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Online Social Networking and E-Safety: Analysis of Risk-taking Behaviours and Negative Online Experiences among Adolescents

Paul McGivern[1] and Nathalie Noret[2], Department of Health and Life Sciences, York St. John University



In recent years the internet has become a pivotal resource in the lives of many adolescents and young adults. The development of social networking sites (SNS), chat rooms and instant messaging (IM) services has redefined the way in which adolescents choose to communicate with others (Valkenburg and Peter, 2007: 267-68). However, the use of SNS and IM services has attracted a wealth of media attention focusing on the risks and potential negative consequences of using such online tools, which are yet to be defined. Therefore, the aim of this study is to examine the prevalence, nature and correlates of negative experiences online in among adolescents and analyse such reports in conjunction with risky online behaviours. In total, 638 adolescents completed an online survey exploring school experiences and use of the internet. Of interest were responses to items related to negative online experiences and participants' reported SNS and IM usage. Overall, 14.3% of the sample reported a negative online experience. Risky behaviours were also associated with negative online experiences and SNS and IM usage. The results of these analyses are discussed in relation to current research on e-safety and policies for supporting young people with their use of the internet.

Keywords: Internet, risk, social networking, online, adolescent, bullying, self-esteem



During the course of the past decade the internet has become a commonplace global resource for both adolescents and young adults. More specifically, the development of social networking sites (SNS), such as Bebo, Myspace and Facebook have served as a catalyst in defining and augmenting the concept of online social communication (Valkenburg and Peter, 2007: 267-68). Consequently, frequent use of SNS as a method of maintaining relationships, developing new relationships/friendships and sharing information has become a social norm in western cultures, redefining the way in which young people communicate and meet the needs of their daily social lives (McMillan and Morrison, 2006: 74-75). While early mediums such as msn messenger and e-mail provided an environment for online socialising (Eijnden et al., 2008: 656-57), the limitation of text-only communication led to the increased functionality of websites such as Facebook; allowing users to set up profile pages containing personal information, link their profile page to other users and upload (and share) photographs and video media (Hinduja and Patchin, 2007: 126-27). Young internet users are often referred to in literature as 'natives' to such technologies (Sisson and King, 2011: 239-40), given that technology is embedded aspect of western cultures. As a result of this cultural shift, by 2009, 70% of UK households had an internet connection (Office for National Statistics, 2010); and globally, 350 million people had a Facebook account (Zuckerberg, 2009), with this figure increasing to 500 million by 2010 (Facebook, 2011).

While the internet as a whole has contributed significantly to improvements in education and communication, the negative ramifications of frequent use of IM and SNS is largely unknown (Ybarra et al., 2007: 32-33). The relative recent surge in development of SNS is indicative of their popularity, particularly in western cultures (McMillan and Morrison, 2006: 74-75), thus highlighting the necessity of forming a more refined understanding of adolescent perceptions of online safety. Furthermore, excessive and distorted media coverage regarding the nature and prevalence of adolescent online dangers and online predators has further contributed to inaccurate public perceptions of adolescent e-safety and internet practices (Berson, 2003: 9-10; Wolak, 2008: 115-16). While it is important to note that the proportion of teenagers experiencing negative online occurrences should not be underestimated, a significant body of research shows that the majority of young internet users are responsible, computer literate individuals (Hinduja and Patchin, 2007: 145-46; Wolak, 2008: 114-15). Paradoxically, while research has shown that factors of gender and race do not necessarily differentiate victimisation or offending of traditional bullying or cyberbullying, computer proficiency and time spent online have been identified as associated factors with such occurrences (Hinduja and Patchin, 2007). Such findings suggest that computer proficiency is a factor in both victimisation and the perpetration of online bullying.

In addition to inconsistencies in literature regarding the risks of SNS and IM, research has also identified the benefits to SNS usage, such as forming and maintaining friendships (Zywica and Danowski, 2008: 2-3). For example, research by Valkenburg and Peter (2007: 275-76) showed that individuals utilising SNS to extend social networks was significantly correlated to improvements in well-being and increased self-esteem. However, the increase in popularity of web-based communication has led to a proportion of adolescent internet users becoming victims of cyberbullying (Ortega, 2009: 197-98), and being exposed to uncomfortable and/or negative materials while online (Stahl and Fritz, 2002: 8-9). However, due to the lack of empirical evidence surrounding nature of cyberbullying and negative experiences online in general (Ybarra et al., 2007: 31-32), the actual nature and prevalence of such occurrences, and knowledge of adolescent perceptions of what constitutes a negative online experience, remains largely unknown. Research by Vandebosch and Van Cleemput (2009: 150-51) showed that adolescents who had been cyberbullied – either by mobile phone or via the internet – were reported to have a higher dependency on the internet for social purposes; and in comparison to females, males were more likely to be bullies and victims in both real-world and online environments (Erdur-Baker, 2010: 109-10). Moreover, such individuals were reported to feel less popular than their peers and were more inclined to engage in risky behaviours online. Additionally, reports of being a perpetrator of cyberbullying were also higher than those of traditional bullying. Conversely, however, research by Varjas et al. (2009: 158-60), showed that males reported feeling safer at school than did females, highlighting inconsistencies across research in this area.

Kelly and McKillop (1996: 450-51), and Vrij et al. (2003: 593-94) delineate the complex and conflicting array of positive and negative emotions and cognitions that are associated with a propensity to reveal personal information online. However, research by Hendrick (1981: 1151-52) also highlights that the disclosure and sharing of personal information is fundamental to the process of forming satisfying relationships. Further to this, the impact of anonymity – a key facet when drawing differences between face-to-face and computer-mediated communications – has been demonstrated to be a pivotal factor regarding disclosure of personal information. Joinson (2001: 189-90) discovered that peripheral items (e.g. webcams and cameras) mediate individuals' willingness to reveal personal information. Moreover, McKenna and Bargh (2000: 58-59) illustrate how individuals with concealable but potentially contentious traits/characteristics (e.g. sexual preference) report a preference for online communications, and that those with low perceptions of interpersonal communication abilities report increased difficulty when engaging in face-to-face social activities. SNS are therefore perceived as safe and secure alternative forms of socialising as they offer greater control of self-presentation and less social risk (Caplan, 2003: 641-42). However, detailed measures of perceived interpersonal competence are yet to be defined. It is also important to consider the notion of trust when evaluating SNS usage, as such a concept is inextricably linked online interactions. Piazza and Bering (2009: 1265-66) highlight how the concepts of mutual exchange are altered when occurring in an online environment; aspects such as feedback – which in turn is impacted on by reputation and indirect reciprocity in online environments – further contribute to individuals perceptions of trust in online interactions. Such concepts reveal how online etiquette and protocols for online exchange are augmented by the removal of face-to-face factors.

Psychological well-being in adolescence in relation to online usage has also received notable attention both in the media and in academic research (Gross et al., 2002: 75-76). Research surrounding associations in this area has triggered much debate with regard to the specificity of causal factors. The potential subsequent effects of how internet use can impact on psychological well-being have largely focused on anxiety, loneliness, self-esteem and depression (Gross et al., 2002: 1791-92). However, contradictory findings surrounding such potential correlates have caused a divide between researchers in this paradigm. For example, Kraut et al. (1998: 49-50) found that increased internet use correlated significantly with a decrease in social involvement and an increase in depression and loneliness. Such findings are illogical, as internet use is predominantly for socialising purposes, but correlates with decreased social involvement. Kraut et al. (1998: 69-70) speculate that this may in part be due to substituting weak real-life relationships for strong online relationships. Conversely, Harman et al. (2005: 1-2) found no significant associations between internet use (high or low) and measures of self-esteem, social competence and anxiety.

In attempts to explain such inconsistencies, Selfhout (2009: 30-31) proposes the concepts of social enhancement and social compensation. Selfhout (2009: 30-31) asserts that those who are socially competent may use SNS for in order to maintain existing social (real-life) relationships, and expand upon it, in an online environment. Given this approach, it is reasonable to extrapolate that those using the internet for such purposes are more likely to operate within more defined, stricter and safer boundaries and therefore are at a decreased risk of exposure to negative online experiences – particularly via risky online behaviours – due to a lack or absence of such activity. Conversely, those who may lack social skills in real-life situations may use the internet as a compensatory tool. Those using SNS and IM for such purposes are plausibly more likely to engage in increased risk-taking behaviours in attempts to expand their social network, and subsequently may be exposed to (or are at greater risk of exposure to) negative online experiences. Such concepts are aligned with findings of Mitchell et al. (2009: 3011-12) who highlighted that of those who reported distressing online experiences, a significant proportion reported alienation and/or depression. It is therefore plausible to extrapolate that such occurrences may in-part be caused by efforts to expand social networks; and the risk-taking behaviours implicit to such concerted efforts may result in increased exposure to negative online experiences. Bradley (2005: 58-59) found that adolescent perceptions of the internet as a separate 'space', independent from the real world can result in the application of a different social etiquette when engaging in online social networking. The anonymity that the internet can provide can be influential in removing boundaries, which may potentially lead adolescents' to socialise with others online that they may not choose to socialise with in real-life situations.

The aim of this research was therefore twofold. In the first instance focus is centred on developing a more refined understanding of adolescent perceptions of negative online experiences and the constituents of which they are comprised. Secondly, in conjunction with this, analysis of adolescent online behaviours was also explored to generate a greater understanding of adolescent perceptions of e-safety; based on self-report measures of online usage habits in terms of risk-taking behaviour, measures of self-esteem and online experiences. Such measures may provide the means to identify and prevent specific online usage behaviours, which may lead to, or increase the risk of, exposure to online dangers. Additionally, in response to existing research highlighting the necessity for more accurate categories to define negative online experiences (Valkenburg and Soeters, 2001: 72-73), this research may in turn contribute towards the formation of a greater understanding of the negative psychosocial aspects related to adolescent internet use. Such knowledge would provide health and educational professionals with an improved ability to provide more detailed and specific guidance regarding safer online practices.



1. Participants and design

The sample comprised 638 pupils from one school in the north of England (55.5% males, 41.4% females, 3.1% did not disclose their gender). Participants' ages ranged from 11 to 18 years (from year 7 to upper sixth form). Each participant took part voluntarily and received a full explanation of the survey aims. Anonymity was assured and participants were informed of their right to withdraw at any time and that they could skip questions that they did not wish to answer. The cross-sectional study was commissioned by the head teacher at one private boarding school in the North of England, with the principal aim of examining the psychological well-being of pupils, negative online experiences and use of technology, in the whole school population. The study had been approved by the university's ethics committee.

2. Materials and procedure

The online survey tool Surveymonkey was utilised to conduct the survey. Pupils completed the survey during class time; it was conducted by a member of the research team and members of teaching staff at the school. The online questionnaire included a number of subsections and standardised measures, including enjoyment and engagement in school, prevalence of bullying and use of the internet and other technologies. A number of standardised scales were also included in the survey including measures of self-esteem, social anxiety and psychological well-being. Of interest to the following analysis were the items on pupils' use of SNS and IM, reports of negative experiences and usage habits, and their self-esteem scores, as measured by the Rosenberg Self-esteem scale.



Overall, 14.3% of the sample (n=638) reported having a negative online experience, with more females (18.5%) reporting this than males (14.2%) (figure 1).

Figure 1: Gender Differences in Frequency of Negative Online Experiences

Figure 1: Gender Differences in Frequency of Negative Online Experiences

Across school years, pupils between year 8 and 9 reported the highest frequency of negative online experiences (18.6%), with sixth form pupils reporting the lowest (12.1%) (figure 2).

Figure 2: Year Differences in Frequency of Negative Online Experiences

Figure 2: Year Differences in Frequency of Negative Online Experiences

Of the sample, a total of 91 pupils reported a negative online experience. Negative online experiences were ascertained via re-coding of qualitative data in sub-categories dependent on the type of negative experience reported (see table 1 for detail). In terms of internet usage habits, 82.5% of participants had an IM account and 81.1% had a SNS account. Measures of risky behaviour were analysed independently via reported use of IM services and use of SNS; measuring from each of these whether pupils had made friend with and/or agreed to meet, in person, a person they had met online.

Summary of Key Categories of Negative Experiences
Category Description
Ignored or Blocked 4.7% of participants (all female) reported either been ignored whilst logged on to online chat forums and/or being 'blocked' on social networking sites by other users.
Bullying 7% of males and 18.6% of females reported experiences such as personal threats or abuse online.
Related Upsetting Media 4.7% of females reported negative experiences caused by media containing images of themselves being posted on social networking sites (e.g. being 'tagged' in a photograph of them that they do not like). 0% of males reported negative experiences in this category.
Unrelated Upsetting Media 41.9% of males and 16.3% of females reported negative experiences caused by viewing media online (via YouTube etc.) including pornography and frightening imagery.
Viruses or Computer Crashes 11.6% of males and 7% of females reported negative experiences caused by viruses or computer crashes, caused by fear of consequences from such occurrences.
Chain mails 4.7 of females reported the receiving (and pressure of forwarding) chain mails as a negative online experience. 0% of males reported experiences in this category.
Communication with Known Individual 2.3% of males and 11.6% of females reported negative online communication (conversations) with friends. This category was made separate from bullying and communication with unknown individuals due to the reports provided, such as "It was just a stupid argument with a friend" which indicated less severity than other categories.
Communication with Unknown Individual 4.7 of males and 14% females reported negative online experiences as a result of communications with unknown individuals. This category was defined separately from bullying and communication with known individuals due to the types of information reported

Table 1: Summary of Key Categories of Negative Experiences

Chi square analysis revealed a significant association between a negative online experience and making friends with people on instant messenger sites that they had never met offline χ2 (2) = 9.28, p<0.05. Further Chi square analysis also revealed a significant association between undergoing a negative online experience and agreeing to meet someone offline that they had met on an instant messenger site χ2 (2) = 15.46, p<0.05. In relation to social networking websites, Chi square analysis revealed no significant association between undergoing a negative online experience and making friends with a person they had met on a social networking site χ2 (1) = 1.62, p=ns (see figure 3). However, Chi square analysis revealed significant associations between a negative online experience and providing the following details on an SNS account; name χ2 (2) = 6.004, p<0.05, date of birth χ2 (2) = 9.844, p<0.05, gender χ2 (2) = 8.854, p<0.05, relationship status χ2 (2) = 6.018, p<0.05, providing a telephone number χ2 (2) = 6.073, p<0.05, providing address details χ2 (2) = 11.467, p<0.05 and details of school currently attending χ2 (2) = 6.855, p<0.05. Finally, an independent t-test between self-esteem and negative online experiences revealed a significant difference t(99)=4.943, p<0.05.

Figure 3: Frequency of Risky IM and SNS Behaviours

Figure 3: Frequency of Risky IM and SNS Behaviours

Participants who had answered 'yes' to having had negative online experiences were also asked if they had told anyone about their experience. Of the 22 participants who provided detail to this question, 13.6% did not tell anyone due to fear of the consequences. However, 27.2% told friends and/or family and 45.5% did not tell anyone as they did not deem it necessary to do so. In response to the question of whether participants had ever used the 'report abuse' link on social networking websites, of the 32 participants who provided detail; 6.3% of participants did not use the link as they did not deem their experience worthy of such action. 40.6% used the link due to receiving abusive comments and 25% of participants used the link due to viewing upsetting media. The implications of these findings are discussed.



The frequency of adolescents reporting negative online experiences is disproportionately low, which is aligned with previous research (Ybarra et al., 2007: 31-32; Mitchell et al., 2009: 3011-3012). The most prevalent form of negative online experiences were caused by, or related to, exposure to (unrelated) upsetting or frightening media; with a large proportion of responses referring to footage viewed on the online media-sharing website Youtube as the media source. While it remains crucial to acknowledge the occurrences of negative online experiences regarding communications with unknown individuals online as a priority issue in terms of prevention and resolution, it is also important to develop an accurate perspective of adolescent internet use as a whole. For example, a proportion of participants in this study reported instances such as receiving chain messages and experiencing computer crashes (which may or may not have been caused by a downloading a virus) as negative online experiences. While experiences of this nature may be distressing for adolescents, it remains the case that such experiences are not comparable in terms of severity and seriousness with incidents such as cyberbullying and cyberstalking. Findings such as these demonstrate how media involvement in this subject area has contributed towards the potential distortion of public opinion regarding the perceived prevalence and nature of adolescent online experiences, and future research should aim to clarify and correct such perceptions.

Significant associations were found between risk-taking behaviours and the use of IM services, but not for the use of SNS when making friends with people online, and meeting people offline. A plausible reason for this may be due to the real-time conversational exchange that IM services allow for; factors which are less prominent on SNS where focus is centred on the sharing of media and information about the user (Sharples et al., 2009: 70-71) which may result in users acting spontaneously and with less thought for safety protocols. Such notions are also aligned with the assertions of Piazza and Bering (2009: 1259-1260) regarding social factors such as feedback and trust, which have greater relevance and may have a greater influence in IM environments over SNS. Specific to SNS usage, significant associations were found between negative online experiences and providing name, date of birth, address, relationship status, telephone number and school attendance details. Given the nature of these details it is reasonable to infer that negative experiences caused as a direct result of this information being made available may be indicative and representative of the unwanted communications from unknown users, and future research should address this issue. In terms of the more general findings, although no significant association could be found between analysis of negative online experiences and gender, the higher frequency of females reporting such occurrences is both notable and inconsistent with the findings of Erdur-Baker (2010: 109-110) and should be acknowledged with regard to future research.

Across school years, years 8 and 9 were shown to be the period during which negative online experiences are most prevalent. This may be reflective of the adolescent developmental process, particularly given that the frequency of such occurrences reduces notably at sixth form. Such a decrease may be indicative of adolescents reaching a level of maturity resulting in safer and more sensible online practices, thus resulting in a decrease in negative online experiences. Such notions are also aligned with the findings of Hinduja and Patchin (2007: 125-126) as differences in online experience in conjunction with age may also be due to improvements in computer literacy and proficiency and/or increases in perceived interpersonal competence. Moreover, measures of self-esteem were found to correlate with negative online experiences, emphasising the fundamental importance of learning more about the surrounding factors that influence internet activities that can in-turn lead to negative online experiences. Given such findings, the concept of social compensation is also applicable and offers support regarding the contributory factors and ramifications of such online behaviours.

In summary, the key findings of this study indicate that – while incidents such as cyberbullying and cyberstalking do frequently occur among adolescents – the prevalence of such occurrences may not be as extreme as portrayed by the media or as perceived by the general public. Moreover, these findings also suggest that a large proportion of adolescents who have experienced negative online occurrences appear to be behaving relatively responsibly in relation to the information being provided. However, significant associations found between the sharing of certain personal details and SNS usage highlights both the necessity of conducting further research and need for improved education regarding internet usage. In terms of risk, it is clear that risky online behaviours are related to negative online experiences, and the differentiating factors between IM and SNS warrants further investigation and clarification, particularly as SNS such as Facebook, now have built-in IM services, therefore the distinction between the two forms of communication is becoming increasingly difficult to ascertain. Of equal importance, future research in this area would benefit from the forming of a more refined measure of risk in terms of adolescent internet practices, and the activities that constitute risk-taking behaviour. Such measures would assist health and educational professionals in forming and providing more detailed and specific guidance in safer online practices for adolescents and young adults.

In terms of reporting negative online activity, while a low frequency of participants reported activity via the 'report abuse' feature available on such websites, such findings should also be juxtaposed with reported reasons for not doing so in that a number of adolescents may not deem certain online happenings to be serious or substantial enough to warrant reporting. Future research may benefit from a deeper analysis into such reports to ensure that online happenings among adolescents are not misconceived. Such analysis would enable future researchers to develop more refined categories of negative online occurrences thus contributing towards a greater accuracy of results; improving inferences drawn from them. Refinements in this area would therefore serve to form a clearer and more accurate understanding of online happenings among adolescents, enabling professional bodies to better educate adolescents in safer online practices so that victims of incidents such as cyberbullying and cyberstalking are identified and handled with greater efficiency and effectiveness.




The authors would like to thank the school for their kind involvement and co-operation during the data collection process.


List of Illustrations

Figure 1: Gender Differences in Frequency of Negative Online Experiences

Figure 2: Year Differences in Frequency of Negative Online Experiences

Figure 3: Frequency of Risky IM and SNS Behaviours


List of Tables

Table 1: Summary of Key Categories of Negative Experiences



[1] Paul graduated from York St. John University in June2011 with a degree in Psychology and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the university continuing work in cyberpyschology-based research. He is also continuing his studies in this subject area at York St. John University in October 2011 on a part-time PhD programme whilst working as a research assistant in the Unit for Child and Youth Studies.

[2] Nathalie is a lecturer in developmental psychology at York St John University. Her research interests focus primarily on peer relationships in adolescence, in particular experiences of bullying. She is the director of the Unit for Child and Youth Studies, based at the university.



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To cite this paper please use the following details: McGivern, P. and N. Noret (2011), 'Online Social Networking and E-Safety: Analysis of Risk-taking Behaviours and Negative Online Experiences among Adolescents', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2011 Special Issue, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.