Close Online Relationships in a National Sample of Adolescents

Article excerpt

Surveys indicate that large numbers of youths use the Internet to communicate with others (Roberts et al., 1999; Rosenbaum et al., 2000). As Internet use has expanded among young people, there has been much speculation and some anxiety about the impact of its increasing prevalence. One area of concern has been the ease with which online communications like e-mail, instant messages, and chat rooms permit young people to converse with and form relationships with people they have never met face-to-face. There is a small but growing body of research about online relationships, which focuses largely on how the anonymity of Internet communications affects the quality of social ties that are developed online (Lea & Spears, 1995; Turkle, 1995) and how online relationships may affect offline social ties (Kraut et al., 1998). Further, media stories about manipulative adults who use the Internet to lure teenagers into meetings for illicit sexual purposes have raised fears that the anonymity of online relationships makes them rife with deception and dangerous, especially for adolescents (Armagh, 1998). In the midst of the discussion, there is little empirical information about the extent to which populations of Internet users are forming online relationships with people they have never met face-to-face and the extent to which these relationships spill over into face-to-face social networks. Some researchers have gathered data on this topic from small online samples (Katz & Aspden, 1997; Parks & Floyd, 1996), but these data are not generalizable to a larger population of Internet users.

This paper uses data from the Youth Internet Safety Survey, a national telephone survey of youths ages 10 through 17, to describe the incidence and kinds of online relationships formed by adolescents, and to provide details about close online friendships, romances, and face-to-face meetings with online friends.

METHOD

The Youth Internet Safety Survey used telephone interviews to gather information from a national sample of 1,501 young people, ages 10 through 17, who were regular Internet users. "Regular" Internet use was defined as using the Internet at least once a month for the past six months on a computer at home, a school, a library, someone else's home, or some other place. This definition was chosen so that the sample would include a range of both heavy and light Internet users. Telephone numbers of households with children in the target age group were identified through another large national survey with which these researchers were involved. (This was the Second National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children, a survey of over 16,000 households with children, which was conducted between February and December 1999.)

The interviews for the Youth Internet Safety Survey were conducted between August 1999 and February 2000 by experienced interviewers. Upon reaching a household, an interviewer speaking with an adult screened for regular Internet use by a 10- to 17-year-old youth in the household. When an eligible youth was identified, the interviewer conducted a short interview with the parent or caretaker who knew the most about the youth's Internet use and then asked for permission to speak with the youth. When parental consent was given, the interviewer described the survey to the youth and obtained his or her consent. Youth interviews lasted from about fifteen to thirty minutes.

They were scheduled at the convenience of youth participants and arranged for times when they could talk freely and confidentially. Youth respondents received brochures about Internet safety and $10.

Participation Rate

Seventy-five percent of the households approached completed the screening necessary to determine their eligibility for participation in the survey. The completion rate among households with eligible respondents was 82%. …