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ICT students exhibit both positive and negative online behaviour

26 January 2022
Many Dutch youths enrolled in ICT education commit cybercrime, as shown by research from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and NSCR. However, differentiating between students with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ online behaviour may not be as easy as it may seem. Many youths who commit online crimes, also use their ICT skills to help others. This suggests that young cyber offenders might be diverted towards choosing positive alternatives to offending.

Up until now, much was unknown about the characteristics of young people committing cybercrimes. For example, no research existed on the extent to which both individual characteristics and social context factors are related to offending. The report Understanding cybercriminal behaviour among young people is based on a survey study among a large sample of 892 Dutch students in secondary or tertiary education (15 to 25 years old), following ICT programmes, tracks, or courses. This study is unique in mapping the social network of school friends, which provides new insights into the potential role of criminal peers.

A narrow majority of ICT students commit cybercrime
A narrow majority of juveniles enrolled in ICT education recently committed a cyber offence. This was true for both cyber-dependent offending – offences requiring the use of online means such as hacking – and cyber-enabled offending – offences existing in the offline world, but also possible online such as fraud. The most prevalent and often simple offences were: hacking by guessing a password, stealing (illegally copying) files or data, and fighting out conflicts online. More technical cyber-dependent offences, such as hacking using technical applications or exploits, online fraud, and defacing websites, were also quite common. The participants of this study reported committing cyber-delinquency more often than traditional delinquency, such as theft, vandalism, or violence.

Online rule-breaking not as black and white as it may seem
The study showed a surprising relationship between positive and negative online behaviour. Study participants who committed crimes online also used their ICT skills to help others. For example, they helped others with their ICT problems or with designing digital media, they reported digital vulnerabilities, or were active on online ICT platforms. Both positive and negative online behaviour may attract these students, which means that the choice to break rules online is not black and white to them.

The role of friends in online behaviour
The secretive nature of cybercrime means that about half of the study participants had no knowledge of the cyber-delinquent behaviour of their school friends. It was particularly difficult for them to estimate their friends’ involvement in cyber-dependent crime. Consequently, perceptions of friends’ cyber-delinquency were more strongly related to an individual’s own cyber-delinquency than friends’ actual delinquency. This suggests that young people tend to adapt their online behaviour to how they believe their friends behave rather than how these friends actually behave. It may also mean that young people think that their friends are more like themselves than they really are.

Positive use of ICT skills
This study suggests that schools may spot early signs of potential cyber-delinquency in their students and stimulate their students to use their ICT skills in a positive manner. It may be beneficial to focus prevention programs on relatively high risk groups, such as ICT students. Differences between the two main categories of cybercrime suggest that whether interventions address individual risk factors or the social context should depend on the type of crime.

Weulen Kranenbarg, M., Van der Toolen, Y. & Weerman, F. (2022). Understanding cybercriminal behaviour among young people: Results from a longitudinal network study among a relatively high risk sample. Amsterdam: VU/NSCR.