Student Spotlight: Dean’s Fellowship Winner Michelle Protas
Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College
There is no question: we live in a digital society. We wake up, scroll through Instagram while we drink our coffee, check the weather online, stream music while driving to class, submit assignments and take exams online, message our friends, and even find recipes and buy ingredients through the internet. In fact, it's a bit difficult to think of any part of our day that doesn’t involve being online in some capacity. But this technologically saturated existence isn’t without its darker side, and that’s something that Michelle Protas, 3rd year Criminal Justice PhD candidate and winner of the Graduate College Dean’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship for the 2023-24 AY, aims to illuminate with her doctoral research. “We talk about crime in physical spaces a lot,” she explains. “We talk about protecting children and protecting people from potential offenders in physical space but not as much in cyberspace. We think we’re in our own homes, that we’re safe and protected, but we forget that we have 24/7 access to our cellular devices or computers where we are interacting with people, not just that we’d see on the street, but from around the world, at any time of day.”
Protas’ interest in cybercrime grows largely from her own experience as a social media user. She explains that as a teenage competitive dancer, she had to market herself online through various social media outlets. This prompted her to think about the ways in which young people are seen and interacted with online. “I don’t know what it’s like to not have the internet,” she tells me. “I was on social media from middle school- I'm only 25.” While youth is often equated with inexperience and naivete in academic spheres, Protas instead views her young age as a unique asset in her field of study. She explains that the current experts in the fields of internet usage and cybercrime did not grow up actively using social media and therefore lack the kind of insider knowledge that Protas is able to contribute. “I can see both perspectives as someone who grew up in a generation that’s built on technology, but also having the experience as a researcher that can tie those two together.”
Protas is a victimologist by training, and this orientation certainly informs the lens of her dissertation. She explains that while much of the criminal justice coursework focuses on larger systems such as law enforcement, corrections, and the courts, many crimes involve individual people and they should not be forgotten. “Victimology is really important to me because it allows victims of crime to have some sort of a say and to take back ownership of their lives and experiences,” she says.
Protas’ dissertation specifically focuses on potential victimization of underage Instagram influencers. She is examining the demographics of these influencers’ following, specifically the percentage of adult male followers, and how this is impacted by followers’ perception of the level of guardian involvement in the influencer’s profile. While simply following someone on Instagram isn’t inherently victimization, it does create a level of vulnerability by allowing the follower access to information about the young person as well as digital images of them. "My research uses a criminological theory called routine activities theory that looks at the convergence of three different things: a suitable target, a motivated offender, and a lack of capable guardianship. In order for a crime to occur, those three things have to come together in time and space,” she explains. In a novel usage of the approach, Protas is applying routine activities theory to a cyberspace environment and focusing particularly on the guardianship aspect. She is using data gained from a marketing company on the follower base of 1000 different influencers. While the software is typically used to target influencers to solicit product promotion, Protas has found that it can easily be adapted for academic research. While Protas is able to see demographics on the influencers themselves, it is admittedly true that some might look older or younger than they actually are and this could impact how they are viewed and/or targeted by followers. Protas is controlling for perceived age through administering a survey that has respondents guess the age of the influencers so that analysis can center on this perception. She hypothesizes that underage influencers whose Instagram accounts are monitored by parents (guardians) will have a smaller proportion of adult male followers than accounts that are not monitored by parents.
While her research has broad implications for social media users and their parents/guardians, Protas hopes that her findings may have an impact on the policies and practices of social media sites. If she finds that visible guardianship has an impact of vulnerability to victimization, the platforms may be able to increase guardian involvement or at least the visibility of such involvement. While some sites are currently reviewing their practices and strategizing regarding how they can better protect youth in virtual spaces, according to Protas there is more to be done. “I’m hoping to see a positive impact to where [these companies] are actually working at targeting this issue rather than skirting around it like is currently happening with Instagram and YouTube,” she says. In addition to platforms, cybersecurity is the responsibility of users; Protas believes that we can all learn to be more responsible web users. “Everything you put on the internet, even if you delete it, will always be there once its publicly available,” she says. “So it’s important to teach good internet habits, both to children and young adults and even adults now that didn’t use the internet in prior generations because it wasn’t popular.” Protas believes that a key step in this teaching involves open and honest communication and allowing young people to have a seat at the table in these discussions; there is a difference between sheltering completely and protecting while allowing children to explore and be autonomous.
While Protas hopes that her research will have an impact on online safety, she also hopes to contribute to the field as an educator. After graduating from UC by August 2024, she plans to transition into academia where she can combine her three passions of research, teaching, and mentorship. Protas has served as an instructor in many undergraduate Criminal Justice courses and has mentored undergraduate researchers, experiences which confirmed for her that her home lies in academia. In the meantime, when she is not working on her dissertation, Michelle enjoys dancing, rock climbing, paddleboarding, and hanging out with her Cocker Spaniel, Oreo.