‘Startling New Reality’ of Cybercrime Revealed in RIT Research

Children frequently utilize technology to prey on friends and classmates online

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There’s a new cyber enemy for parents to worry about—and it’s not the stereotypical middle-aged stranger that has long been feared. This new threat lurks not only in cyberspace but in the school yard, the classroom and, at times, the home.

A Rochester Institute of Technology study of more than 40,000 adolescents reveals that 59 percent of cyber victims, in grades 7-9, say their perpetrators are a ‘friend’ that they know personally. That perpetrator, according to the survey, is also significantly more likely to be a fellow student than an adult.

“Most people have long thought the perpetrators of cybercrime to be some ‘boogey man’ holed up in his attic, searching the Internet for children to prey on,” says Sam McQuade, who led the research effort and is the graduate program coordinator in RIT’s Center for Multidisciplinary Studies. “While that is certainly something to be feared, the startling new reality is today’s children are most frequently preying on each other online—and their parents rarely have any idea it’s happening.”

McQuade’s research was designed to determine the nature and extent of cybercrime abuse and victimization by and among adolescents. The survey was administered to students in Kindergarten-through-12th grade, varying by grade level, in 14 different school districts.

Cyber bullying

Survey results indicate that cyber bullying—consisting of sending threatening and nasty messages—begins as early as the second grade, peaks in middle school and sometimes continues through high school. One-in-10 second-and third-graders report having been “mean to someone” online, while one-in-five report that someone online has been “mean to them.”

“What has traditionally happened on the playground has now moved into cyberspace,” McQuade says. “The major difference is that children have a sense that they’re anonymous and invincible online. Therefore, they seem to lash out in ways that they may not in person.”

Unethical and criminal behavior

Children are utilizing the Internet and other electronic devices to perpetrate unethical, socially deviant and even criminal acts.

Online identity theft is prevalent, even with younger Internet users. Twelve percent of fourth-through sixth-graders report having experienced someone pretending to be them online and 13 percent report someone having their password or account used without their permission.

Illegally downloading music and movies often begins in the fourth grade, as eight percent of fourth-sixth graders admit to the act. Meanwhile, 65 percent of 10-through 12th-graders admit to having illegally downloaded music in the past year, with 34 percent admitting to illegally downloading movies.

The research has serious repercussions for the classroom as well. Twenty-one percent of 10th-through 12th-graders admitted using a computer or electronic device to cheat on a school assignment within the last school year. Twelve percent admitted using technology to commit plagiarism and nine percent admit using an electronic device to cheat on an exam.

Dangerous and disturbing behaviors

Adolescents, as young as kindergarteners, frequently come in contact with content that may be sexually oriented. Forty-eight percent of kindergarteners and first-graders reported viewing online content that made them feel uncomfortable. One-in-four students did not report the incident to a grown up.

Survey questions varied depending on the age group, therefore, older students revealed more specific information. Of the seventh-through ninth-graders surveyed, 14 percent reported they had communicated online about sexual things. Eight percent had been exposed to nude pictures and seven percent had been asked to reveal nude pictures of themselves online.

Within the past year, 10th-through 12th-graders indicated that the used the Internet to interact with strangers in a variety of ways, including chatting (48 percent), flirting (25 percent), providing personal information (22 percent), talking about private things (17 percent) and engaging in sexually oriented chat (15 percent).

McQuade attributes much of the research data to the fact that many young people are more technologically astute than their parents and teachers.

“Kids today grow up with this technology and are knowledgeable about it in ways that many of their parents and teachers, through no fault of their own, simply are not,” McQuade says.

Fifty percent of students at the kindergarten and first-grade level report that their parents don’t watch them when they use a computer. Only 32 percent of second-and third-graders surveyed report being watched by their parents when they go online.

That’s why McQuade and RIT have formed partnerships with more than 20 Rochester area school districts, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Time Warner Cable, the Information Systems Security Association and the InfraGard Member Alliance to form The Cyber Safety and Ethics Initiative. The goal of the initiative is to utilize the survey results to determine a comprehensive, community-wide approach to tackling this increasing problem.

“This is not a problem that can be solved by parents and educators alone,” McQuade says. “This is a societal problem that requires a societal solution. That’s why The Cyber Safety and Ethics Initiative is comprised of representatives from higher education, K-12 education, community groups and members of the business community. We all need to work together.”

Media note: For a summary of key research findings, visit www.rit.edu/news/?r=46201. For a list of tips that will help parents keep their students safe online, visit www.rit.edu/news/?r=46200.