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CDT Research, Free Expression

From Our Fellows: Unraveling the Complex World of Youth Risk Experiences – Insights & Policy Implications

By Dr. Pamela Wisniewski, Associate Professor, Vanderbilt University and Dr. Ashwaq Alsoubai, PhD candidate, Department of Computer Science, Vanderbilt University

Disclaimer: The views expressed by CDT’s Non-Resident Fellows are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policy, position, or views of CDT.

Policymakers, legal experts, and social media platforms are currently working to establish rules, legislation, and systems aimed at shielding youth from a variety of online risks, including unwanted sexual solicitations and potential violence. Yet, an important question arises: do all youth need the same uniform protection or can such protection be differentiated based on differing needs? Instead of enacting “Big Brother” type online surveillance systems, picture a digital world where youth navigate a spectrum of online risks and those who are at the highest risk could opt-in to receive additional support and targeted interventions that could protect them more effectively. Such a world is possible. 

The majority of youth experience lower levels of online risks, while smaller groups need more attention:

In our recent study, 173 youth aged 13 to 21 in the U.S. were surveyed about their online and offline risks. They were then asked to upload their Instagram data and flag their private conversations for any interactions that made them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Using their survey responses, we identified five risk profiles, each profile encapsulated a unique set of online and offline risk experiences among youth. The majority of participants fell within the low and medium-risk categories. More concerning, however, were youth in the higher risk profiles that involved sexual risks, self-injurious behaviors, and high-risk perpetration. Figure 1 and the list below describe these profiles:

Fig. 1. Risk profiles of youth based on the average self-reported scores of their offline and online risk behaviors. This figure compares the distinct risk behavior patterns for the youth profiles related to their online and offline behaviors.
  • Low Risks (51%): This profile represented the largest group of youth who encountered fewer risky experiences both online and offline, compared to other profiles.
  • Medium Risks (29%): Youth in this profile reported moderate levels of risk experiences, including unwanted online sexual risks and offline risk behaviors.
  • Increased Sexting (8%): This profile of youth exhibited higher levels of interpersonal sexting but lower engagement in other risk behaviors.
  • Increased Self-Harm (8%): Youth in this profile reported increased offline self-harm experiences and higher levels of unwanted online sexual risks.
  • High Risk Perpetration (4%): This profile of youth reported the highest levels of online harassment perpetration and also engagement in illegal offline activities.

Next, we examined how well these self-reported profiles aligned with the youth’s donated social media data. 

Many of youth flag conversations as unsafe even when they engage in them:

Overall, we found that the risk profiles identified above aligned well with how youth themselves flagged risks in their social media private messages, showing a coherent pattern between self-reported experiences in the pre-survey and their social media data. Yet, a few unexpected patterns emerged. For instance, despite youth in the Low Risk profile self-reporting lower levels of offline and online risks of their own, we found instances where these youth were exposed to self-harm disclosures by others. We also found that youth who reported engaging in sexting flagged requests to meet in person as risky, suggesting they felt safer when sexting behaviors stayed in the online realm. Additionally, youth in the Increased Self-Harm profile reported engaging in self-harm offline, but exposure to self-harm-related activities online was not reflected in their social media data. Instead, their flagged private messages involved risky online sexual interactions with strangers. Further, despite their engagement in these sexual conversations online, youth in this group flagged these conversations as risky – showing a level of awareness of their own risk behaviors. These groundbreaking findings offer valuable insights for ongoing conversations about online safety, indicating the need for a shift away from the implementation of blanket measures that fail to effectively address the diverse and specific needs of young people and a move toward more nuanced interventions.

So, how do we navigate this shift in perspective and redefine youth online safety approach?

First, our work shows how developing interventions for youth can be grounded in the lived experiences of youth to create more targeted and impactful solutions. By tailoring interventions to the unique needs of each youth subgroup, we may enhance the effectiveness of these interventions and ensure that young people receive the support and resources most suitable for their present circumstances and experiences.

The paper presents examples of when and how social media companies could tailor safety measures to the specific needs of youth. For example, youth in the Increased Self-Harm profile may benefit from interventions focused on mental health support and coping strategies, as well as sexual risk interventions. Meanwhile, youth in the High Risk Perpetration group would benefit from different forms of prevention science (e.g., for drug abuse and illegal offline risk behavior). Such design-based interventions would need to be carefully researched and implemented by social media companies to provide in-the-moment support to youth, rather than surveillance or punishment-based mechanisms which could perpetuate harm.

Secondly, the paper highlights that social media companies and policymakers should prioritize resources for the small proportion of youth (i.e., Increased Sexting, Increased Self-Harm, and High Risk Perpetration)  facing the most severe risks using a triage approach. Much like medical triage, where urgent cases receive immediate attention, interventions could instead focus on youth who are the most vulnerable to online harm. Prioritizing resources such as human-based resources like trained professionals (e.g., counselors, therapists, social workers), informational resources (e.g., educational materials, hotlines), and community-based resources (e.g., support groups, community centers) also allows young people to know that their safety and well-being are valued, and that help is available when they need it most.

More specifically, prioritizing resources for more vulnerable youth helps to address systemic inequalities and disparities in access to support services. By targeting interventions towards those most in need, social service providers and policymakers could work towards closing the gap in online safety outcomes for chronically marginalized youth and ensure that all young people have equal opportunities to thrive in the digital world.

Finally, the finding that young people participate in the very risks they flag as unsafe in their online conversations suggests a level of awareness that could be harnessed for learning and growth. It is crucial for practitioners in the youth online safety field, policymakers, and intervention designers to identify effective interventions that nurture resilience and coping capacities in young people when they encounter low to moderate-risk situations. This also implies designing interventions tailored to address the specific needs of those at high risk, while allowing others to learn from their experiences and develop the necessary skills to navigate similar situations in the future. By acknowledging the unique challenges faced by different youth populations, we can better equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in an increasingly complex online landscape.

This research was led by Dr. Ashwaq Alsoubai in the Socio-Technical Interaction Research Lab at Vanderbilt University under the mentorship of Dr. Pamela Wisniewski, a non-resident CDT Fellow. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation. However, any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the research sponsors.