Why kids hack: Understanding and mitigating risk factors

December 8, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

With a computer in almost every household and a cell phone in almost every pocket, it's easier than ever for kids and teenagers to learn how to hack. While some hacking may seem harmless, when this behavior turns criminal, it can have serious economic and social consequences. 

Michigan State University social scientist and Chair of the School of Criminal Justice, Dr. Thomas Holt (pictured left), recently teamed up with Dr. Bryanna Fox from the University of South Florida to learn more about how kids fall into these risky online behaviors. Specifically, their most recent study published in Criminal Justice and Behavior identifies risk factors that can predict involvement of this form of cybercrime.

Risk factors to look for

When it comes to juvenile hacking, there is limited data about how youths adopt these behaviors. According to the research, general juvenile criminal activity stems from a number of interacting factors - such as peer influences, low self-control, victimization/abuse, family and neighborhood environment, and socioeconomic status - but there is a lack of information surrounding hacking specifically. 

Criminal justice and law enforcement efforts to thwart this activity have shifted from focusing on punishment to prevention, making the identification of risk factors and warning signs key to stopping juvenile criminal behavior. 

"It's extremely important to understand why and how some students fall into these activities, so that we can stay ahead of it before it has lifelong consequences," explains Dr. Holt.

To identify these factors, the study analyzed self-reported data from over 66,000 youths between the 7th and 12th grade from over 30 countries. While the researchers found that many juvenile hackers share the risk factors above, youths who hack fall into three distinct behavioral subgroups with distinct characteristics.

The first subgroup has low self-control and access to technology, but may not experience negative peer pressure to engage in crime. This kind of hacking is mostly opportunistic and short-lived. The second subgroup is heavily influenced by their peers. The third and final subgroup is made up of kids who have suffered from trauma, victimization, and social isolation - which is consistent with previous social science research which has demonstrated that negative real-life experiences can cause individuals to find solace in online communities and activities.

Effective prevention and further learning

Dr. Holt explains that the variation of risk factors found in the study emphasize a need for individualized intervention. "There are so many different things that could cause a kid to get into trouble online," explained Dr. Holt. "One-size-fits-all solutions aren't going to cut it - we need to make sure each case is handled carefully."

For example, the research states that youth hackers most affected by impulsivity may respond best to cognitive behavioral therapy, while others who are most influenced by a negative peer group may be more responsive to increased parental supervision and increased emphasis on schoolwork. Additionally, kids who suffer from social isolation may be best served by trauma-focused therapy.

For further understanding of these risks and preventative measures that can be taken, Drs. Holt and Fox are hopeful that research in this area will be further conducted, both over time and across even more countries.

Find the full research article here.