In today’s digital world, one of the greatest concerns for most parents is their children’s online safety – and, by extension, their children’s real-world safety. These fears are sometimes overblown, though they are hardly ungrounded. Let’s face it, with the increasing sophistication of search engines and GPS apps it’s becoming more difficult by the day to maintain one’s personal privacy, especially for kids, who often don’t understand the need to withhold information. Children who share personal data via texts, emails, or in chats – even by simply naming their school, giving their full name, or mentioning a parent’s employer – can unwittingly and unknowingly create real-life risks.
In this blog I present the most common online dangers for children. Next week I will discuss in detail what parents can do to protect their kids. Please keep in mind as you read the following that actual negative incidents involving kids and online activity are relatively few and far between in comparison to the amount of media attention paid to them. Most kids travel through the online universe unscathed, much as they travel through the real world without incident.
The big worry most parents have is that their kids are vulnerable to sexual predators through digital interactions. And while the vast majority of Internet interactions are benign, there are at least a few unsavory people lurking in the online shadows. Typically predators seek kids who appear vulnerable to seduction, primarily teens who post sexually provocative photos or videos (of themselves or others), and those who are willing to talk about sex with online strangers. So how often does “stranger danger” really occur? Studies show that approximately 1 in 25 kids has received an online sexual solicitation where the person at least suggested a real-world meeting.[i]
Usually exposure to sexual predators occurs through social media or a chat forum designed for young people. One such technology is Skout, a mobile phone app specifically designed for flirting with strangers. Most Skout users sign in through Facebook, which officially forbids members under age 13 (though this rule is difficult to enforce). In 2011, when Skout realized a significant percentage of its users were aged 17 and under, they started a separate, more protected service for minors. Nonetheless, adults posing as teens were found to be entering this new site and trying to connect with underage victims. In 2011 three children – ages 12, 13, and 15 – were raped by adults met via this online app, each of whom had posed as a new teen friend. After learning of these crimes Skout suspended its youth service until more safety measures could be put in place.
Another website popular with teens is Chatroulette, which randomly pairs users for video chat sessions. Ostensibly Chatroulette is an opportunity to meet people from all corners of the globe. However, many individuals use it for sexual purposes, exhibiting themselves and/or hoping to meet others interested in a mutual masturbation session. The site encourages users to be at least 18, but how many adolescents have ever been stopped by that kind of admonition? (FYI, exhibiting oneself in an online video chat room is not illegal. In fact, it is often highly encouraged.) Some predators are taking advantage of the growing popularity of webcams and video chat, arranging video rather than in-person meetings with their underage victims. A sneaky new trick is hiring attractive female prostitutes and having them engage in webcam sex with teen boys. The predator records the video chat session, which is very easy to do, thus creating instant child porn with an unwitting albeit willing participant. Sometimes the video is kept for private use, other times it is shared online – and the victim has no control over this.
Many parents also worry that their kids will be exposed to online pornography. This, too, is a legitimate concern. In today’s world if a boy (or girl) is curious about sex all he or she needs to do is find a porn site and click a button that says “Yes, I’m 18.” There is no need to display a driver’s license as proof of age, and no need to borrow a parent’s credit card to pay. Simply put, pornography of every ilk imaginable is now ubiquitous, available to anyone, anytime, on almost any digital device, and more often than not it’s free. Even kids who aren’t actively seeking porn can easily be exposed to inappropriate content. Frankly, the number of seemingly innocuous words that bring up porn sites when typed into an Internet search engine is shocking.
The undeniable fact is nowadays children encountering pornography is extremely common. In one 2008 survey of 594 college students (median age 19 years), 93 percent of male students and 62 percent of female students said they’d seen online pornography prior to age 18. Typically the age of first exposure was reported to be between the ages of 14 and 17.[ii] Keep in mind, this study was conducted in 2008, before the current online porn explosion. More recent research suggests the average age of first exposure to Internet porn is now 11.[iii] Again, next week’s blog will discuss ways to shield your kids from online porn exposure (and other inappropriate content and contact).
Now that computers and smartphones have built-in digital cameras and webcams, it is incredibly easy for a kid to impulsively take a provocative self-photo and send it to another person. Unfortunately, once that image is sent the child loses all control over it; the recipient may keep it private, forward it to others, or post it online for public viewing. For many teens, sexted images are redefining what it means to have a bad break-up, as resentful former boyfriends or girlfriends can send and/or post an ex’s nude image pretty much anywhere, anytime.
Of further concern is the fact that when minors sext a photo, even to other teens, they are (usually unwittingly) violating laws that prohibit the making and dissemination of child pornography. Numerous teens have been arrested and charged with this offense. In one particularly nasty incident a 16-year old girl accidentally uploaded a nude photo of herself to a social networking site. Although she quickly deleted the image, another teen from her school had already seen and downloaded it. He then threatened to distribute it if she didn’t send him more pictures. When she refused, he forwarded the photo to about 100 other people at their school. This boy was later arrested and charged with a felony. Eventually he pled guilty and was placed on probation.[iv]
Although teen sexting has received a lot of media attention because of its shock value, it is actually somewhat uncommon. Only about 1 percent of kids say they have knowingly created, sent, or appeared in sexually explicit imagery. So, media fear-mongering aside, it appears that only a small minority of teens actually sext. Those who do engage in experimental sexting may face school expulsion or even arrest as a consequence, though most do not. That said, for a teenaged girl or boy, having one’s nude picture passed around one’s high-school or posted online can be a far worse (and longer lasting) punishment than anything the legal system might dish out.
Sadly, it’s not just adults and adult material that parents need to worry about. Cyberbullying – the deliberate, repeated, and hostile use of digital technology to harm other people – is a new form of childhood torture, and it is nearly always perpetrated by other kids. In one instance in 2010 a 15-year old Massachusetts girl, Phoebe Prince, hanged herself after being bullied and humiliated via text messages and on Facebook for nearly three months by multiple students at her high school. A year later, a student at Rutgers University, Dharun Ravi, set up a hidden webcam in his dorm room to spy on his 19-year-old roommate, Tyler Clementi. In this way Ravi filmed Clementi having consensual sex with another man. Ravi then sent out texts and tweets encouraging his friends to view the recorded encounter online, where he had posted it. Three days later Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New York City. Ravi was arrested, and eventually served 20 days in jail as a consequence of his cyberbullying.
Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi are far from the only victims of cyberbullying. They are merely the most publicized of many suicides and other acts of emotional and physical self-harm that have resulted from this entirely new genre of personal persecution. Fortunately, government agencies are beginning to take action against cyberbullying by providing useful direction and education to both parents and educators, and also by passing laws prohibiting such activity. The most prominent of these laws, the “Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act,” passed by the US Congress in 2011, mandates that school districts must update their policies to include education about cyberbullying. In many US schools staff members now receive annual training on bullying behaviors, including cyberbullying
Should Kids Go Online at All?
The material presented above is not intended to scare parents into taking away their children’s digital devices. It is simply meant to raise awareness about potential dangers. The vast majority of kids’ online interactions are completely benign and normal. For the most part kids use digital devices to interact with each other and the world much as they do in-person, only faster and on a wider scale. The Internet is simply a part of their social circle. Yes, there are dangers online, but there are dangers in the real world, too. A parent’s job is not to hover and engird, but to educate and trust. As mentioned earlier, next week’s blog will discuss the best ways to accomplish this.
[i] J. Wolak, D. Finkelhor, K. Mitchell, and M. Ybarra, “Online Predators and Their Victims: Myths, Realities, and Implications for Prevention and Treatment,” American Psychologist (2008) 63: 111-128.
[ii] C. Sabina, J. Wolak, and D Finkelhor, “The Nature and Dynamics of Internet Pornography Exposure for Youth,” Cyperpsychology & Behavior (2008) 11(6) : 691-693.
[iii] The Stats on Internet Pornography, http://thedinfographics.com/2011/12/23/internet-pornography-statistics/ (accessed Feb 14, 2013).
[iv] J. Wolak, D. Finkelhor, and K.J. Mitchell, “How Often are Teens Arrested for Sexting? Data From a National Sample of Police Cases,” Pediatrics (2012) 129 : 1-12.