Teen Online Victimization: Just the Facts

Research suggests that online teen victims are troubled teens offline.

By Anne Collier

It was great to see the Associated Press's "Net threats result of kids' online behavior." It means newspapers and broadcast media worldwide just may run this story, and more parents will be getting facts instead of scary messages based on ignorance, politics, well-intentioned guesswork. Here are some facts we have now:

Fact No. 1:
Posting personal info online isn't actually what makes kids most
vulnerable to predators. "Rather, victimization is more likely to
result from … talking about sex with people met online and
intentionally embarrassing someone else on the Internet," the AP reports.
The first form of aggressive behavior – talking about sex with
strangers online – is about predation, the second about harassing or
cyberbullying, which affects a great many more teens (about one-third
of all online youth, according to the latest Pew/Internet study – see this).

Fact No. 2: "Online victims tend to be teens with troubles offline, such as poor relationships with parents, loneliness and depression" (see "Profile of a teen online victim"). The kids most at risk online are already risk-seekers and -takers in real life.

Fact No. 3: A lot of sexual-victimization cases happen at the hands of peers, not adults, the AP reports, citing the work of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. It also cites a 2004 study by the CACRC finding that, even when offenders are adults, they "generally aren't strangers, and pedophiles aren't luring unsuspecting children by pretending to be a peer."

Certainly nobody's saying kids should completely relax about posting personal info about themselves. It's common sense that the more discreet they are the less info there'll be to use against them. But the reality is, sharing – thoughts, media, experiences – is what today's very social, user-driven Web is all about, and a lot of parents can breathe easier knowing that posting personal info online is not as high-risk as once thought.

So what we are saying is that it's time to look at the facts we now have and adjust our child-protection strategies accordingly at home, in schools, and in policymaking. We need to…

  • …think of our online kids less as victims and more as participants on the participatory Web, of which they are the key drivers.

  • …think more in terms of online citizenship than online safety. Good citizenship includes safety; knowing that aggressive behavior puts kids at risk, we see that ethical behavior protects them.

When Web participants become cybercitizens, with a sense of responsibility toward fellow participants and their collective space, the social Web will be a safer, better place for everyone on it.

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