Youth may be more likely victimized while using instant messenger and visiting chat rooms than while using social networking sites, new research this week reports.
The study, conducted by child health researchers Michele Ybarra of Internet Solutions for Kids and Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire, set out to look at the places online where youth are most likely to experience sexual solicitation and harassment. The researchers, whose study is published in Pediatrics, found that among the almost 1600 children and adolescents 10-15 years-old surveyed nationally, 4% reported experiencing an unwanted sexual solicitation and 9% reported being harassed while on a social networking site. Solicitations were reported 59% more often in instant messaging however, and 19% more often in chat rooms than social networking sites. More surprising, harassments were reported 96% more often in instant messaging than in social networking sites. “Are victimizations happening in social networking sites? Yes,” Ybarra explains, “but they’re happening with greater frequency in instant messaging and chat rooms.”
The authors say the results serve as a warning for parents not to focus exclusively on social networking sites. “Internet safety is not just about whether your child is on MySpace or not. You should know what your children are doing on MySpace and Facebook. But you also need to know what your children are doing in school, after school, at parties, at the mall, online – basically all environments in which they engage. You can’t just focus on one place and assume that your job is done.”
An estimated 15% of children and adolescents are targeted by unwanted sexual solicitation each year, including being asked to talk about sex, provide personal sexual information, or engage in sexual behavior online when they do not want to. Depending on the type of harassment and the age of the children surveyed, 9-30% of youth are harassed yearly. Current events have raised public awareness and concern about the risks young people face when they are in social networking sites. Most recent was the case of Megan Meier, a teenager who committed suicide after her online ‘boyfriend’, an adult pretending to be her age, broke up with her. In an effort to protect the safety of children and adolescents, various laws have been proposed such as requiring social networking sites to introduce software capable of age verification.
The latest study is good news for parents, Ybarra says. The majority of young people using the Internet are never harassed and never experience unwanted sexual solicitation. This includes social networking sites. Adults also need to understand that for many youth, Ybarra advises, their online world is an extension of their offline world. “Young people experiencing problems online are often experiencing problems offline as well. We need to make sure that we are giving them the support and tools to healthfully navigate across all environments, both online and offline.”