The study, which is published in Crime & Delinquency, is the first of its scale to investigate these characteristics with a focus on gender differences.
“We know much about the scope of hacking and its threat, but the problem is that we don’t know exactly when and how hacking behaviour starts,” said Professor Thomas Holt, lead author of the study and cyber-crime expert. “There is a general understanding that hacking starts in the early teens, but until now we weren’t clear on background factors such as behavioural issues, the impact of social connections or personality traits.
“Our findings pointed us in the direction of thinking that there are gendered pathways to hacking.”
Holt analysed responses from 50,000 teenagers selected from around the world in order to determine the strongest predictors of futures in black hat hacking. While some predictors – such as low self-control – were found among all young hackers, he found that there were distinct differences between the factors leading young boys and young girls to pursue cyber crime. These differences appeared to conform along socially reinforced gender roles.
“For girls, peer associations mattered more. If she has friends who shoplift or engage in petty forms of crime, she’s more likely to be influenced to hack as well,” Holt explained. “For boys, we found that time spent watching TV or playing computer games were associated with hacking.”
Gender expectations reinforced during childhood have been cited as a key issue affecting the ability of employers to recruit enough staff with the appropriate STEM skills.
In addition to low self-control, another major predictor was the opportunity to experiment with hacking, such as the child having their own bedroom, computer and early smartphone access, aligned with the freedom to use the internet without parental supervision or public scrutiny. Children living in larger cities were more likely to be attracted to criminal behaviour and those who pirated films and music were also more likely to experiment with cyber crime.
Holt acknowledged that most initial forays into cyber crime were not serious; juvenile hacking was largely limited to gaming purposes in the early days of the internet and now often involves hacking into email or social media accounts.
“The initial attempts might not be serious, but without supervision and low self-control, it’s likely they get a taste for what they might be able to accomplish by taking their hacking abilities further. While low self-control plays a huge role with kids and teens, some of them mature as they age and can sit for hours, which gives them time to refine the skills of a sophisticated hacker,” Holt said.
Holt recommended that parents should be aware that their children are often more tech-savvy than they may assume and should help guide them to use these skills in a more socially beneficial way, such as by joining a robotics club or attending the DEFCON conference.
“Cyber crime can be a hidden problem, so talking is vital,” he concluded. “The more you can understand what they’re doing, the easier you can flag something that might be off and curtail activity.”