Escaping or connecting? Characteristics of youth who form close

Journal of
Adolescence
Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
www.elsevier.com/locate/jado
Escaping or connecting? Characteristics of youth who form
close online relationships
Janis Wolak*, Kimberly J. Mitchell, David Finkelhor
Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, 126 Horton Hall, Durham, NH 03824, USA
Abstract
We used data from a US national sample of Internet users, ages 10–17 (N ¼ 1501), to explore the
characteristics of youth who had formed close relationships with people they met on the Internet (n ¼ 210).
Girls who had high levels of conflict with parents or were highly troubled were more likely than other girls
to have close online relationships, as were boys who had low levels of communication with parents or were
highly troubled, compared to other boys. Age, race and aspects of Internet use were also related. We know
little about the nature or quality of the close online relationships, but youth with these sorts of problems
may be more vulnerable to online exploitation and to other possible ill effects of online relationships. At the
same time, these relationships may have helpful aspects.
Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. on behalf of The Association for Professionals in Services for
Adolescents.
Keywords: Adolescent friendships; Internet; Cyberspace; Online relationships
1. Introduction
Online relationships are a new phenomenon, but they have already become part of adolescent
culture. Psychologists have theorized about the meaning of online relationships during
adolescence (Turkle, 1995; Freeman-Longo, 2000), and law enforcement agents have warned
about the dangers of sexually exploitative online relationships (Armagh, Battaglia, & Lanning,
1999). Internet safety information aimed at teens tacitly acknowledges the extent of these
relationships by offering safety rules for conducting them and for attending face-to-face meetings
with online friends (Magid, 1998; Aftab, 2000). A national survey by these authors confirmed the
frequency of online relationships, finding that 25% of Internet users ages 10–17 had formed casual
online friendships in the year before they were interviewed, and 14% had formed close online
*Corresponding author. Tel.: +1-603-862-4691; fax: +1-603-862-1122.
E-mail address: [email protected] (J. Wolak).
0140-1971/02/$ 30.00 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. on behalf of The Association for Professionals in Services for
Adolescents.
PII: S 0 1 4 0 - 1 9 7 1 ( 0 2 ) 0 0 1 1 4 - 8
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J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
friendships or online romances (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2002). In fact, adolescents may be
especially drawn to online relationships because of their intense interest in forming relationships,
and because the expansiveness of cyberspace frees them from some of the constraints of
adolescence by giving them easy access to a world beyond that of their families, schools and
communities.
Much of the popular commentary about teens online suggests that the Internet is universally
interesting to youth (i.e. Tapscott, 1998). If this is so, it would seem that forming online
relationships might be one of the most generally appealing aspects of Internet use among young
people, given that forming relationships is a developmental imperative of adolescence. We were
interested in whether online relationships such as close friendships and romances were spread
evenly throughout the population of youth online or whether they were more common among
some segments of youth Internet users. In fact, knowing if some youth are more likely than others
to be involved in online relationships could be seen as a first step in learning about the impact
online relationships may be having among adolescents. There has been little empirical data about
the characteristics of adolescents who form online relationships. We used data from a national
sample of youth Internet users to explore the associations between forming close online
relationships and a number of problems common among adolescents, including being highly
troubled, reporting high levels of parent–child conflict, low levels of communication with parents,
and high levels of delinquency, along with demographic characteristics and aspects of Internet
use. We conducted separate analyses for girls and for boys because of theories that suggest the
qualities of close relationships differ between girls and boys and meet different social needs
(Gilligan, 1982; Buhrmester, 1996).
2. Method
The Youth Internet Safety Survey used telephone interviews to gather information from a
national sample of 1501 Internet-using young people, ages 10–17. ‘‘Internet use’’ was
operationalized as going online at least once a month for the past 6 months on a computer at
home, a school, a library, someone else’s home, or some other place. 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, NISMART 2, a survey of over
16,000 households with children, which was conducted between February and December 1999.
Further information about the methodologies of both NISMART 2 and the Youth Internet
Safety Survey can be found in a previous report (Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Wolak, 2000).
The interviews for the Youth Internet Safety Survey were conducted between August 1999 and
February 2000, by experienced professional interviewers. Upon reaching a household, an
interviewer speaking with an adult screened for the requisite level of Internet use by a 10–17-yearold 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. In families where more than one youth
had the requisite level of Internet use, the youth with the most use was chosen. In cases of equal
Internet use, the youth with the most recent birthday was chosen. When parental consent was
J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
107
given, the interviewer spoke with the youth, confirmed his or her level of Internet use, described
the survey and obtained the youth’s consent. Youth interviews lasted from about 15 to 30 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.
2.1. Participation rate
Seventy-five per cent 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 per cent of parents in eligible households refused the
adult interview. Another 11% of parents completed the adult interview but refused permission for
their child to participate in the youth interview. In 2% of eligible households, parents consented to
the youth interview, but youth refused to participate.
2.2. Sample
The final sample consisted of 1501 youth (boys=790, girls=708). The mean age was 14.14
years (s.d=1.96). Table 1 further describes the demographic characteristics of the sample.
2.3. Instrumentation
The data used in this paper come from the youth interview, except for the demographic data,
which come from the parent interview, with the exception of information about race. The purpose
of the Youth Internet Safety Survey was to assess how often young people encounter unwanted
sexual solicitations, pornography and harassment online. The youth interview included questions
about the existence of close online relationships because some adolescent Internet users have been
sexually solicited in the context of these relationships. The youth interview also covered
delinquent behaviour, drug and alcohol use, depression, parent–child relationships, conventional
victimization, and other similar questions. The questions referred to events that happened ‘‘in the
past year,’’ except for the questions about symptoms of depression, which referred to the past
month.
Dependent variable: Youth were asked two questions about relationships initiated online, that
were used to define close online relationships. These questions were formulated after we held a
series of focus groups with youth Internet users and learned that youth distinguished between
casual online friendships that involved liking a person they had met online, and closer friendships
or romances which involved more intimate exchanges. The first question asked, ‘‘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?’’ The second
one asked, ‘‘Have you had a romantic online relationship with someone you met on the Internet? I
mean someone who felt like a boyfriend or girlfriend.’’ Youth who answered ‘‘yes’’ to either of
these questions were considered to have established close online relationships. (Detailed
descriptive information about the online relationships, including data about face-to-face meetings,
is reported in Wolak, et al., 2002.)
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J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
Table 1
Youth and household characteristics
Characteristic
All youth
(N ¼ 1501)
Youth with close online
relationships (n ¼ 210)
Gender
Male
Female
53%
47%
46%
53%
Age
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
4%
8%
11%
15%
16%
18%
17%
13%
2%
3%
5%
12%
16%
25%
19%
18%
Mean age
14.14
14.78
Lives with both biological parents
64%
62%
Highest educational level of an adult in household
Not HS graduate
HS graduate
Some college
College graduate
Post-college degree
2%
21%
22%
31%
22%
2%
22%
27%
32%
16%
Household income
o$20,000
$20,000 to $50,000
>$50,000 to $75,000
>$75,000
8%
38%
23%
23%
9%
39%
25%
21%
Type of community
Large city
Suburb of large city
Large town
Small town
Rural area
14%
21%
15%
28%
20%
14%
17%
16%
35%
17%
Race
Non-hispanic white
African American
American Indian or Alaskan native
Asian
Hispanic white
Other
Do not know/refused
73%
10%
3%
3%
2%
7%
2%
81%
7%
1%
1%
3%
6%
1%
Note: Some categories do not add to 100% due to rounding and/or missing data.
J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
109
Independent variables: Aside from demographic characteristics, most of the independent variables
are composites derived from factor analysis loadings (see Table 2). These composites identify youth
who were highly troubled, reported high parent–child conflict or low communication with parents, or
who engaged in a high degree of delinquent behaviour. Two variables described Internet use, having
home Internet access and a composite indicating high Internet use. We dichotomized the composite
variables, for two reasons. First, dichotomous variables create clear categories — troubled girls, for
example — as opposed to a scale with a range of degrees of a characteristic. Second, they allow the
use of logistic regression odds ratios that can be discussed in terms of relative risk.
2.4. Statistical analysis
Bivariate analyses: A series of Pearson chi-square tests and relative risk estimates were used in
two series of comparisons. First, we compared the characteristics of youth Internet users who had
Table 2
Construction of composite independent variables
Composite variable
Factor loading
Eigenvalue
Variance
0.81
0.62
0.75
1.6
0.53
Low communication with parentb
How often parent knows:
Where youth is
Who youth is with
0.88
0.88
1.5
0.77
High degree of delinquent behaviourc
Above average use of alcohol or drugs (4+times/yr)
At least one delinquent behaviord
0.80
0.80
1.3
0.64
Highly troubled c
High depression (5+symptoms)
Physical or sexual assault, past year
At least one negative life evente
0.69
0.68
0.55
1.2
0.41
High Internet usea
Above average or expert user
Internet very or extremely important
Online 4+days/week
Online 2+hours/day
0.71
0.57
0.68
0.49
1.5
0.38
High parent–child conflict
Parent:
Yells
Takes away privileges
Nags
a
a
Youth with scores more than 1 s.d. above the mean are coded as having this characteristic; others are coded as zero.
Youth with scores more than 1 s.d. below the mean are coded as having this characteristic; others are coded as zero.
c
Youth with scores more than 2 s.d. above the mean are coded as having this characteristic; others are coded as zero.
d
Delinquent behaviours include being picked up by the police, assault, vandalism and theft.
e
Negative life events include death of a family member, moving, divorce or separation, parent job loss.
b
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J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
established close online relationships to those who had not. Then we compared the characteristics
of girls who formed close online relationships with girls who did not and made a similar
comparison for boys.
Multivariate analyses: Finally, we conducted two logistic regressions, one for girls and one for
boys, to further test the associations of adolescent problems, characteristics of Internet use, and
age and race to close online relationships among each gender. In both the bivariate analyses and
logistic regressions, odds ratios were adjusted to derive estimates of associations that closely
represent the relative risk (Zhang, 1998).
3. Results
Fourteen per cent of youth (n ¼ 205) reported close online friendships and 2% (n ¼ 30)
reported online romances. Overall, 14% of youth (n ¼ 210) reported close online relationships,
because some youth (n ¼ 25) reported both friendships and romances. Girls were slightly more
likely than boys to have close online relationships (16% of girls vs. 12% of boys, p ¼ 0:05;
O.R.=1.3, C.I=1.0–1.8).
3.1. Bivariate associations of characteristics with close online relationships
In bivariate analyses, a disproportionate number of adolescents with close online relationships
were highly troubled, reported high amounts of conflict with their parents, low communication
with parents and engaged in high levels of delinquency (see Table 3). Youth with these
relationships also were more likely to be high school age (14–17), non-Hispanic white, report high
levels of Internet use and have home Internet access.
Because theories about adolescent relationships suggest girls and boys pursue close relationships in different manners and for different reasons, we looked at the associations between the
characteristics described above and close online relationships separately, for both genders, and
found that variations emerged (see Table 4). Because of this, separate logistic regressions were
done for girls and boys. Table 5 shows the correlations among the variables used in the regression
equations for girls and for boys.
3.2. Logistic regression for girls
The initial regression model included all of the variables listed in Table 4. The final model
indicates that five variables were related to forming close online relationships among girls (see
Table 6). Age was the only related demographic characteristic. Girls who were aged 14–17 were
about twice as likely as girls who were 10–13 to form these kinds of relationships. Because close
relationships are an important developmental aspect of older adolescence, the high school age
girls probably had more interest in close online relationships and were less supervised and more
independent, with more freedom to pursue their online interests.
Two problem characteristics were associated with close online relationships, high parent–child
conflict and being highly troubled. The highly troubled girls had levels of depression, victimization
(mostly physical assaults by peers), and troubling life events at least two standard deviations
J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
111
Table 3
Characteristics of youth Internet users with close online relationships compared to those who do not have close online
relationships
Characteristic
Close online
relationships
(N ¼ 210)
Demographic
Age
Ages 10–13
Ages 14–17
Race
Minority
White
Gender
Female
Male
Problems
High parent–child
conflict
No
Yes
Low communication
with parent
No
Yes
High degree of
delinquency
No
Yes
Highly troubled
No
Yes
Internet use
High level of Internet
use
No
Yes
Home Internet access
No
Yes
n
nn
nnn
Na
8%
17%
558
942
9%
15%
373
1128
95% confidence
interval
2.3nnn
1.6–3.2
1.8nn
1.2–2.6
1.3n
1.0–1.8
16%
12%
708
790
12%
25%
1204
276
2.5nnn
1.8–3.4
13%
26%
1333
163
2.5nnn
1.7–3.7
13%
28%
1418
83
2.5nnn
1.5–4.2
12%
23%
1270
231
2.2nnn
1.5–3.1
9%
29%
1091
410
2.4nnn,b
2.1–2.8
7%
16%
392
1109
1.2nnn,b
1.1–1.3
pp0.05, pp0.01,
pp0.001.
N=1501, but data is missing for some variables.
b
Adjusted to correct for over-estimation of risk, including C.I.
a
Adjusted odds
ratio
nn
nnn
191
517
604
104
13%
30%
8%
19%
677
31
15%
26%
529
179
657
49
15%
33%
9%
35%
578
126
167
541
12%
17%
12%
34%
280
428
Na
8%
21%
Girls close
online
relationships
(N=112)
1.2nnn,b
2.8nnn,b
2.3nnn,b
n.s.
2.8***
2.7nnn,b
n.s.
1.4nnn,a
Odds ratio
1.1–1.3
2.3–3.3
1.6–3.1
—
1.5–5.3
2.0–3.5
—
1.2–1.5
95%
confidence
interval
5%
15%
7%
24%
11%
18%
11%
27%
10%
24%
11%
17%
7%
14%
9%
14%
Boys close
online
relationships
(N=97)
199
591
559
231
664
126
739
51
674
113
624
149
206
584
276
513
Na
1.2nnn,b
2.2nnn,b
1.8n
3.0nnn
2.3nnn,b
n.s.
2.1nn
1.7n
Odds ratio
1.1–1.3
1.8–2.6
1.1–3.0
1.5–5.8
1.5–3.1
—
1.2–3.7
1.1–2.8
95%
confidence
interval
a
pp0.05, pp0.01,
pp0.001
N=1501 for entire sample, but n=708 for girls and n=790 for boys because gender is missing in three cases. Missing data causes some other
variations in numbers of cases.
b
Adjusted to correct for over-estimation of risk, including C.I.
n
Internet use
High level of
internet use
No
Yes
Home internet
access
No
Yes
PROBLEMS
High parent–child
conflict
No
Yes
Low
communication
with parent
No
Yes
High degree of
delinquency
No
Yes
Highly troubled
No
Yes
Demographic
Age
Ages 10–13
Ages 14–17
Race
Minority
White
Characteristic
Table 4
Characteristics of girls with close online relationships compared to other girls, and boys compared to other boys
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J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
113
Table 5
Pearson correlations among variables associated with close online relationships for girls and for boys
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Girls
1. Close online relationship
2. Older than 13
3. White
4. Conflict with parents
5. Highly troubled
6. Low communication
7. Highly delinquent
8. High Internet use
9. Home Internet access
1.000
0.169nn
0.059
0.233nn
0.159nn
0.125nn
0.059
0.300nn
0.124nn
1.000
0.068
0.102nn
0.007
0.095n
0.145**
0.151nn
0.075n
1.000
0.118nn
0.023
0.006
0.011
0.017
0.180nn
1.000
0.108nn
0.222nn
0.153nn
0.144nn
0.011
1.000
0.108nn
0.165nn
0.062
0.089n
1.000
0.349nn
0.020
0.009
1.000
0.098nn
0.025
1.000
0.185nn
Boys
1. Close online relationship
2. Older than 13
3. White
4. Conflict with parents
5. Highly troubled
6. Low communication
7. Highly delinquent
8. High Internet use
9. Home Internet access
1.
1.000
0.080n
0.090n
0.065
0.079n
0.146nn
0.121nn
0.226nn
0.119nn
n
pp0:05;
nn
2.
1.000
0.072n
0.036
0.015
0.129nn
0.139nn
0.139nn
0.054
3.
1.000
0.096nn
0.056
0.047
0.027
0.033
0.127nn
4.
1.000
0.117nn
0.141nn
0.121nn
0.117nn
0.026
5.
1.000
0.010
0.153nn
0.039
0.098nn
6.
1.000
0.172nn
0.040
0.020
7.
8.
1.000
0.080n
0.058
1.000
0.213nn
pp0:01:
higher than the other girls in the sample. Girls with high levels of parent–child conflict reported
yelling, nagging and taking away privileges by parents at a level at least one standard deviation
higher than other girls. Girls in either of these categories were more than twice as likely as other
girls to have formed close online relationships.
Two variables, low communication with parents and being highly delinquent, were not
significantly associated with close online relationships when other variables were controlled for.
The delinquency variable was not significant at the bivariate level among girls. The variable
denoting low communication was significant in bivariate analyses, but a relatively small number
of girls reported this characteristic, which was significantly intercorrelated with parent–child
conflict and being highly troubled. Shared variance with significantly related variables probably
accounts for this characteristic’s lack of significance in the regression.
Finally, and not surprisingly, Internet use and access were strongly associated with close online
relationships. Girls who reported high levels of Internet use were more likely than other girls to
report these relationships, as were girls with home Internet access, even controlling for high levels
of Internet use.
3.3. Logistic regression for boys
In the final regression model for boys, five variables were significantly associated with close
online relationships, being non-Hispanic white, low communication with parents, being highly
a
0.022
0.732
—
—
0.000
0.000
—
1.044
—
1.325
0.000
1.179
2.1
2.4a
0.084
0.160
0.146
0.250
1.1–4.3
1.7–2.5
—
1.1–3.3
1.6–3.3
—
—
0.3–0.9
68.698nnn
2.1
2.1a
—
1.9
2.3a
—
—
0.5
95%
confidence
interval
110.859nnn
0.030
0.000
—
0.025
0.000
—
0.304
0.017
Odds ratio
514.768
0.763
1.210
—
0.636
1.064
—
0.273
0.745
Sig.
506.069
1.1–3.9
1.9–3.0
—
1.5–3.3
—
2.3a
—
—
1.7–3.3
1.3–3.9
—
2.5a
2.3
—
pp0.001.
Adjusted to correct for over-estimation of risk, including confidence interval.
nnn
Internet use
High Internet
use
Home Internet
access
2 log
likelihood
Model chisquare
R2 (Cox & Snell)
R2 (Nagelkerke)
Problems
High parent–
child conflict
Highly troubled
Low
communication
with parents
Highly
delinquent
0.002
0.116
0.830
0.470
Demographic
Older than 13
Minority
95%
confidence
interval
B
Odds
ratio
B
Characteristic
Sig.
Boys
Girls
Table 6
Logistic regressions of characteristics associated with close online relationships among girls (n=702) and among boys (n=786)
114
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J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
115
troubled, high Internet use, and home Internet access (see Table 6). However, the overall regression
model was considerably weaker for boys, explaining only about half the variance that was
explained by the model for girls.
Boys who belonged to minority racial and ethnic groups were about half as likely to have close
online relationships as boys who identified themselves as non-Hispanic white. Internet access is less
pervasive among minorities (Becker, 2000) and is probably less a part of teen culture in these groups.
The problem characteristic most strongly associated with close online relationships among boys
was low communication with parents. The boys in this category reported their parents knew where
they were and who they were with at levels one standard deviation or more below what was average
for other youth in the sample. This characteristic was significantly correlated with the other
problem characteristics, with the exception of being highly troubled (see Table 5). Being highly
troubled was also related to forming close online relationships among boys as it was among girls.
As among girls, home Internet access and high levels of Internet use were related, independently
of each other, to forming close online relationships among boys. Home Internet access may
facilitate online relationships even for youth who do not spend large amounts of time online.
However, high levels of Internet use should not be interpreted as excessive Internet use. We did
not attempt to assess Internet ‘‘addiction’’ or excessive use. Rather, we used the factor loadings
for variables related to Internet use to create three composites which divided the sample into three
groups of high, moderate and low Internet users (see Table 2). Nonetheless, 75% of youth in the
high Internet use category were online four or more days per week, and 72% were online for more
than 2 hours on a typical day when they went online.
3.4. Differences in close online relationships between youth with problems and youth without
Online relationships could be a source of support and comfort for youth who are troubled or
have poor relationships with parents, but these relationships could also pose risks or potentially
aggravate the difficulties faced by these young people. Our data allowed for a limited set of
comparisons between the close online relationships of youth with problems vs. those without, and
these comparisons suggest the former’s relationships might be more risk prone. For example, youth
with problems were more likely to have formed romantic relationships (19% vs. 8%, p ¼ 0:03;
O.R.=1.9, C.I.=1.1–2.8), to have been asked by online friends for face-to-face meetings (22% vs.
11%, p=0.05, O.R.=2.2, C.I.=1.0–4.7), and to have attended face-to-face meetings with online
friends (30% vs. 18%, p=0.05, O.R.=1.9, C.I.=1.0–3.7). Among a subset of 48 youth who had
attended face-to-face meetings with online friends, there were no significant differences between
youth with problems vs. those without, but there was a trend toward youth with problems not telling
their parents prior to face-to-face meetings (44% vs. 26%) and reporting that the person they met
did not look as expected (28% vs. 11%). The patterns were similar for boys and girls when they
were looked at separately, although the smaller sample size did not allow for statistical comparisons.
4. Discussion
Adolescent difficulties were prominent among the characteristics that predicted close online
relationships among youth Internet users. For girls and boys both, being highly troubled
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J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
(a composite variable which included high levels of depression and peer victimization) was
associated. Alienation from parents was also a factor for both genders, manifested among girls as
high levels of conflict with parents and among boys as low levels of communication. Demographic
characteristics and aspects of Internet use were associated too. Being ages 14–17, rather than
younger (ages 10–13), predicted close online relationships among girls. Race was a differentiating
characteristic among boys, with close online relationships less common among minority group
members. Also, girls and boys who had home Internet access or who reported high levels of
Internet use were more likely than other adolescents to form these relationships.
Should the higher rate of close online relationships among adolescents who are troubled and/or
alienated from their parents be a cause for concern? The personal needs perspective on adolescent
friendship suggests that adolescents form relationships to meet compelling needs for intimacy,
self-validation and companionship (Buhrmester, 1996). It may be that adolescents who are
troubled or alienated from their parents have more difficulties satisfying friendship needs through
face-to-face relationships and that, for some, the Internet provides an alternative. If this is so, it is
not necessarily a problem. The Internet may be a source of positive social support and connection
for some adolescents, for example youth with disabilities (Hasselbring & Glaser, 2000). However,
young people who turn to online relationships because they feel isolated from peers may find that
close online relationships are fraught with complications (Egan, 2000). There are several reasons
to feel concerned about adolescents with depressive symptoms and difficulties in their face-to-face
relationships forming close relationships online.
Vulnerability to victimization: Adolescents who are troubled or who have difficult relationships
with their parents may be more vulnerable to online exploitation. From other research, we know
that youth who suffer from prior victimization and depression are more vulnerable to conventional
sexual and physical assaults (Boney-McCoy & Finkelhor, 1995), and anecdotal evidence from law
enforcement sources suggests troubled adolescents are targets of sexual offenders who use the
Internet to make contact with victims (Lanning, 1998). None of the young people we interviewed
reported being assaulted or harmed as a result of an online relationship. However, adolescents with
problems who go online may lack the protective networks of other adolescents. Youth who
communicate well with their friends and family have people to talk with about online encounters.
They can get advise about behaviour they find weird or unnerving, and develop a sense of
appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour. They may be more realistic about the qualities and
motives of the people they encounter online, and more likely to follow Internet safety rules. Youth
with problems may be less likely to get good advice and feedback. They may be searching for
closeness online, and prone to fantasize unrealistically about people they meet in cyberspace and to
be overly trusting. These concerns are somewhat borne out by our finding that youth with problems
showed a trend toward more online romances and face-to-face meetings without telling parents.
Poor relationships: Short of being victimized in online relationships, youth with problems may
be more likely to have unsatisfying online relationships. They may have less experience with
positive relationships and be more naive about what they can expect from online friends. This
concern is somewhat supported by our finding that youth with problems who attended face-toface meetings showed a trend to say their online friends looked different than expected. Also,
online relationships offer an anonymity that allows participants to engage in deception and
maliciousness without the consequences that occur in face-to-face relationships. Masquerading
online may be harmless fun for many youth, but adolescents who are relying on online
J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
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relationships to fill a void in their lives may find the deceptions of online relationships difficult to
understand, confusing and painful (Turkle, 1995). We do not mean to suggest that supportive,
healthy online relationships are impossible. For example, one troubled girl in our sample had
formed what appeared to be a helpful relationship with an adult woman in a chat room sponsored
by a well-known self-help group. For youth who feel cut off from healthy peer and familial
relationships, online relationships may provide a substitute, but these relationships may
exacerbate problems, at least in some cases.
Increases in depression: Because depression was a component of the composite variable for
troubled youth, our findings suggest that depressed youth may be turning to online relationships.
There is some evidence from a longitudinal study that Internet use is associated with modest
increases in depression and loneliness and small declines in communications with family members
among non-depressed users (Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukopadhyay, & Scherlis,
1998). Whether depressed or alienated youth are more susceptible to any depressive or other
isolating effects of Internet use is an important question. Further, rates of depression are high
among adolescents who lack social support (Schraedley, Gotlib, & Hayward, 1999). While we did
not have any measures of offline social support, it is certainly possible that loneliness is associated
both with depression and with forming close online relationships for some youth.
Amplification of alienation: Another important question is whether online relationships may
amplify alienation among troubled youth by encouraging racism, fascination with violence and
other antisocial attitudes. Many ‘‘hate sites’’ exist online, and youth have easy access to them.
These sites often include chat rooms and bulletin boards where relationships can form. Some
participants may identify strongly with these sorts of virtual groups, and they may feel validated
and encouraged to act on that identity in their real-life interactions (McKenna & Bargh, 1998).
Further, it seems alienation may be magnified if troubled young people are forming relationships
with other troubled young people.
While we cannot conclude from this cross-sectional data that young people with problems are
drawn to the Internet, these findings provide some reason to speculate that cyberspace is serving as
an alternative venue for forming relationships disproportionately among adolescents who are
alienated from their peers or parents, and that more well-adjusted youth may have less need for
this venue. Nonetheless, although we can posit reasons to be uneasy about these findings, it is
important not to overstate the associations we found or exaggerate their implications. Obviously,
online relationships and the youth forming them are extremely diverse. Online relationships could
be positive influences on many of the youth who participate in them. Some of these youth may be
highly troubled, but they may also be chatting online with teenagers across the country about
mutual interests in music or hockey. Youth with problems may find constructive advice online.
Teens with difficulties may use online relationships as temporary bridges that bring them into
comfortable and supportive face-to-face relationships. Moreover, even if the online relationships
of troubled youth pose risks and challenges, these may be less in degree or seriousness than the
relationships they form offline, about which we gathered no information.
4.1. Limitations of the survey
This is among the first data from a national sample of youth Internet users to examine the
characteristics of adolescents who have formed close online relationships. However, there are a
118
J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
number of limitations to these findings. First, the data is cross-sectional. There was no way to
sequence the events we looked at, so we do not know whether problems reported by youth
occurred before, during or after the close online relationships. Also, although our composite
measures captured young people who displayed high levels of difficulties, we do not know whether
these were long-term or transient problems. Further, the Youth Internet Safety Survey was not
primarily designed to collect data about close online relationships, so measures of constructs like
social support and data about offline friendships and romantic relationships, which would have
been included had the study been so designed, were not available. We used shortened measures of
some constructs to keep the telephone interview from becoming unacceptably long, and this may
have weakened our analyses in some respects. Also, research about youth Internet use is a new
undertaking. Procedures for inquiring about this realm have not been standardized or validated,
and this study did not use measures of online relationships or Internet use that had been evaluated
or validated in other research. Also, because the dependent variables were based solely on the selfreports of youth respondents, the amount of variance explained by them may be inflated due to
shared source variance. Finally, we can not be sure the youth who participated in the survey were
fully candid, and, in terms of the sample, some youth declined or were barred by their parents
from participating, and we do not know whether their inclusion would have changed the results.
4.2. Recommendations
We hope our findings will generate awareness of and interest in close online relationships
among youth by people who work with young people. Cyberspace is an actual, active and eventful
place for youth, and should be treated as such. The 14% of Internet-using young people who had
formed close online relationships in this survey in the past year could translate to millions of
youth involved in these relationships during their adolescent years.
Our findings that disproportionate numbers of troubled youth were involved in close online
relationships gives some empirical support to worries that vulnerable youth may be more
attracted to these relationships. Concern about online relationships has been high among law
enforcement agencies who are dealing with cases where the Internet has been used to sexually
exploit young people. People who work with troubled youth should be conscious of the role the
Internet may play in their lives and should ask the youth about their Internet use and prompt
them to talk about online relationships they may be involved in. Also, education for youth and
parents about Internet use should include discussions of these relationships. Parents should be
urged to ask about online relationships, just like they ask about their children’s face-to-face
friends and acquaintances.
This area is ripe for research. Online relationships are accessible to increasing numbers of young
people. The lack of face-to-face contact is a unique element in these relationships. The rapid
growth of Internet use makes it likely close online relationships will become an enduring part of
our social landscape, and young people, who are both fascinated with and naive at forming
relationships may be particularly drawn to these relationships. Research that looks at the nature
and quality of online relationships, especially in vulnerable groups, and that compares online
relationships with face-to-face relationships among youth is greatly needed. It is likely these
relationships have both risks and benefits, and we should start the work of figuring out what
these are.
J. Wolak et al. / Journal of Adolescence 26 (2003) 105–119
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Acknowledgements
The data for this paper come from the Youth Internet Safety Survey, funded by the US
Congress through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
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