How Risky Are Social Networking Sites?

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Internet Solutions for Kids and the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire

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Despite heavy media coverage about the safety and pervasiveness of Internet social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and recent legislative efforts to restrict youth access to such sites, this study finds that youth are more likely to experience harassment and sexual solicitation while instant messaging or visiting in online chat rooms. “All of our suppositions and assumptions about what absolutely must be going on online are not supported by the data,” said lead author Michele Ybarra, president of the nonprofit research firm Internet Solutions for Kids. “The whole issue of online predation is a lot different than what we talk about in the media.”

The 2006 Growing up With Media survey asked nearly 1,600 youth, ages 10 to 15, to answer questions about their Internet experiences during the past 12 months, including whether they’d been harassed or sexually solicited online within the past year. Youth who responded in the affirmative (“targeted youth”) were asked to name the online activity in which they were engaged at the time.

The survey defined being harassed as being the target of rude or mean comments, threatening or aggressive comments, or rumor-spreading. It defined sexual solicitation as asking someone to talk about sex, provide sexual information or do something sexual when they didn’t want to.

Among all youth surveyed, 15 percent reported an unwanted sexual solicitation in the previous year, and 4 percent while on a social networking site. One-third reported they had been harassed online, and 9 percent while on a social networking site.

Among targeted youth, 27 percent of sexual solicitations and 28 percent of harassments occurred while the youths were on social networking sites.

Sexual solicitations were more likely to occur via instant messaging or in chat rooms (43 percent and 32 percent, respectively). Harassment was more common while youth were instant messaging (55 percent).

Unwanted sexual solicitations also occurred during e-mailing (22 percent), online gaming (18 percent) and blogging (5 percent). Harassment was also prevalent during e-mailing (20 percent), online gaming (24 percent) and blogging (6 percent).

The authors write that, while they and others “assumed that the confluence of opportunities to share personal information, meet new people and search for personal characteristics offered in social networking sites would create a particularly risky place for youth … the current findings suggest that this is not true.” They recommend that parents and officials focus on children’s online behaviors and psychosocial issues rather than on restricting use of social networking sites.

“We need to acknowledge that these types of things are happening wherever young people are coming together and communicating,” Ybarra said.