Close Online Relationships in a National Sample of Adolescents
Wolak, Janis, Mitchell, Kimberly J., Finkelhor, David, Adolescence
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.
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.
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%. Five percent of parents in eligible households refused the adult interview. Another 11% of parents completed the adult interview but refused permission for their children to participate in the youth interview. In 2% of eligible households, parents consented to the youth interview, but youths refused to participate.
The final sample consisted of 1,501 youths (boys 790, girls = 708). The mean age was 14.14 years (SD = 1.96). Table 1 further describes the demographic characteristics of the sample.
The primary purpose of the Youth Internet Safety Survey was to assess how often young people encounter unwanted sexual solicitations, pornography, and harassment online. The interview included questions about the existence of online relationships because some youth Internet users have been sexually solicited in the context of these relationships. Youths were asked a series of questions about those with whom they communicated online, distinguishing between communications with people the youth knew "in person" (or "face-to-face") and people they first met online (i.e., "In the past year, have you been online with people you don't know in person, but you met online through friends or family? For example, a friend introduced you to someone through e-mail?").
All youths were asked, "In the past year, has there been anyone you met on the Internet who you have chatted with or exchanged e-mail with more than once?" Youths who answered yes were asked about casual friendships: "Sometimes when you chat or e-mail with someone several times, they start to feel like friends. I mean you get to know them some and to like them. In the past year, have you started to feel like you were friends with anyone you met on the Internet but didn't know in person?"
Also, all youths were asked three questions about close online relationships. First, "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." Second, "Have you had a romantic online relationship with someone you met on the Internet? I mean someone who felt like a boyfriend or girlfriend." And third, "Has there been anyone you met on the Internet who …
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Publication information: Article title: Close Online Relationships in a National Sample of Adolescents. Contributors: Wolak, Janis - Author, Mitchell, Kimberly J. - Author, Finkelhor, David - Author. Journal title: Adolescence. Volume: 37. Issue: 147 Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 441+. © 1999 Libra Publishers, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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