Research report: Adolescents' in-person meetings with people from the internet are mostly pleasant, but it's good not to rush them

Young people often use the internet to stay connected with family and friends, but they also frequently form new relationships with people they've never met in person, known as online acquaintances. In a recent report, researchers from the IRTIS team at the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, explored what happens when adolescents meet these online acquaintances face-to-face. The results show that such meetings are quite common—31.7% of the 2,500 surveyed teenagers aged 11-16 reported having had this experience.

21 Nov 2023 Radim Sajbot Vojtěch Mýlek

The activities of young people on the Internet are a frequently debated topic. In the media space, concerns frequently arise that when adolescents meet their online acquaintances face to face, they are at risk of encountering "predators" who want to exploit or harm them. However, meeting online acquaintances in person can also be beneficial, as people can form new friendships in this way. This can be especially important for adolescents from minority groups or those who lack close relationships in their everyday lives, notes Vojtěch Mýlek, the report's lead author. "Our report aims to provide empirical context to public debates and describe which teenagers meet people from the internet, who they meet, and how they evaluate these meetings."

The results show that older teenagers are more likely to meet online acquaintances face-to-face. Almost half of 15-16-year-olds have experienced them, compared to a fifth of 11-12-year-olds. Most adolescents went to these meetings with friendly motives, wanting to talk to someone new or make a new friend. They typically met people of the same age or slightly older or younger. Meetings with adults were uncommon. Both boys and girls attended meetings equally often, though girls more frequently met with older people.

A common concern is that online acquaintances might lie about who they are, resulting in teenagers meeting someone they did not expect. However, the study indicates that these situations are rare. In most cases, the person who showed up matched the teenagers' expectations regarding age and gender. Similarly, the behavior and appearance of these individuals met or exceeded adolescents’ expectations in more than 85% of the meetings.

A positive finding is that 68.9% of teenagers who experienced such meetings rated them as pleasant, and 23.1% as neutral. Rather unpleasant meetings were uncommon (6.5%), and very unpleasant ones were rare (1.5%). "It's important to realize that an unpleasant meeting does not automatically mean a dangerous one. From previous research, we know that apart from cases of serious harm (e.g., sexual harassment or abuse), teenagers also rate meetings as unpleasant if they were boring or awkward," points out Lenka Dědková, one of the study's authors.

An interesting finding is that when the online contact before the face-to-face meeting spans a longer period, the chances for a pleasant meeting are higher. It is, therefore, advisable for teenagers not to rush into face-to-face meetings and to try to get to know the other person first.

"Our results suggest that most face-to-face meetings between adolescents and their online acquaintances are unproblematic. While risky meetings are rather rare, they do happen, and their risks should not be downplayed. Caution is necessary. Nevertheless, we must accept that meeting new people is an integral part of healthy adolescent development, and today's young people use the internet for this purpose. Therefore, we should have open conversations with adolescents about socializing online and, instead of prohibiting them from doing so, we should guide them on how to do it safely," concludes Mýlek.

The report was produced under the project Modeling the future: Understanding the impact of technology on adolescent’s well-being (FUTURE). The report was prepared by  Vojtěch Mýlek, Lenka Dědková, Jan Šestauber and Hana Macháčková.

Please cite as: Mýlek, V., Dědková, L., Šestauber, J., & Macháčková H. (2023). Adolescents’ face-to-face meetings with online acquaintances. Brno: Masaryk university.


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