More young people have access to the Internet than ever before, and researchers are trying to understand what risks are involved. A new study published Tuesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health, reports that one in five youths are seeing unwanted sexual material online—and one in nine are getting unwanted requests for sexual material from their peers or adults.
Study author Sheri Madigan, a child and adolescent psychologist, says that many young clients have described their risky online behaviors to her. “Some teens I worked with set up meetings offline with strangers they had met online,” she says. “Other teens had shared naked images online and were being blackmailed into sending more photos, or they risked having their images posted and distributed online.”
Madigan, the Canada Research Chair in the department of psychology at the University of Calgary and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, wondered how common it was for young people to come across sexual content online or to be asked for it by other young people or adults.
To help answer that question, Madigan and her co-authors pulled together data from all existing studies looking at unwanted online sexual exposure like pop-up pictures or videos, spam emails and website links or solicitation among young people under age 18. They found 31 studies that looked at unwanted online exposure, and nine studies that looked at online solicitation.
They found that 20% of young people were exposed to sexual images online and 11% received unwanted requests to engage in sexual activities or conversation, or to provide sexual images.
“Although the Internet can be an incredibly valuable resource and a fun entertainment tool for kids, it also has risks,” says Madigan. “Making youth aware of them is key to keeping them safe.” Madigan says that only about 40% of parents are regularly talking to their children and adolescents about Internet safety, and that parental supervision of Internet use is low. “These numbers need to shift upward so that all children and adolescents get the information they need to be safe online,” she says.
The study provided some good news, too. The researchers found that while unwanted online exposure and solicitation is still fairly common among young people, it has decreased each year from 2005 to 2015 by approximately 1%.
“We believe that awareness of Internet-related risks has grown over time, which may explain the reduction in exposure to online risks,” says Madigan, noting that more schools are providing Internet safety programs, and that parental controls and filters have become more readily available. More surveillance of cyberbullying and Internet predators by law enforcement may also have an effect.
The study has several limitations. It doesn’t assess the most common ways that young people are exposed to sexual images or solicitation. The researchers also looked at studies from 1990 to 2016, which means that today’s exposure rates could be different. But Madigan and her fellow co-authors conclude that their findings argue for more prevention strategies to protect children and teenagers online, such as more education on healthy relationships on and offline, more tips for identifying common online behaviors among sexual predators, and more Internet safety messaging that targets young people, not just their parents.