Can you spot a stranger on the net?


Young people struggle to correctly identify exactly who they are talking to online, research has found. Professor Corinne May-Chahal looks at why this is.

In a digital society with access to vast virtual spaces and communities it is getting ever harder to know where children are, where they are going and who they are talking to.

The EU Kids Online survey of 25,142 children across 25 European countries found that one-third of nine and 10-year-olds and 80 per cent of 15 and 16-year-olds go online daily.

The most common location of this internet use is the home (87 per cent), followed by school (63 per cent) and internet access is diversifying; 33 per cent now use it through a handheld device.

The great majority of online activity is constructive in terms of building skills which will underpin general learning in a digital age, how to research and use resources, interact and create networks. In principle, young people also learn how to be responsible users of digital worlds.

In the UK, research has found that 31 per cent of nine to 19-year-olds who access the internet at least once a week report that they have been subject to unprovoked sexual comments during online activity.

Across Europe, 14 per cent of nine to 16-year-olds have in the past 12 months seen images online that are “obviously sexual”, six per cent have been sent nasty or hurtful messages online, and three per cent have sent such messages to others.

As part of our research we looked at the issue of identity deception, and how school children went about determining the identity of people using chatrooms. 

The work was part of a project to develop and “train” a software tool for future use by support agencies – such as the police – with online child protection. 

Following ethical approval and parental consent, researchers worked with a group of pupils spanning all year groups in two secondary schools in the North of England. 

The study involved setting up a secure internal “chatroom” via the school’s intranet and asking pupils to chat with “strangers” online. These “strangers” were of two types: other pupils within the school and teachers masquerading as children who were role-playing a specific problem they had been given.

Each pupil chatted independently in a small group containing one “stranger” whose identity was not revealed. The pupils were given a briefing sheet and then asked to chat as they would normally online. Following each chat, the pupils were asked to complete a questionnaire electronically, which asked them to give the age and gender of the person they had been chatting to and the reasons they thought this.

The headline findings are that of the 743 guesses made, overall only 16 per cent were correct (10 per cent among year 7, rising to 22 per cent by year 11 pupils). Of the 260 guesses on gender, only 10 per cent were correct (six per cent in year 7 and 17 per cent in year 12).

Young people may be digital natives, but when it comes to making accurate judgements on identity online, they struggle.

The research showed the processes by which children make those judgements. Working out someone’s age involved a shared understanding of what it means to be the same age as them: participants think the “stranger” is of similar age because they can identify with what they are talking about; it made sense within the realms of their own experience, for example:

“Because I think sometimes that I am not like people on the cover of magazines either” (year 7 pupil). “They spoke in the same way as me, they seemed to act the same as me, I think the person was our age” (year 10).

More commonly, however, the participant’s response suggested that the stranger’s chat fitted with broader beliefs they held about the behaviour of their peer group – what is or is not acceptable for children of a similar age to them:

“Most teens care about their weight” (year 11). “This age range is when most people are beginning to get associated with drinking” (year 13). “Because they said they were left out a lot and you usually fall out with friends at that age” (year 7).

Children also worked with quite specific information that might be described as markers of age: activities that are age-bound or commonly associated with being of a certain age in childhood (such as working, taking specific exams):

“Because they are not old enough to drive themselves to places so they need to get lifts off other people” (year 12). “Because they use Facebook and were talking about mates” (year 13).

They thought about the kind of language used, and particularly important was the use of text language, slang and emoticons:

“They were talking in text language and a lot of older people don’t type like that” (year 10). “I’m fairly certain that the person was about 14 or 15 because they seemed to speak in slang a lot. The clues were from the language used. There was often some text language used or spelling errors, commonly made from this age range. It was also the amount of punctuation used, common mistakes and grammar errors” (year 11).

Participants were also asked whether they thought they had been chatting to a male or a female. Similar content analysis strategies to those for age were drawn on in reaching their conclusions: what correspondents chatted about and how information was conveyed having some importance.

When asked why they thought they had been speaking to a female, body image, appearance, gendered friendships and activities were most often referred to:

“She said she looks at women in magazines and gets jealous of their figures” (year 13). “Because a male friend wouldn’t care about their friend as much” (year 9).

These were different from the leisure activities emerging from the “thought male” grouping that made particular reference to sport, but also drinking in older year groups:

“Because he plays football and boys are more conscious about football than girls” (year 8). “What they said about being an underage drinker gives me the impression that they were in their teens” (year 11).

When children did think they were speaking to an adult masquerading as a young person, the findings did not follow the same patterns as for gender and peers. Rather than content it was the way information was conveyed:

“Because he was using too much text kind of language and it seemed a bit too practised and a bit too fake as I find in normal conversations, there is usually a mix between proper language and text whereas here it was mainly text” (year 13). “They were too chummy and weird” (year 10).

In addition to conduct, contact and content risks previously identified, these findings led the research team to identify a further form of risk online which they refer to as “normative” risks – children using similar methods to make sense of information online as they do offline.

  • Professor Corinne May-Chahal is associate director of Security Lancaster at Lancaster University.

Further information
The research has been published as follows: May-Chahal C, Mason C, Rashid A, Walkerdine J, Rayson P & Greenwood P (2014). Safeguarding Cyborg Childhoods: Incorporating the on/offline behaviour of children into everyday social work practices. British Journal of Social Work. 44, 3, p. 596-614

Photo: iStock


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