Female-Name Chat Users Get 25 Times More Malicious Messages

May 9, 2006

A study by the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering found that chat room 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 School's Department of Mechanical Engineering, and an affiliate of the university's Institute for Systems Research, and sophomore computer engineering student Robert Meyer.

The study focused on internet relay chat or IRC chat rooms, 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 suggestive questions such as,"feeling horney?"and requests for "intimate services."

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 in the university'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 they're doing, what's involved," she says. "A lot of kids are very naïve 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.

Source: University of Maryland

Explore further: Twitter's Sharon Ly, on closing tech's gender gap

Related Stories

The linguistic clues that reveal your true Twitter identity

November 20, 2013

Twitter is awash with trolls, spammers and misanthropes, all keen to ruin your day with a mean-spirited message or even a threat that can cause you genuine fear. It seems all too easy to set up an account and cause trouble ...

Swipe right for Ms. Right: The rise of dating apps

May 20, 2014

So, a lady walks into a bar... Wait, scratch that. A lady takes out her phone. With a left swipe of her finger she dismisses Alex, 25 and Robert, 48. She swipes right when a photo of James, 24, pops up. It's a match. James ...

Recommended for you

The ethics of robot love

November 25, 2015

There was to have been a conference in Malaysia last week called Love and Sex with Robots but it was cancelled. Malaysian police branded it "illegal" and "ridiculous". "There is nothing scientific about sex with robots," ...

Glider pilots aim for the stratosphere

November 20, 2015

Talk about serendipity. Einar Enevoldson was strolling past a scientist's office in 1991 when he noticed a freshly printed image tacked to the wall. He was thunderstruck; it showed faint particles in the sky that proved something ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.