While the Internet has enriched the lives of millions, it has also resulted in offensive, distressing, and sometimes dangerous online experiences for many young people.
A 2018 report on teens, social media and technology found (Anderson, Jiang, & Pew Research Center, 2018):
- 95% of teens have access to a smartphone
- 45% say they are online ‘almost constantly’
- 31% believe that social media has a mostly positive effect on their lives, while 24% believe that it has a mostly negative effect. 45% do not believe it has a negative or positive effect.
- Of the teens who reported social media having a negative effect, 27% stated cyberbullying as the main reason
The internet is a constant presence in teenagers’ lives, with over 90% of teens going online daily (Lenhart & Pew Research Center, 2015). With the advent of smart phones, young people now have all of the world’s information in their pocket. Seventy-four percent of 12 to 17-year-olds have mobile internet access, such as a smart phone or tablet.
Approximately 25% of teens access the internet mostly on their mobile phone, a device that is difficult for adults to monitor (Livingstone & Smith, 2014). Seventy-five percent of teens use cell phones and they send and receive an average of 1,500 texts a month.
The internet can be a potentially dangerous place for youth. Teens often share too much, providing a wealth of personal information on their social media pages including photos, their school name, daily activities, and favorite places, all of which could put them at risk. Approximately half of teens surveyed have either posted personal information or interacted with a person they did not know (Wolak, Evans, Nguyen, & Hines, 2013). This wealth of personal information makes it even easier for predators to target and meet with the most vulnerable targets.
Characteristics of vulnerable youth
Online sexual predators tend to be portrayed in the media as older men who lurk on children’s websites and lie about their age and intentions to lure children into a face-to-face meeting. However, this is false. Many online predators utilize the internet to seduce vulnerable children and teens without concealing their identity.
They build trust with their targets and in time, through manipulation and increased knowledge, introduce sexual topics and the possibility of meeting face to face. Most sexual predators will develop a close relationship with their victim. Approximately 64% of predators communicated with their victim for over a month, and over half of the victims reported being in love, or having a close friendship with the predator (Wolak et al., 2013).
Research has shown that certain characteristics are associated with young people who develop relationships with predators they’ve met online (Wolak et al., 2013). These characteristics include:
- Youths with histories of physical or sexual violence
- Youths who visit chatrooms, talk online to unknown people about sex, or engage in patterns of risky off-or online behavior
- Youths who have high conflict with their parents
- Thirteen to seventeen year-olds
- Boys who are gay or questioning
11% of teenagers and young adults report sharing a naked picture of themselves online or through a text message, commonly referred to as “sexting”.
This increases youth’s vulnerability of being the targets of threats to expose their sexual images, or “sextortion.” Sextortion occurs when someone threatens to post or forward a sexually explicit image or video in order to get the other person to do something (most often, to send more explicit images or video), to give them money, or for vengeance.
Like other forms of sexual violence, sextortion is often committed by a person the victim knows. In a survey of sextortion victims, approximately two-thirds reported that the person threatening them was a current or former intimate partner, and twenty percent reported the person threatening them was a current or former friend or acquaintance (Wolak & Finkelhor, 2016).
In addition to reports of young people being pressured or threatened into sending nude photos of themselves to peers, sexting presents serious legal concerns. Even two consenting minors exchanging nude photos via a cell phone are breaking child pornography distribution laws.
Protecting youth from online dangers
Tragic news stories about vulnerable youth who committed suicide in response to a damaging sexting episode or other forms of cyberbullying emphasize the need to educate our youth about these online dangers. A bad decision can live forever online and sadly, cyberbullies seldom understand the harm they cause. Too often, other young people unwittingly participate in the dissemination of damaging online content.
Educating young people about online dangers is a critical step in reducing the risk of victimization by online sexual predators and cyberbullies and can help encourage child victims to reach out to their parents or other concerned adults for help. Parents and guardians should try to monitor their youth’s usage of the internet and encourage them to be media literate. This can include identifying false websites, verifying identities used by people online, fact-checking, and recognizing what is real. To summarize, youth need to understand that not everything on the internet is genuine.
This website provides a wealth of current information on internet safety issues and an array of educational tools for parents, teachers, students, etc.
That's Not Cool Campaign (www.thatsnotcool.com)
An excellent website for youth which includes practical information and tips on online abuse, including sexting.
Hawai'i Internet Crimes Against Children (ag.hawaii.gov/hicac/)
This Department of the Attorney General resource includes interactive games to teach kids web safety and information for adults on how to protect Hawai'i's children in cyberspace.
A website to report incidents of online sexual exploitation of children.
Anderson, M., Jiang, J., & Pew Research Center (2018, May 31). Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/
Lenhart, A. (2013, August 21). British teen's suicide puts cyber-bullying back in spotlight. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/08/21/british-teens-suicide-puts-cyber-bullying-back-in-spotlight/
Lenhart, A., & Pew Research Center. (2015, April 9). Teens, social media & technology overview 2015. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/
Livingstone, S., & Smith, P. K. (2014). Annual Research Review: Harms experienced by child users of online and mobile technologies: the nature, prevalence and management of sexual and aggressive risks in the digital age. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(6), 635-654. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12197
Wolak, J., Evans, L., Nguyen, S., & Hines, D. (2013). Online predators: Myth versus reality. New England Journal of Public Policy, 25(1). Retrieved from https://scholarworks.umb.edu/nejpp/
Wolak, J., & Finkelhor, D. (2016). Sextortion: Findings from a survey of 1,631 victims. Retrieved from University of New Hampshire, Crimes Against Children Research Center website: https://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/Sextortion_RPT_FNL_rev0803.pdf