwanted exposure to pornography, and unwanted sexual solicitation. Unwanted online harassment was indicated if youth responded positively to either of the following questions: “In the past year, did you ever feel worried or threatened because someone was bothering or harassing you online?” or “In the past year, did anyone ever use the Internet to threaten or embarrass you by posting or sending messages about you for other people to see?”. Unwanted exposure to pornography was indicated by endorsing one of the following questions: “In the past year when you were doing an online search or surfing the web, did you ever find yourself in a Web site that showed pictures of naked people or of people having sex when you did not want to be in that kind of site?” or “In the past year, did you ever open a message or a link in a message that showed you actual pictures of naked people or of people having sex that you did not want?” Unwanted sexual solicitation was indicated by endorsing at least one of the following questions: “In the past year, did anyone on the Internet ever try to get you to talk online about sex when you did not want to?” or “In the past year, did anyone on the Internet ask you for sexual information about yourself when you did not want to answer such questions? I mean very personal questions, like what your body looks like or sexual things you have done?” or “In the past year, did anyone on the Internet ever ask you to do something sexual that you did not want to do?”

Sample Characteristics

Approximately one-quarter of the sample (23%) was between 10- to 12-years-old, 43% was between 13- to 15-years-old, and 34% was between 16- to 17-years-old (see Table 1). Half of the sample was female, 66% of youth lived with both biological parents, 65% lived in households with a college degree, and 12% lived in low income households (< $25,000).

Table 1. Sample Characteristics (N = 1560).
fig

Analysis

First, we examined the prevalence of close online friendships and romantic online relationships. Next, we conducted a logistic regression for binary responses to determine predictors of having a close online relationship with a person met online versus not having a close online relationship. Variables that had a significant bivariate association with having a close online relationship versus no online relationship were included in the regression. Pearson chi-square tests were used to compare the characteristics of the online relationships with teens versus adults. Cramer’s V was used to assess the effect size, or the strength of the relationship between the independent and dependent variables. A minimum threshold for suggesting a substantive relationship between two variables is Cramer’s V = .1. Variables are rank ordered in the tables by the Cramer’s V coefficient, with the strongest relationship listed first. We then examined frequency responses for the characteristics of the face-to-face meetings.

Results

Prevalence of Close Online Relationships

One in ten (10%) youth reported a close online friendship with someone met online. One-quarter (23%) had one online friendship, 28% of youth had two, 34% had three to five, and 15% had six or more close online friendships with people they met online in the past year.

A minority of youth (3%) reported a romantic online relationship with someone met online. Most (59%) had only one such relationship in the past year. Seventeen percent had two, 17% had three to five, and 7% had six or more romantic relationships. Next, we examined online relationship status with other teens or adults (defined as having either a close friendship or romantic relationship; 2% of youth reported both close friendships and romantic relationships). Eleven percent of youth reported either having a close friendship or romantic relationship, with 9% of youth reporting an online relationship with a teen and 2% reporting it with an adult.

Predicting Close Online Relationships with People Met Online

In order to examine predictors of close relationships with people met online (either other teens or adults), next we conducted a logistic regression (see Table 2). The odds of forming a close online relationship were about 2.5 times as high when youth had high Internet use (more than 3 hours a day) or reported receiving an unwanted online sexual solicitation, controlling for other variables. The odds were twice as high that a youth will form a close online relationship when youth had higher levels of depressive symptoms, or sought out pornography, controlling for other variables. The odds of forming a close online relationship were about 1.5 times as high when youth had any type of delinquent behavior or reported online harassment victimization.

Table 2. Logistic Regression Predicting Close Online Relationship.
fig

Characteristics of Close Online Relationships

Next, we examined the characteristics of the online relationships. Eighty-six percent of online relationships were with same age peers or had a 1 to 2 year age difference. A small group of teens had close relationships with adults (n = 28). The age of adults ranged from 18 to 40 years old (M = 21, SD = 5.7). The average age difference between adults and youth was 5.1 years. About half of the adults were aged 18 (n = 14) and 4 were aged 19. Of the 10 cases with adults aged 21 or older, 7 were with youth aged 16 to 17 and 3 were with youth aged 13 to 15.

There were few significant differences for the characteristics of online relationships with teens versus adults (see Table 3). The only significant difference was that relationships with other teens were significantly more likely to involve meeting the person face-to-face (34% compared to 11% of relationships with adults). There was a minimal relationship (Cramer’s V = .13) for two additional variables. Online relationships with other teens often included the person calling the youth (54% compared to 36% of relationships with adults). Whereas online relationships with adults more often included the person asking for a sexual picture (7% compared to 2% of relationships with teens). A minority (4%) of online relationships involved sexual activity.

Table 3. Characteristics of Close Online Relationships.
fig

Characteristics of Face-to-Face Meetings

Next we examined the subset of cases (n = 50) that involved meeting the person face-to-face. Parents often knew about the face-to-face meetings (68% of teens meeting other teens, or 32 out of the 47 situations). Out of the 3 situations in which a teen met an adult, one parent knew about it beforehand. In all 3 situations the teen was 16 or 17 years old and the oldest the other person was 24 years old. The majority of the time (79%) someone went with the teen when meeting another teen. No one went with the teens when meeting the adults. In two out of the three situations in which teens met adults, the other person came to the youth’s house. In 23% of the meetings with other teens, the other teen came to the youth’s house.

It was extremely uncommon for teens to feel afraid or uncomfortable during the face-to-face meeting. Only 2% of teens meeting other teens were afraid, and no teens meeting adults were afraid. Similarly 2% of teens meeting other teens were uncomfortable, and one of the teens meeting an adult was uncomfortable. Sexual contact with the other person was uncommon: 11% of teens meeting other teens and one out of the three situations with adults involved sexual activity.

Discussion

Approximately one in ten adolescents reported close online relationships with a person met online, and 2% of youth reported such relationships with adults. Adolescent difficulties were prominent among the characteristics that predicted close relationships with people met online. Youth who were depressed and those who reported delinquent behavior were significantly more likely to form close online relationships with people not known in person, controlling for other youth characteristics. In addition, youth who had high Internet use, sought out pornography online, and reported unwanted online harassment or unwanted online sexual solicitation were more likely to form close online relationships with people met online, controlling for other youth characteristics.

These findings support the Social Compensation Hypothesis and previous research that suggests that some children who have insufficient social skills or who are lonely, are using the Internet to communicate with people not known in person (Bonetti, Campbell, & Gilmore, 2010; Ybarra et al., 2005). Similar to face-to-face relationships, there is likely to be much diversity in the nature of these close relationships. Although we know little about the specific nature of the close online relationships in the present study, previous research, conducted in 2000, found that the majority of these relationships began with a similar interest (64%) or a contact through family or friends (32%) (Wolak et al., 2002). Some research shows that connecting online may be particularly salient for youth with a low sense of belonging in their own neighborhood or school community (Leung, 2002; Pretty, Andrew, & Collett, 1994). This body of research supports the notion that Internet use increases social interaction, closeness with others, and provides a means to create new social ties, as opposed to the rich-get-richer hypothesis that socially rich adolescents benefit the most from online communication (Lee, 2009; Reich, Subrahmanyam, & Espinoza, 2012).

Given the blending of online and offline worlds, however, the distinction between the two worlds may be somewhat artificial. There is often an assumption that meeting someone online is risky because the Internet connects youth to all sorts of people, including people that are “un-vetted” or have no connection to the youth. However, it is not clear that these types of un-vetted relationships online are riskier than those one might encounter face-to-face. Furthermore, many online relationships likely develop by some vetted connection, such as a friend of a current friend. Online friendship formation is likely more complex than previously assumed and future research should consider the motives for online communication and friendship development during adolescence (Eijinden, Meerker, Vermulst, Spijkerman, & Engles, 2008; Peter, Valkenburg, & Schouten, 2005).

Although the media and policy makers describe concerns over Internet safety and meeting people online, the results of this study do not support the stereotype of dangerous adults grooming young victims for statutory rape. Only 2% of youth reported a close online relationship with an adult they did not know in person and about half of the adults were 18 years old. This small group of youth, however, was more likely to have a number of vulnerable characteristics, such as physical disabilities, receiving specialty services at school, and having received counseling in the past year. A third of the adults sent a picture of themselves, asked for a picture of the youth, or called the youth on the phone, suggesting some level of interest in initiating a further relationship with the teen. More information, however, is necessary about the particular nature of these online relationships with adults.

Overall, the characteristics of the online relationships indicate few especially dangerous or concerning behaviors: Few youth sent or received sexual pictures, the majority of youth did not follow-up with a face-to-face meeting, and only 4% of youth reported sexual contact with people met online. The vast majority of youth did not report feeling uncomfortable or afraid when meeting the other person and it was very common for parents to know about the face-to-face meetings.

Limitations

Findings should be interpreted keeping in mind several limitations. First, the survey relied on self-report measures and some youth may not have disclosed undesirable responses in a telephone interview. Second, the data was cross-sectional so causal inferences cannot be made. Third, the response rate for the study reflects a general decline in respondents’ willingness to participate in telephone surveys. Analyses suggest that the decline in participation has not influenced the validity of most surveys conducted by reputable surveying firms (Keeter, Kennedy, Dimock, Best, & Craighill, 2006). Keeter and colleagues (2006) note that, compared with government benchmarks, the demographic and social composition of telephone survey samples are quite representative on most measures (p. 777). Because the survey was extremely long, we were not able to include variables that have been documented in the literature to be predictors of risky behavior, such as sensation seeking, pubertal maturation and peer attachment. Future research predicting risky behavior should include variables such as these as control variables. Given the relatively small sample size for online relationships with adults, analyses with this subgroup were somewhat limited. Future research should explore not only the motives of adolescents who form close online relationships with adults, but also the motives of the adults. To date, little is known about the reasons for developing such relationships.

Implications

First, it is important to recognize that almost half of youth in the United States report receiving Internet safety education in their school (Mitchell et al., 2012). Given the prevention mobilization effort about Internet safety and the concerns of meeting people online, what should Internet safety programs be advocating? The results of the current study indicate a diverse group of youth forming close online relationships, with few especially dangerous or concerning results. Rather than assuming that all online relationships are dangerous, programs should educate youth that all relationships, both online and offline, are complicated and involve judgments as to what is safe and what is dangerous. Rather than assuming it is never a good idea to meet someone in person you meet online, programs should educate youth how to make good choices and ways to understand what healthy relationships consist of. A recent content analysis of four Internet safety education programs indicated that many Internet safety messages include phrases, such as “Don’t friend someone you don’t know in person” or “Never meet in person with someone you meet online”, that are not based on research documenting that such behaviors increase risk (Jones, Mitchell, Walsh & Finkelhor, 2013). Clearly much more information is needed about effective ways to educate youth about risks online.

Second, because the types of Internet usage (e.g. seeking pornography, engaging in harassing online behavior) were related to forming online relationships beyond strictly higher Internet use, the nature of Internet usage appears to be associated with online relationships. This means it may not be enough for parents to monitor the amount of time online, but that appropriate family rules and parental supervision about the type of Internet usage may be useful. Third, because youth likely develop various kinds of relationships via the Internet, it is important to develop ways to help adolescents understand healthy relationships, regardless of whether they are online or face-to-face. It is also important to keep in mind that there may be many beneficial mechanisms to forming close relationships online. These include helping youth overcome shyness or any type of stigma, giving youth more control of interactions online, and having the opportunity to be less impulsive and more thoughtful in their interactions with others.

In conclusion, these findings suggest that professionals working with youth should ask how youth are communicating with people met online within the context of understanding the healthy development of adolescent relationships. Many of these online relationships may be positive and healthy; however, it is important to better understand how youth are using the Internet to develop intimacy in their lives. Because youth with a low sense of belonging may be using this mode of communication more than other youth, it is important to better understand how this group of youth is connecting online. These vulnerable youth may be at a greater risk of overuse of the Internet and of participating in aggressive online behavior. Youth who are depressed and exhibit delinquent behavior may be more likely to have unsatisfying online relationships because they have less experience with positive relationships. Nonetheless, our findings reinforce that many assumptions about the danger of close online relationships are not based on data, and the impact of the Internet on youth is likely to be much more complex and mirrors the nuances seen in other facets of life.

Acknowledgement

For the purposes of compliance with Section 507 of PL 104-208 (the “Stevens Amendment”), readers are advised that 100% of the funds for this program are derived from federal sources. This project was supported by Grant No. 2009-SN-B9-0002 awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The total amount of federal funding involved is $734,900. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Correspondence to:
Wendy A. Walsh, Ph.D.
University of New Hampshire
Crimes against Children Research Center
10 West Edge Drive
Durham, NH 03824
(603)-862-1026
Email: Wendy.walsh(at)unh.edu