One in five children between 10 and 17 years of age have reported receiving an unwanted sexual solicitation while online, a new study finds.
The solicitation mostly occurred in chat rooms and through e-mail.
But the kids are generally all right, the study says. The researchers found teenagers are savvy when it comes to Internet use and while the overtures disturbed them, none of the children in the study encountered any violence.
"There were so many anecdotal stories coming out in the media and parents are concerned about safety on the Internet," said one of the lead authors, Kimberly Mitchell of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire."But there wasn't a tangible study that looked at how often solicitation occurs."
Some Behavior is Risky
Researchers conducted phone interviews with 1,501 teenagers between the ages of 10 and 17 who regularly use the Internet. They also interviewed the children's parents. After analyzing the data, the researchers identified certain characteristics that put youth at more risk for solicitation.
"In terms of risk, girls and older youth [14 to 17 years old] were more likely to be solicited," the authors wrote in the study which appears in the June 20 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Risk was higher for youngsters who were troubled, such as those who experienced a negative life event such as a death in the family, moved to a new home, had separated or divorced parents or had a parent who lost a job.
The risk was also higher for children who used the Internet more frequently, participated in chat rooms or engaged in risky behavior online — as defined by the authors — that might include posting personal information, making rude or nasty comments, talking about sex with someone who they never before met in person and going to X-rated sites on purpose.
Some Children Upset by Overtures
"Any child who is mature enough to be on the Internet and into chat rooms where that sort of discussion is likely, or even possible, parents should be talking to these kids about what these kind of approaches mean," said Lewis Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
"They need to say these actions may be from people who would act in a way one would find reprehensible."
Although the majority of children seemed to cope with the solicitation, one quarter of the children who were solicited — some of whom were subsequently approached in person, or enticed on the telephone or by regular mail — reported being extremely upset or afraid.
"Some of the unwanted behavior included simple requests like 'What do you look like?' to 'What is your bra size?'" said Mitchell.
Although techniques are available to protect children from certain content, most parents weren't using them. Only 33 percent of the children's parents said they employed filtering systems on their Internet connections.
"There are so many kinds of filtering systems and it can get confusing," Mitchell said. "Because of the ambiguity of them, a number of parents said they discontinued using a filtering system."
Internet solicitation should be added to the list of childhood perils "about which [authorities] should be knowledgeable and able to provide counsel to families," said the report.
Mitchell suggests parents should keep a watchful eye and regularly talk to their children about their Internet use.
Basic safety rules include:
Do not give out personal information online such as telephone numbers, addresses, names.
Never give out your present location, such as the name of a school you attend, library, etc.
When a child is using the Internet at home, place the computer in an open space like the living room or kitchen, instead of hidden away in a back room or bedroom.
Report any unwanted behavior to local police and/or Internet provider.
Also, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children allows parents to report sexual solicitation online.
"There are so many great things about the Internet and it is definitely something that parents should encourage children to use," Mitchell added. "But we also think that parents should be aware of what is going on."