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Disadvantaged teenagers at greater risk of falling foul of email scams – study

Pupils need higher quality instructions about the online risks they face, a University College London researcher has said.

Eleanor Busby
Friday 01 September 2023 05:01 BST
Disadvantaged teenagers are at a greater risk of falling victim to email scams than their peers, research suggests (PA)
Disadvantaged teenagers are at a greater risk of falling victim to email scams than their peers, research suggests (PA) (PA Wire)

Disadvantaged teenagers are at a greater risk of falling victim to email scams than their peers, research suggests.

Around one in seven (14%) 15-year-olds are at risk of responding to a phishing email – but this rises to a fifth among those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, according to an international study.

Deprived youngsters who also have weaker cognitive skills are most at risk of falling prey to phishing emails, the data from 38 countries suggests.

Pupils – especially those from poorer backgrounds and low academic achievers – need higher quality instruction about the online risks they face, a University College London (UCL) researcher has said.

Data for the study was based on more than 176,000 children who took part in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) – a triennial international survey by the OECD which measures what 15-year-olds students know in reading, science and mathematics.

As part of a questionnaire, pupils were asked how they would respond to a made-up scenario where a mobile phone company told them via email they had won a smartphone. The sender asked them to click a link and fill out a form with their data to access the phone,

More needs to be done to help young people navigate what is becoming an increasingly complex and dangerous online world

Professor John Jerrim, author of the study

Possible responses included answering the email to request more details, checking the sender’s email address, and clicking on the link to fill out the form as soon as possible.

The findings – published in the British Journal of Educational Studies – found teenagers from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds were markedly more likely to say they would click the link.

The biggest gap was based on cognitive skill, with a quarter of low-achieving students saying they believed clicking the link was an appropriate response, compared with 5% of those in the top quintile of reading scores.

Results showed that Japanese teenagers were least likely to respond to unsolicited emails (4%). The figure for the UK was 9%.

Teenagers in Mexico (30%) and Chile (27%) were most at risk.

Author of the study, Professor John Jerrim, from the UCL Social Research Institute, is urging schools to provide more – and better quality – teaching on how to recognise online harms, including phishing emails.

He said: “Socio-economically disadvantaged groups are – at least in some countries – at greater risk from phishing attacks than their more advantaged peers.

“This is largely driven by socio-economic differences in cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, current attempts by schools to address this issue do not seem to be particularly effective.”

As well as ensuring people are educated about this issue, work also needs to be done to tackle this problem at source and prevent scam emails from being sent out in the first place

Julie McCulloch, Association of School and College Leaders

The study also found no clear evidence that students who received instruction from their school about the dangers of phishing emails were at less risk of being scammed.

Prof Jerrim added: “More needs to be done to help young people navigate what is becoming an increasingly complex and dangerous online world.

“This is particularly true for some of the most vulnerable groups who are most at risk of falling for attempts at digital fraud.”

The findings come as a separate report published by children’s online safety group Internet Matters earlier this week suggested that disadvantaged children are more likely to experience harm online.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools are acutely aware of the risks that young people can face online and teach pupils about these as part of their relationships, sex and health education.

“Cyber crime is something that affects people of all ages and is becoming increasingly common. As well as ensuring people are educated about this issue, work also needs to be done to tackle this problem at source and prevent scam emails from being sent out in the first place.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “A core priority in our Fraud Strategy is to empower people by providing better education on how to protect yourself from fraud. That’s why we worked with the Association for Citizenship Teaching to create a comprehensive set of interactive lessons designed for secondary school pupils. Themes covered include phishing, money muling and social media scams.

“This government is absolutely committed to cracking down on scams and we continue to work intensively with partners to protect young people, and the wider public, from fraud.”

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