Is Your Child Likely to Commit a Cybercrime? Check Their Friends

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Whether a child's friends have committed cybercrimes is the biggest predictor of how likely she or he is to engage in illegal online activities. (Image credit:

The likelihood that your child will illegally download music or hack into someone's online account may depend on what his or her friends are up to, according to a new study suggesting that peer influence drives juvenile cybercrimes.

The study, which consisted of surveying 435 middle- and high-school students from a suburban Kentucky school district, showed that the biggest predictor of how likely a child is to engage in illegal online activities is whether his or her friends have committed cybercrimes. Previous research has primarily focused on college students.

Cybercrimes include digital piracy, such as "stealing" music or movie files by downloading them without paying, or online bullying and harassment, which can consist of sending threatening or sexual messages via email or text message. Computer hacking, also known as cybertrespassing, and viewing online pornography, which is illegal for those under 18, are also cybercrimes.

"It's important to know what your kids are doing when they're online and who they are associating with both online and offline," Thomas Holt, Michigan State University criminologist and study leader, said in a statement. [10 Facts Every Parent Should Know About Their Teen's Brain]

The study showed that a lack of self-control is also a major predictor of children's cybercrimes. Risk-taking, impulsive kids are more likely than other children to act on an opportunity to commit illegal online activities, according to the researchers.

Holt recommends that parents place parental-control software on their children's computers, but warns that many kids can work around these programs.

"It's not just enough to have a Net Nanny," Holt said. "Parents need to be more proactive with their kids and discuss these ethical dilemmas to using a computer, such as whether it's right or wrong to steal music or to download something without paying for it."

The study is published online in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.

You can follow LiveScience writer Remy Melina on Twitter @remymelina. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience  and on Facebook.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.