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August 9, 2006

Q&A: Sex and the Internet – How Safe are Teens?

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) today released a study revealing important information about teens, sex and the Internet. University of New Hampshire (UNH) researchers conducted the study. They found that while using the Internet, more of today’s youth are exposed to pornography, but fewer receive sexual solicitations, compared to a comparable national sample from 1999.

Kenna Lowe, with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, spoke to Dina L.G. Borzekowski, EdD, assistant professor in the School’s Department of Health, Behavior and Society, to learn more. Borzekowski, a renowned expert in the field, is not affiliated with the NCMEC study.

Question: The UNH study reported good news and bad news related to teen Internet usage—less sexual solicitations, but more exposure to unwanted pornography, as well as more online harassment and cyber-bullying. Why was this study important?

Answer: We have been awaiting the release of this study because, although we know that practically all teenagers and youth go online, little is known about what they see and do while there. Even less information is available on the impact of online messages.

Question: The study found an 8 percent increase in 10- to 17-year-old Internet users’ exposure to unwanted pornography compared to the information released five years ago. Should parents be alarmed by this increase?

Answer: Honestly, I'm surprised that the number is as low as it was in this survey. Exposure to any unwanted material is troublesome, but given what we've observed in our research, the fact that UNH’s David Finkelhor and his colleagues found that only one-third of teens had seen unwanted images is lower than what we would have predicted. Think about your own use of the Internet; have you ever seen any unwanted sexual material while surfing? Parents should be concerned and discuss this issue with their children, but I would not go so far as saying that parents need to be alarmed. When the material is unwanted, most teenagers click out of the website, which is the same as what adults do when we come across this material.

Question: What forms can online harassment and cyber-bullying take? Are they typically adult-to-child or teen-to-teen?

Answer: From what we know, a great deal of the online harassment and cyber-bullying occurs among youths who know each other offline. In previous generations, harassment and bullying happened among just a handful of on-lookers—in a school hallway, on a basketball court or in a fast-food restaurant. The settings have changed. Mean words and pranks now happen in cyberspace, which allows the harassment and bullying to escalate and cause more harm because they happen faster and with more witnesses. Among all users, “netiquette” needs to be expected and honored.

Question: Are social networking websites adding to this trend?

Answer: The Internet allows for easy and continuous communication with friends, which is a developmentally appropriate behavior for teenagers. The majority of teenagers regularly Instant Message and most are familiar with social networking sites. I would expect that the available communication activities and forums of the Internet will continue to emerge, gain popularity and evolve along with the technology. The problem is that children and teenagers think of these activities and forums as personal and private, when they are extremely available and public.

Question: The UNH researchers reported a reduction (from 1 in 5 in 1999-2000 to 1 in 7 in 2005) unwanted sexual solicitations. Do you see that ratio continuing to fall?

Answer: Any solicitation is worrisome, but from what we've heard on the evening news, it is comforting to know that the reported cases are extremely rare. I would hope that this Internet-savvy population of youth will become even smarter online and take fewer risks. If so, we will see this number continue to decline.

Question: In our Internet-centric society, what can parents do to protect their children?

Answer: While technological solutions should be developed, I feel the answer lies in stronger connections between parents and their children. As we have seen with other risky behaviors, when parents talk to children and are more aware of what they are doing, youth are safer and healthier. We have seen in the United States and abroad that the Internet is an invaluable resource for youth. There is current legislation being proposed in Washington, D.C., to prevent youth access to the Internet, so as to protect children.

Question: You recently co-authored a study that found that teens use the Internet to find health information, regardless of their school status, gender, age or ethnicity. Should your study results be evidence that teens should be encouraged to use the Internet?

Answer: Yes, exactly. My co-authors and I found that the Internet can most definitely be used in a positive way. The UNH study also suggests that there is good news regarding teenagers and online safety. Rather than limit access, I would encourage stronger online media literacy and the development of positive and healthy websites for youth.

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Lowe or Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.