BACKGROUND: Internet safety is a growing public concern especially among adults and youth who live in an “instant messaging” world of technological communication. To better understand how early adolescents are using the Internet, a study was undertaken to more clearly identify the online general use, safety knowledge, and risk behaviors of middle school students.
METHODS: This exploratory study adapted from Finkelhor et al's (2000) Youth Internet Safety Survey to identify the usage and characteristics of online youth, solicitation of youth, and searching for pornography or delinquent behaviors. The 404 students who were recruited from public and parochial schools consisted of both boys and girls with a mean age 12 years.
RESULTS: These students reported the beginnings of high-risk Internet behavior, specifically, giving out personal information, using the Internet to harass or embarrass another person, and for a small number of students, chatting with strangers and starting relationships. The students who posted their picture online were more likely to have sent their picture to someone, made rude comments to others, played online jokes, harassed or embarrassed someone, and sought out pornographic sites.
CONCLUSIONS: Findings suggest that middle school students who are early adolescents are beginning risky behaviors on the Internet. Risk-taking behavior is not unique to adolescents, but the consequences can be detrimental to their development. Educators, clinicians, health care providers, and other professionals need to be informed of Internet behaviors in order to assess for children at risk, to make referrals, intervene, and to educate parents.