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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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August112006

New Study Shows Rise in Youth Exposure to Porn & Cyberbullying, Decrease in Online Solicitations

This week, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) released a new study on the prevalence of children being exposed to online porn and unwanted solicitations. The results of the study were somewhat mixed, even defying some of the conventional wisdom surrounding online safety.

The study, Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later (PDF), is a follow-up to a previous survey conducted in 2000. NCMEC partnered with the University of New Hampshire to interview 1,500 youth, ages 10 to 17. Among the report’s findings, the researchers found that young people today are exposed to an increasing amount of online porn. One-third of respondents said they had been exposed to unwanted sexual material, up from one-quarter of respondents five years earlier. The researchers attributed this increase to the growing aggressive tactics of porn marketers, utilizing spam and other techniques. They also suggested that expanding access to broadband is contributing to increased exposure, as high-speed Internet access makes it more likely an image will open before a user can click and close it.

The report also noted an increase in the amount of cyberbullying taking place online, from six percent of kids in 2000 to nine percent in the latest study. With so much attention being placed on adult online predators, cyberbullying among young people is often overlooked, even though it has become a significant problem. The researchers noted

Increased time spent online among the youth population could account for at least part of this increase; however, we suspect a considerable portion of the increase reflects a real rise in online incivility among youth. In addition to the youth who said they were harassed, we found a marked increase in the number of youth who admitted to being rude to and harassing others online. The number of youth who said they had “made rude or nasty comments to someone on the Internet” increased from 14% in [the first study] to 28% in [the current study]. The number who said they had “used the Internet to harass or embarrass someone they were mad at” increased from 1% to 9%. These behaviors are highly related to being harassed online (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2004a). The Internet is apparently being used more and more for the bullying and harassment widespread among many youth peer groups.

The report also examined the number of young people receiving unwanted sexual solicitations. Despite the increased media coverage on this particular issue, the survey found that online solicitations had dropped from one in five young people to one in seven. While one in seven still remains a significant concern, the drop suggests that kids are being more cautious in their online interactions. Educating students about the dangers of online predators, perhaps with the increased media attention, may have also been factors.

“We’re encouraged to find that sexual solicitations are down, though it is concerning that the more aggressive attempts to meet offline have not declined,” said NCMEC President Ernie Allen. “Increases in harassment and exposure to sexual material are also disturbing and show that we need to be adapting our prevention efforts to the changing risks to youth online.”

In their conclusion, the researchers present more than a dozen recommendations on improving online safety. Preventative education is a reoccurring theme, including a greater emphasis on educating pre-teens:

While law enforcement does receive reports of younger children being sexually solicited online, none of the 10 year olds and few 11 and 12 year olds in YISS-2 received such solicitations. The concentration of risk among older youth means online protection requires an approach tailored to adolescents because, when we talk about online sexual solicitations of youth we are mainly talking about youth in middle and high school. We need approaches acknowledging their independence and developmental interests including their natural curiosity about and interest in sex and romance. We cannot rely on simply urging parents and guardians to control, watch, or educate their children, because youth this age are more independent and less supervised than younger youth. We recommend talking directly and frankly with youth, starting in the preteen years. And we should not ignore older youth, ages 16 and 17, who have begun to see themselves as part of the adult world.

Similarly, they suggest that parents and educators must become more involved in preventing cyberbullying:

There are worrying signs in this survey about the increasing numbers of youth experiencing online harassment, including threats and other offensive behavior. That harassment has increased, while the proportion of youth receiving sexual solicitations decreased may reflect the fact we have mobilized to warn about solicitations, but not done much yet about threats and harassment. It may not be too late to decrease threats and harassment too. We need to do more to head off this trend. We need to describe the harassment problem effectively and in detail so youth, parents/guardians, and other authorities understand and identify it when they see it. We need to make sure existing antibullying and other prevention programs include discussions about Internet harassment as part of their content. We need to create and publicize codes of conduct that include Internet behavior and get these codes adopted through Internet service providers, schools, clubs, and organizations as well as on web sites. Then we need to encourage Internet service providers, schools, and other youth-serving organizations to have strong sanctions against Internet harassment. Because much bullying and harassment, both off- and online, occurs in school or arises from events that occur in school, School Resource Officers could be an important component in prevention and intervention programs.

Online service providers, they suggest, should also be held accountable, with more tools available for the public to judge what they’re doing to protect children. “There are not enough of these trust-enhancing systems,” they write. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to know before signing up with an Internet service provider how it compared to other providers in rates of offensive behavior or customer satisfaction for following up on complaints? Wouldn’t it be good, before going into a chatroom, to know how many complaints there had been by participants?”

Lastly, the authors emphasize the importance of young people and adults alike taking advantage of reporting mechanisms to alert authorities to unwanted solicitations and other problems. Services like the CyberTipLine (www.cybertipline.com or 1-800-843-5678) are playing a vital role in protecting kids, but they aren’t utilized enough.

We need more visible public- and private-reporting options. Of course not all or even most of the offensive incidents youth encounter online qualify as illegal or criminal behavior. Much of the harassment and unwanted exposure to sexual material is not. But as we know from law-enforcement experience with the “broken windows” concept — the idea combating minor disorder and offenses may lead to decreases in more serious crime — there should be options to allow the reporting of offensive but noncriminal behavior. Perhaps these reports should not go to law enforcement, but rather to other authorities in a position to address them such as Internet service providers, chatroom moderators, and school officials. Of course, people also need to be educated so they know when online behavior has crossed the line and become criminal.

The report is available online; paper copies can be ordered by calling 1-800-843-5678. -andy

Filed under : Research, Safety

Responses

Great Post! I saw this report on Good Morning America a few days ago. It is very eye opening to hear all of this. While its encouraging that the proportion of kids solicited is now 1 in 7 we need to make sure as parents and adults that children know online safety and actually practice it.

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