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The Real Dangers Facing Children Online

written by: John Lister•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 1/29/2009

In the first of a three-part series about online child safety, we look at a new report which suggests our assumptions about the risks facing children online may not be accurate.

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    The report comes from the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. This is a group set up after MySpace came to an agreement with almost every state attorney general to improve online safety for children. The report follows a year long study involving social networking sites, software firms and child safety experts, and brings together a wide range of existing research.

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    The Reality of Online Safety

    The key message from the report is that the dangers children face online are not all that different from the ones they face in everyday life. It concludes that what technology a child is using has much less effect on the risks of them experiencing problems than the stability of their home life.

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    Bullying

    Cyber-bullying from peers such as classmates and friends is the most common threat that children face online. The exact statistics vary from study to study because it is difficult to accurately define what the problem covers. It appears that in many or most cases of online harassment, the victim either knows for certain, or can work out, who the perpetrator is. Unlike ‘real world’ bullying, online harassment doesn’t become noticeably less common once children get into their late teens, and females appear to be more vulnerable to bullying online.

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    Sexual Solicitation

    Sexual approaches to children online are, of course, a serious problem. However, the report concludes that the stereotype of adults posing as children to lure youngsters into meetings is misleading. In most cases of statutory rape following a meeting set-up online, the adolescent was aware that the person they were meeting was an adult. The report suggests these stereotypes are distracting attention from solving more common problems, particularly the surprisingly high proportion of sexual solicitation which comes from children themselves.

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    Adult Content

    While children can and do access unsuitable material, it’s rare that children stumble across such material. Most children who see such material are specifically looking for it, particularly older boys. The research examined in the study was inconsistent, but suggested that younger children can be more likely to see nudity through television shows and movies than websites.

    A large amount of the sexual content children see unwittingly is in the form of spam e-mails and messages through social networking sites and is often suggestive rather than explicit.

    The report wasn’t able to draw any firm conclusions about children’s exposure to violence online and says more research is needed in this area. However, it did note that there is an underreported problem of children themselves producing unsuitable adult content, for example through video sharing websites.

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    Conclusions

    The authors of the report say much more research is needed into the issue, particularly given that they found many common assumptions and stereotypes to be untrue. They’ve called for more public funding to be given to all aspects of the issue, including schools, research and law enforcement.

    You can read the full report at: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/pubrelease/isttf/

Protecting your children online

Many parents worry about keeping their children safe online, In a three-part series we look at the truth about dangers children face on the internet, security packages which can filter unsuitable content, and guidelines for protecting your children.
  1. The Real Dangers Facing Children Online
  2. Parental Control Software
  3. Tips for Protecting Your Children Online