A study by the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering found that chatroom participants with female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames.
Female usernames, on average, received 163 malicious private messages a day in the study, conducted by Michel Cukier, assistant professor in the Center for Risk and Reliability in the Clark Schoolís Department of Mechanical Engineering, and an affiliate of the university's Institute for Systems Research (ISR) and Electrical and Computer Engineering Department (ECE), and ECE sophomore computer engineering student Robert Meyer.
The study focused on internet relay chat or IRC chatrooms, which are among the most popular chat services but offer widely varying levels of user security. The researchers logged into various chatrooms under female, male and ambiguous usernames, counted the number of times they were contacted and tracked the contents of those messages. Their results will be published in the proceedings of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers International (IEEE) Conference on Dependable Systems and Networks (DSN '06) in June.
"Some messages to female usernames were innocuous, while others were sexually explicit or threatening," Meyer says. Harmless messages included "helo" and "care 2 intro?" Tamer examples of malicious messages included:
[10:30] [charm] feeling horny?
[10:43] [DanMan] Do u need money? Looking for someone who does not mind providing personal intimate services. $150/hr. Serious offer. 178 74 male 29 here. Interested pls intro?).
The researchers also determined that simulated users or "bots" are not behind most of the malicious messages. "The extra attention the female usernames received and the nature of the messages indicate that male, human users specifically targeted female users," Cukier said.
"Parents should consider alerting their children to these risks, and advising young people to create gender-free or ambiguous usernames. Kids can still exercise plenty of creativity and self-expression without divulging their gender," Cukier says.
"Gender stereotypes and gender-targeted messages are very prevalent in internet chat rooms. Some people use the protected anonymity of the Internet to send provocative messages, often basing their assumptions about the recipient of the messages on very little information," adds Melanie Killen, professor of human development at UM's College of Education and associate director of the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture. "Parents should be very concerned, but they are closing their eyes to it because they don't know how to deal with it."
Killen advises parents to start talking with their kids around age 10. She urges parents not to use heavy-handed warnings or to ban their children from chatting online. Both are strategies that the child might ignore or that could make them even more likely to explore.
"Sit down and have conversations on a regular basis on what theyíre doing, whatís involved," she says. "A lot of kids are very naÔve about this and feel it won't happen to them."
Though female users are targeted more often, this doesn't mean boys won't be exposed to the same disturbing content, Killen says.
"Boys can be preyed upon too. And boys could be the ones doing it and thinking it's not harmful," she says.
Assessing the Attack Threat Due to IRC Channels
Faculty Page for Prof. Michel Cukier
Social and Moral Development Laboratory:
Center for Children, Relationships and Culture:
About the A. James Clark School of Engineering
The Clark School of Engineering, situated on the rolling, 1,500-acre University of Maryland campus in College Park, Md., is one of the premier engineering schools in the U.S.
The Clark School's graduate programs are collectively the fastest rising in the nation. In U.S. News & World Report's annual rating of graduate programs, the school is 15th among public and private programs nationally, 9th among public programs nationally and first among public programs in the mid-Atlantic region. The School offers 13 graduate programs and 12 undergraduate programs, including two degree programs tailored for working professionals and one certification program.
The school is home to one of the most vibrant research programs in the country. With major emphasis in key areas such as communications and networking, nanotechnology, bioengineering, reliability engineering, project management, intelligent transportation systems and space robotics, as well as electronic packaging and smart small systems and materials, the Clark School is leading the way toward the next generations of advanced engineering technology.
Visit the Clark School homepage at www.eng.umd.edu.
About the School of Education
The College of Education at the University of Maryland is ranked 24th in the nation among the top colleges of education by U.S. News & World Report for 2007. The Department of Counseling and Personnel Services ranks 1st in the nation for the seventh consecutive year and the Department of Special Education ranks 7th. The college has nine ranked Educational Specialties plus one ranked Health Specialty, (Rehabilitation Counseling, ranked in 2004) for a total of ten Top 15 ranked specialties of which five are Top 10 rankings. Offering undergraduate, masterís and doctoral degrees, the College of Education provides research- and practice-oriented programs through its six departments: Counseling and Personnel Services, Curriculum and Instruction, Education Policy and Leadership, Human Development, Measurement, Statistics and Evaluation, and Special Education. College programs prepare educators, counselors, psychologists, administrators, researchers, and educational specialists. Graduates work with individuals from infancy through adulthood in schools, community agencies, colleges, and universities. Educational programs are accredited and approved by the following: National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, Maryland State Department of Education, American Psychological Association, Council on Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Professions, and Council on Rehabilitation Education. www.education.umd.edu.
May 9, 2006