Cyberbullying and Children's Internet Safety: Surprising Facts

Sexual predators seeking and stalking children online.  A parent's nightmare. 

As scary as it sounds, the most typical case of a child being solicited online (i.e. asked for sexual acts) involves neither pedophiles nor young children according to a report by Harvard's Berman Center for Internet and Society.  After reviewing the scarce research out there the authors discovered this and other somewhat surprising facts about children's internet safety.

The most typical solicitation scenario?

A teen meeting another teen or young adult with the intent of engaging in a sexual relationship.  This accounts for over 90% of sexual solicitation.  And 69% involve no attempt to meet in person. 
...the image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture of the nature of the majority of sexual solicitations and Internet-initiated offline encounters; this inaccuracy leads to major risks in this area being ignored. Of particular concern are the sexual solicitations between minors and the frequency with which online-initiated sexual contact resembles statutory rape rather than other models of abuse.
Facebook, MySpace and other social media sites? Though frequent hot spots for peer-to-peer harrasment, sexual solicitation doesn't often happen there.  

Bullying doesn't happen any more frequently online than offline but it does appear to peak around eighth or ninth grade and remain steady through high school.  Off-line bullying tends to peak in middle school and drop off drastically after seventh grade. 

Who's the most at risk for solicitation and other internet dangers?

Youth engaged in risky behavior off-line who've also encountered other obstacles in life (e.g., sexual or physical abuse, depression). Basically, a minor's psychosocial profile is a much better predictor of internet safety than the specific sites or technologies he or she may use - or whether he or she gives out private information.

Wait!  What??

Sharing personal information puts kids at risk for bullying and solicitation, right?

No, not in and of itself - only in conjunction with other risky internet behaviors (e.g., visiting pornography sites, harrassing other people).  Researchers refer to this as a mediator, meaning, without the other risky behaviors, giving out addresses and other private, identifying info doesn't predict whether kids will be online targets. 

The study of children's cyber lives is a growing field for sure, just like the parallel industry to protect children online, and suffers from limitations due to its infancy and also, the simple nature of the internet: 
The overall prevalence of these threatening acts and problematic content remains difficult to estimate, because (1) there is no government body collecting statistics on online child
abuse (Finkelhor 2008) or harassment; (2) offenders are mostly unavailable to research (a goal is to evade capture); (3) minors may be unlikely to speak out about sensitive issues such as
harassment (DeHue et al. 2008; Slonje and Smith 2008) or solicitation (Mitchell et al. 2004) to
parents, teachers, or police; (4) statistics on certain types of offenses (such as possession of child pornography) nearly universally involve data from offenders in various stages of prosecution or incarceration, biasing the data; (5) as previously mentioned, many of these activities are not illegal, and therefore not frequently reported; and (6) the Internet provides an extremely high degree of connectivity along with low levels of identifying information.
  The same report also documents steps taken by major players in cyber space and new technologies (e.g.,  Google, Yahoo, MTV, Microsoft), child safety heavy weights like The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and organizations devoted to internet safety. 

Take a peak at the report, it's free, easy to read, and chock full of safety details.  Or just read the review of the existing research,  it's much shorter than the full report and has more stats about the particular phenomenon (bullying, solicitation, offensive content).


Luke said...

Thanks for passing this along. I notice how different schools handle these sort of issues, how they educate students. Some schools still tend to be alarmist.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Yes, I for one thought cyberbullying was much more common than this report suggests. The authors do point out that the current research probably underestimates it because kids are reluctant to discuss it and sometimes don't perceive it as bullying.