Declines in 2 online risks for youth: Study

By Anne Collier

Good news for online kids on two fronts this week. We’re seeing a continuing decline in online sexual solicitations of young people. The widely misrepresented 2000 figure from the Crimes Against Children Research Center was “1 in 5” (more in a minute on the misrepresentation); the 2005 one was “1 in 7” (13%), and the CCRC has just announced that it’s now 9% in 2010, which was when the CCRC researchers conducted this latest survey published in the Journal of Adolescent Health this week. That’s “a total 50% decrease between 2000 and 2010,” they report.

Unwanted exposure to pornography was down too, the researchers report in “Trends in Youth Internet Victimization: Findings From Three Youth Internet Safety Surveys 2000–2010.” US 10-to-17-year-olds “experiencing unwanted pornography exposure declined from 34% to 23% over the same period,” they write. “However, marking the only trend to show an increase over the past 5 years, 11% of youth reported an online harassment experience, which was an increase from 9% in 2005, and 6% in 2000.”

In the University of New Hampshire’s press release, lead author Lisa Jones, research associate professor of psychology, is quoted as saying that “the constant news about Internet dangers may give the impression that all Internet problems have been getting worse for youth but actually that is not the case. The online environment may be improving.”

The safety of real-name environments?

Some of that improvement might be attributed to the real-name environments of the social Web, where out-of-context solicitations from anyone completely unknown to users would be unusual just by the nature of these “spaces.”

“I strongly suspect that because young people are communicating with known friends, this is reducing the number of ‘off-the-wall’ sexual comments,” wrote Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use in an email. Back in 1993, the New Yorker magazine published a cartoon depicting one dog at a desktop computer saying to his canine mate, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog!” In 2006, Slate magazine declared, “On the Internet, everybody knows you’re a dog.” I disagree with the writer, Michael Kinsley, that “social networking sites … are vast celebrations of solipsism” (even if he picked up on something, that was so 2006, this is now, with vastly greater numbers, diversity, and individuality in what has become more a social utility than a platform for extreme self-expression – but he may’ve been looking in the mirror as much as at the Web!).

“The other factor that may be reducing peer solicitations is the easy ability of teens to then send these to others,” Willard wrote, with comments like, “‘Eeww – look what Jacob just sent me.’ And then there’s the perception that if you send such a message it will go public and you will be shamed.” This was borne out in a presentation from a youth panel at a recent research conference at Facebook. The panelists – 3 high school students and one university student – agreed that Facebook users are fully aware of how public anything one posts in Facebook is or could potentially be.

Risk and harm are not the same

Willard also pointed out the difference researchers on both sides of the Atlantic have pointed out between risk and harm. “Receiving an unwanted sexual solicitation is a risk. How many teens were actually harmed is the far more important question.” And the authors of the latest EU Kids Online report wrote, “As with riding a bike or crossing the road, everyday activities online carry a risk of harm, but this harm is far from inevitable – indeed, it is fairly rare” (see this). In fact, in the 2000 study, less than one-tenth of 1% of the solicitations led to actual offline contact and no sexual contact at all, the CCRC researchers told me.

As for the misrepresentations I referred to above, there have been many, with media reports even irresponsibly equating “sexual solicitations” with actual “predators” (e.g., this at ABC News). But even back when the figure was “1 in 5,” the CCRC never indicated the solicitations came from adult strangers, when in fact “other peers and young adults account(ed) for 90-94% of solicitations where approximate age is known. Also, many acts of solicitation online are harassing or teasing communications that are not designed to seduce youth into offline sexual encounters,” reported the 2009 Internet Safety Technical Task Force’s review of the earlier research. The number of adult-to-teen aggressive solicitations (asking to meet offline, calling on the phone, or sending mail, money, or gifts) was actually 1%, the UNH researchers said after their first two studies.

Misinformation and hyperbole are a disservice to parents and young people because fear based on misinformation pulls much needed attention and problem-solving away from real problems (e.g., this latest CCRC report found that “youth reports of online harassment increased slightly from 2005, up from 9% to 11%). It also distracts parents from individual kids’ own experiences and tends to create overreaction and loss of communication where the latter is much more effective protection than fear. I see more and more signs that, collectively, we’re “getting” this – not only that respectful communication protects better than fearful control, but that it models the respect we want our children to have for themselves and others online and offline.

Related links

* My co-direct Larry Magid on this study in the Huffington Post
* More recent good news from Pew Internet on teen sexting and the fact that “Teens’ social media experiences largely positive: Study”
* And we’ve seen declines in almost all the youth social-problem indicators since the advent of the Web – here’s a bulleted list from one of the latest study’s authors at the CCRC, David Finkelhor, in “‘Juvenoia,’ Part 1: Why Internet fear is overrated.”

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