Introduction: Teens Navigating Cyberspace
If you believe e-mail, blogs, and instant messaging are a completely harmless way for teens to communicate, think again! Many teens have Internet access–often private communication in the form of blogs, chat rooms, and forums. These online communication aids are not themselves a problem. But the ever-present threat of being sexually solicited or bullied while on the Internet is a big problem.
While online, teens may be persuaded to do things or share private/confidential information, to be sexually solicited, and/or to experience public humiliation. Recent testimony on child protection before Congress, alerted the public to online sexual solicitation of teens. However, parents and youth workers may be less aware of “cyber-bullying” in which peers viciously attack one another. This article will define online sexual solicitation and cyber-bullying, explain the risk factors and negative effects of these communications, and outline ways to protect youth from harm.
Online Sexual Solicitation
Online sexual solicitation is a form of sexual harassment that occurs over the internet. Incidents of online sexual solicitation include: exposure to pornography; being asked to discuss sex online and/or do something sexual; or requests to disclose personal information. This can start when an adult or peer initiates an online nonsexual relationship with a child or adolescent, builds trust, and seduces him or her into sexual acts. Several studies have found that:
- 30% of teen girls who used the Internet frequently had been sexually harassed while they were in a chat room.
- 37% of teens (male and female) received links to sexually explicit content online.
- 30% of teens have talked about meeting someone they met online.
- 19% knew a friend who was harassed or asked about sex online by a stranger.
- 33% of teen girls and 18% of teen boys had been asked about sexual topics online. (Dewey, 2002; Polly Klaas Foundation, 2006)
There are several signs–traits, life circumstances, and actions–that parents and adults should be aware of in order to keep teens from online communication with sexual predators. Studies find that teens at the greatest risk for online sexual solicitation are:
- females between the ages of 14 and 17 years.
- teens with major depressive symptoms and/or who have experienced negative life transitions (moving to a new neighborhood, a death or divorce in their family) are especially vulnerable.
- teens who use the Internet more frequently, for four or more days a week at two or more hours a day.
- teens who engage in high online risk behavior (including cyber-bullying and discussing sex online with strangers).
Research has found that about 25% of youth who are sexually solicited felt “extremely afraid or upset” in response to the incident. Preteens to early adolescent (aged 10-13), youth who were solicited more aggressively, and youth who had been sexually solicited on a computer in another persons home, were the most upset and affected (Mitchell et al., 2001). Youth with major symptoms of depression are twice as likely to become emotionally distressed by online solicitation than their peers who report no or few symptoms of depression. These reactions, in addition to the more blatant dangers of teens meeting in person with online predators, point to the need to prevent preteens and teens from exposure to online solicitation.
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