Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth

Diana Zuckerman
October 1, 2000

Many youths are exposed to sexual solicitations, unwanted pornography, or harassment on the Internet, according to this national survey. One out of four 10-to-17-year-olds who used the Internet regularly was exposed to unwanted pornography last year, while nearly one out of fie encountered unwanted sexual solicitations and approaches. Parents were not informed about most of those incidents, and even fewer were reported to authorities.

According to the study, 19 percent of youth received unwanted online requests to engage in sexual activities or to provide intimate sexual information in the last year. In 15 percent of such incidents, the person soliciting sex attempted to contact the youth in person, over the telephone, or by mail. None of the solicited youth who were interviewed said they suffered sexual assaults or sexual abuse as a result of these episodes, but 25 percent of the youth involved in there encounters reported being very upset or frightened.

In addition, 25 percent of the youth interviewed in the study were exposed to unwanted online pornography in the past year, usually while they were surfing or searching the web, sometimes through e-mail or instant messages. Approximately one-quarter said they had been very upset by what they saw.

The study also reported that 6 percent of youth were harassed in a nonsexual way, including threats of physical harm or postings of embarrassing information. Overall, the survey revealed many offensive and potentially exploitative episodes, whether sexual or not, with some coming from other youth and even from women.

Although the authors report that most youth are not bothered much by what they encounter on the Internet, some are very distressed. The study urges the training of mental health, school and family counselors about these new Internet hazards, so they can help youth deal with distressing online experiences.

Why didn’t more youth report what had happened to authorities? One possible explanation is that only 17 percent of the youth and 10 percent of their parents knew where they could report what had happened. (The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children runs one such service, the CyberTipline.)

Software that screens out certain sexually oriented websites or language is another line of defense. Only one-third of families were employing any filtering or blocking software.

The study called for more involvement by young people in planning Internet protection strategies. According to the findings, Internet sexual offenses tend to be aimed at teenagers more than conventional “offline” child molestation, which targets 7-13-year-olds. “Good protection strategies, especially for the teen group…need to be tied to youth aspirations, values and culture. That requires the input of youth,” the report says. Youth workers can help to make that happen.

The study was based on half hour telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,501 youth who used the Internet at least once a month, and separate interviews with their caretakers, conducted between August 1999 and February 2000.

The study was funded by $300,000 provided by Congress through the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.