Few parents feel entirely comfortable with their children meeting their online acquaintances in real life. But a new study published in the pioneering Journal of Children and Media sets out to put the risks and benefits of such meetings in perspective.
Monica Barbovschi's study uses data collected as part of the cross-national EU Kids Online II project investigating children's experiences of (and parental concerns about) the Internet. As part of the project, children completed a questionnaire about making contact with new people online. Thirty per cent reported having made such contacts, while only 9% reported face-to-face meetings. Fifty-seven per cent of those children who did pursue their online friendships offline (or 5% of all children in the survey) did so in connection with a friend or family member while 48% of those (or just 4% of all children) met someone who had no connection with their 'real' lives -- in other words, a 'complete stranger'.
One of the aims of Barbovschi's analysis of the data was to learn more about the children themselves, based on the meetings they had: with 'complete strangers', 'friends of friends' or 'mixed groups' of the two. Her 'control' group was children who had no offline meetings. Into the mix Barbovschi added their reported time spent on the Internet, preferred activities while online, and any 'risky' behaviour, whether online or offline. She also looked at whether the children had high levels of 'self-efficacy' (a measure of personal agency), were 'sensation seeking' (which might result in gaining more opportunities as well taking more risks) or had other psychological issues.
Her results indicate that children who met 'strangers' or 'mixed' contacts had longer and broader Internet use as well as higher 'self-efficacy'. She concludes that children who meet 'complete strangers' or 'mixed' contacts are more prone to attention-seeking behaviours; older children are also more likely to meet 'complete strangers' than younger ones.
Reassuringly, of the 9% of all children who pursued a friendship started online, only 11% of those declared having been bothered by the encounter; and despite online grooming being one of parents' greatest concerns, offline meetings don't appear to happen nearly as frequently as media reports would suggest.
She also notes that children who reported 'harm' (even just feeling upset) tended to be younger, had lower self-efficacy and experienced some psychological difficulties, pointing towards a generalised vulnerability pattern. Since there was no connection between 'harm' and the type of meetings (whether with a 'complete stranger' or 'friend of friend'), the results reconfirm earlier findings: attention should be given to children who are already vulnerable. As Barbovschi notes bluntly: 'All children who went to offline meetings showed more psychological problems than the ones who didn't.' In other words, children who are most vulnerable in general may seek emotional and social compensation in risky online-to-offline encounters.
To keep her findings in perspective, Barbovschi reminds readers that most children have positive experiences with new online acquaintances, and that many new relationships started in this way can turn into good friendships, expand their social circle or help them overcome social anxieties. As in many other areas of children's lives, protection from one kind of harm might introduce another: a certain exposure to risk is needed for building resilience and effective coping strategies. This article is an important step in helping anyone concerned about a child's online safety to balance that risk.
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