“Like many teenagers, Megan and her peers carried an online social life that was more mercurial, and perhaps more crucial to their sense of status and acceptance, than the one they inhabited in the flesh.” Quote from the article, “Friend Game”, by Lauren Collins, The New Yorker, January 21, 2008.
Teenagers are using the internet more and more. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that that teen internet use has gone up 24% in the last four years and 87% of US teens are “online”. Most of their use is reported as being for gaming and for communication, through network sites such as “Facebook” and “MySpace” and blogs. It is also easy to find a lot of bad things for teenagers online. For example, before writing this article I did a Google search on “How to ditch school” – 321,000 hits, and “How to fool your parents” – 563,000 hits. Clearly, the internet can be problematic for teens, highlighted by the story from the New Yorker above and the recent story from Florida of six girls filming themselves beating another girl and posting it on YouTube.
In looking further at teems and problematic internet use, a survey by Cox Communications (along with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children), in 2007 noted that:
- 69% of teens regularly receive personal messages online from people they do not know and most of them do not tell a trusted adult about it.
- Teens readily post personal information online. 64% post photos or videos of themselves, while more than half (58%) post info about where they live.
- Nearly one in 10 teens (8%) has posted his or her cell phone number online.
The survey also showed that, overall, 19% of teens report they have been harassed or bullied online, and the incidence of online harassment is higher (23%) among 16 and 17 year-olds.
These are impressive numbers but what does all of this mean? The answer to this question is not entirely clear, but as more data is gathered, more concern will be raised. Take, for example, the subject of online sexual predators. In March of 2008, the American Psychological Association released a survey by Wolak et al. The purpose was to assess issues related to online sex and children. The survey results offered the following statistical highlights:
- One in 5 youth received a sexual approach or solicitation over the Internet in the past year.
- One in 33 youth received an aggressive sexual solicitation in the past year. This means a predator asked a young person to meet somewhere, called a young person on the phone, and/or sent the young person correspondence, money, or gifts through the U.S. Postal Service.
- One in 4 youth had an unwanted exposure in the past year to pictures of naked people or people having sex.
- Only a fraction of all episodes was reported to authorities such as the police, an Internet service provider, or a hotline.
They further reported that the youth at greatest risk were the ones engaging in online risky behavior. The online risky behaviors included maintaining buddy lists that included strangers, discussing sex online with people they did not know in person and being “rude or nasty” online. As a society, we are only beginning to understand the extent of online crimes against children and we know even less about the longterm effects of this on our children. What is known is that bullying of any form can lead to behavior problems, depression and anxiety problems at home and at school.
Megan, girl in the quote from above, was a victim internet bullying. She died by hanging herself in her bedroom closet, precipitated by the online problems. So what can parents do about this?
For starters, I would suggest asking your children about their internet use including if they have been victimized online in any way and what they are doing online. This is important because the Cox Communications survey referenced above reported that:
- Teens whose parents have talked to them “a lot” about Internet safety are more concerned about the risks of sharing personal info online than teens whose parents are less involved. For instance, 65% of those whose parents have not talked to them about online safety post info about where they live, compared to 48% of teens with more involved parents.
- Teens whose parents have talked to them “a lot” about online safety are less likely to consider meeting face to face with someone they met on the Internet (12% vs. 20%).
I would also add that the family computer should be placed in a “public” place in the home to make monitoring and limiting online use much easier.
Whether we like it or not, computers and the internet are here to stay and will only become a bigger and more integral part of our lives. It is an area of growing concern for the safety of children and needs our attention.
The internet, of course, isn’t all bad. The website http://www.onlinesafetysite.com contains information on how parents can protect their children from online victimization. You can also find plenty of other positive information online. All you need is Google.
Thanks to: Janis Wolak, PhD, et al, “Online Predators and Their Victims: Myths, Relaities, and Implications for the Prevention and Treatment”, American Psychologist, Vol. 63, #2.