The Internet is an exciting and evolutionary medium that has expanded and enriched the lives of millions. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in offensive, distressing, and sometimes dangerous online experiences for many young people.
A national survey1 involving a representative sample of young people (10-17yrs) found:
- About one in seven received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet in the last year.
- One in three was exposed to unwanted pictures of naked people or people having sex in the last year.
- Approximately one in twenty-five received an aggressive sexual solicitation in which the sender asked to meet them somewhere; called them on the telephone, sent them e-mails, money or gifts.
- The survey also found that 70% of those solicited were females and almost 20% of those solicited were 10 to 13 years old. Surprisingly, only 16% of those solicited told a parent or guardian.
* requests to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult.
Social Networking Sites
People of all ages are spending more and more time online, particularly young people. According to a Pew Research Center Survey 2, 93% of youth (12-17yrs) now go online and 73% have profiles on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Most of them also use cell phones (75%) and texting teens send and receive on average 1500 texts a month.
While the internet reaps huge benefits in terms of communication, information sharing and learning, it can also be a potentially dangerous place for youth. Social networking sites, for instance, can provide sexual predators with a wealth of personal information on young people, making it easier for predators to target and to meet offline with the most vulnerable among them.
Unfortunately, young people don't always follow social networking safety guidelines (e.g., not listing telephone numbers and address on their profile, setting their profile to "private", not adding someone to their "friends list" unless they already know them offline). Too often young people provide a wealth of personal information on their MySpace or Facebook page such as photos, their school name, daily activities, favorite locations to hang out, all of which could put them at risk. Also, some display provocative photos of themselves or add a few years to their age on their profile to gain attention, without realizing it may increase their vulnerability.
Online predators use social networking sites and chat rooms to hide their true age, identity and motive for interaction. They typically build trust with their victims by appearing cool, concerned, or understanding. In time, through manipulation and increased knowledge of their targets, predators start to introduce sexual topics and the possibility of meeting the young person face to face.
Characteristics of Vulnerable Youth
Research has shown that certain characteristics are associated with young people who develop close relationships with those they have met online.3 Some of these characteristics include:
- girls aged fourteen to seventeen
- boys who have minimal communication with their parents and whose parents have little knowledge of who their friends are and where they spend their time
- those who live in households with a high degree of parent-youth conflict
- those who suffer from troubling life events, depression, prior victimization, etc.
- adolescents and teens who report high levels of Internet use
In addition to sexual solicitations and unwanted exposure to sexual material online, cyberbullying or online harassment has become an increasingly serious concern.
According to a Pew Research Center study 2, about one third (32%) of all teenagers who use the internet say they have been targets of a range of annoying and potentially menacing online activities - such as receiving threatening messages; having their private emails or text messages forwarded without consent; having an embarrassing picture posted without permission; or having rumors about them spread online. Of those who reported being cyber bullied, 38% were girls and 26% were boys.
While cyberbullying covers a range of behaviors, sexual harassment is key among them. Body rating, sexual putdowns, gay-bashing, and sexual rumors have moved beyond the schoolyard or cafeteria and into cyberspace. The anonymity of cyberspace, combined with the amazing speed and reach achieved by the click of a mouse, have made this form of sexual harassment particularly devastating for young people.
Sexting, the use of a cell phone or other electronic device to distribute pictures or video of sexually explicit images, has become increasingly more commonplace among youth. According to the Pew Research Center2, 15% of cell phone using youth (12-17yrs) say they have received sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude images of someone they know via text, and 4% report they have sent sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude messages to others via text message.
In addition to reports of young people being pressured or threatened into sending nude photos of themselves to peers, sexting presents serious legal concerns. Strictly speaking, even two consenting minors exchanging nude photos via a cell phone are breaking child pornography laws. As Hawai'i and other states explore the legal ramifications of sexting among minors, attention has focused on educating youth about the consequences of such behavior.
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 address these online dangers. Sadly, cyberbullies seldom see or understand the harm they cause and too often other young people unwittingly participate in the dissemination of damaging online content.
Protecting Youth from Online Dangers
Educating young people about online dangers is a critical step in reducing the risk of victimization by online sexual predators and cyberbullies. Also, through education it is hoped that more child victims will reach out to their parent or another concerned adult for help.
www.netsmartz.org 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
www.hawaii.gov/ag/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.
www.cybertipline.com A website to report incidents of online sexual exploitation of children.
(1) David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Janis Wolak. 2006. Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth: Five Years Later. Alexandria, Virginia: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
(2) Lenhart A.
Social Media and Young Adults. Pew Internet and American Life Project,
Lenhart A. Teens and Mobile Phones. Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2010.
Lenhart A. Cyberbullying and Online Teens. Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2007.
Lenhart A. Teens and Sexting. Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2009.
(3) David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Janis Wolak. 2003. "Escaping or connecting? Characteristics of youth who form close online relationships." Journal of Adolescence.