What Kids Say When It Comes To Online Threats

Jun 10, 2015

Credit daniel / Flickr

This week, we’re going behind the scenes of Idaho’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC). Since 2008, the unit has made 237 arrests in Idaho. The yearly numbers have remained fairly steady for several years, hovering between 30 and 40.

Across the country, ICAC units have seen a consistent increase in the number of people arrested for crimes against children since 2000.

But how worried should parents be when it comes to sexual solicitations on the Internet? It’s a hard thing to quantify, but researchers have been studying the issue since 2000. The Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire conducts a survey of kids every five years.

In 2012, one in 11 kids on the Internet “received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year.” That comes from the Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS). The Crimes Against Children Research Center has conducted three YISS surveys, one in 2000, 2005, and 2010. Internet users ages 10-17 were asked a series of questions about their time on the Internet. Here’s what they found:

Unwanted sexual solicitations are going down.

That’s good news, says David Finkelhor who leads the research center. He’s been tracking this information for more than ten years. In 2000, 19 percent of kids received an unwanted sexual solicitation online, which fell to 13 percent in 2005. In 2010, that number was down to nine percent.

There are many reasons why the number of unwanted solicitations has dropped, says Finkelhor. One is Internet interactions have migrated from less-secure to more-secure environments.

“These used to take place in chat rooms, now they take place on Facebook,” Finkelhor says.  

He says law enforcement – including groups like ICAC – may be helping to drop those numbers.

“Law enforcement has gotten very aggressive in this area,” Finkelhor says. “It’s very possible they catching peopled at an earlier stage of their offending cycle. They can catch people before they’ve even victimized a child, by impersonating a child online. They can also identify a lot of people who downloaded or who are in possession of child pornography.”

Who receives these unwanted online experiences?

According to the latest YISS survey, it’s mainly older kids ages 13-17. Seventy-five percent are girls. 

Who does the soliciting?

Seventy-two percent of those soliciting kids online are male. Forty-two percent were younger than 18. Twenty-three percent were 18-25, while just seven percent were older than 25.

Where did this happen? 

“Over half of solicitations took place in social networking sites,” said the YISS 2010 survey. More than 50 percent of the time, the solicitation happened when the child was at home on their computer.

“That’s just where kids are,” says Finkelhor. But many of the unwanted solicitations come from other kids, not predators. “Many of them are just the kind of crude banter that is facilitated by the Internet.”

What did they ask for?

Inappropriate pictures were high on the list. Forty-five percent of those who approached kids online wanted sexual pictures. Twelve percent of solicitors actually sent the kids a sexual picture of themselves. Predators also tried to meet the kids offline in 34 percent of cases.

What’s the good news?

Kids tended to say 'no' when asked to meet offline. Only 3 percent met the solicitor in person. Only 1 percent of kids had sexual contact with a predator.

“Very few of these solicitations end up in any kind of sexual offense, a meeting or a kid sending an image," Finkelhor says. "The vast majority of them are some kind of crude solicitation and the kid just kind of deflected it. Most kids are responding to these in a healthy, informed, self-protective way.”

Fifty-three percent of kids told someone about being approached on the Internet. They told friends most often; only one in five told a parent. But rarely did police ever find out. For kids who told no one about the experience, 57 percent said they felt it wasn’t serious enough for them to share it. Three percent were too scared to tell. And three percent said simply, it “happens all the time,” and that’s why they didn’t tell someone.

What should parents do?

Finkelhor says parents should start a dialogue early on with their kids about what they may find on the Internet. He says that means starting when they’re around eight-years-old. 

“It’s important to have a good open communication with young people,” he says. “Talk with them about the kind of things they may encounter.”

But don’t scare them, he says.

“Just equip them for what kinds of things might happen and what they might want to do in those instances.”

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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