Online Victims: Internet behaviors make targets of some kids

About one in five youngsters reports encountering at least one instance of unwanted sexual solicitation or harassment online in the past year, a national telephone survey finds. Internet-safety programs that typically urge children to avoid posting personal information online ignore other behaviors that the new results suggest lead to such victimization.

Sharing one’s name, contact information, and other personal data on the Internet didn’t increase the chances of experiencing online victimization, according to a team led by psychologist Michele L. Ybarra of Internet Solutions for Kids, a nonprofit research organization in Irvine, Calif. Among 1,497 children and teenagers interviewed, 831 acknowledged having disclosed personal information online, the researchers say. Furthermore, one in three children reported having online friends who had never been met in person.

The vast majority of online targets of sexual solicitation or harassment had engaged in four or more troubling behaviors when using the Internet, Ybarra’s group reports in the February Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. These online acts included making contact with people in a variety of venues, talking about sex with unknown people, putting unknown people on one’s buddy list, making rude or nasty comments to someone else, and intentionally visiting X-rated sites.

Almost half the time, risky online behaviors occurred while youngsters used the Internet in the company of friends or peers, Ybarra’s group notes.

Online victims also reported excessive rates of other problems in their daily lives, including physical and sexual abuse, severe conflict with parents, and being a target of bullying at school.

Although no one has studied the effectiveness of various strategies to prevent online victimization of youth, the researchers recommend that parents and clinicians “arm [children] with the tools to reduce the risk that some of their behaviors may entail.” For instance, adults might tell children that they can discontinue any online relationship at any time by changing one’s log-in name or by blocking another person from entering one’s Web social-network site.

Ybarra and her coworkers conducted random telephone interviews with 10-to 17-year-olds between March 2 and June 11, 2005. The sample contained about equal numbers of boys and girls. Three-quarters of the participants identified themselves as white.

Interviewers asked each youngster to estimate how often in the past year he or she had engaged in any of nine online behaviors that have raised concerns about safety. Interviewers also asked children whether they had encountered unwanted online sexual requests or harassment, such as being threatened or embarrassed by someone else posting or sending messages about them for other people to see.

The new data underscore that “the ways children put themselves at risk in the virtual world appear to mirror the ways they do in the real one,” remarks pediatrician Dimitri A. Christakis of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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