By Steven Reinberg
Friday, February 1, 2008 12:00 AM
FRIDAY, Feb. 1 (HealthDay News) -- While social networking Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook have been singled out as places where teens could face sexual harassment, most of the unwanted solicitation actually happens in chat rooms and via instant messaging, a new study finds.
Even there, only 15 percent of children experience unwanted sexual solicitation and only a third report being harassed online, according to a new study in the February issue ofPediatrics.
"There has been a recent concern about the risks posed by social networking to young people," said lead researcher Michele Ybarra, founder of Internet Solutions for Kids, a company that helps design safe Web sites for children. "But we found that instant messaging was more frequently cited than social networking sites as places for unwanted sexual solicitation and harassment," she said. "And chat rooms were more frequently cited than social networking sites."
In the study, Ybarra's team collected data on 1,588 children aged 10 to 15 years old. In a survey, the children were asked about their online experiences over the past year. Among these children, 15 percent said they had an unwanted sexual solicitation. Only one-fourth of these occurred on a social networking site, Ybarra noted.
In addition, 33 percent said they were harassed online. About one-fourth of the incidents occurred on a social networking site.
However, 43 percent of unwanted sexual solicitations occurred via instant messaging, and 32 percent occurred in chat rooms. Harassment was most common with instant messaging, which accounted for 55 percent, the researchers found.
Ybarra thinks that rather than focusing on the technology, the focus should be placed on the children themselves. "We need to stop worrying about social networking sites and pay more attention to what young people are doing online generally," she said.
Parents have mistakenly thought that if their children aren't on a social networking site they are safe, and if they are on one, they are at risk, Ybarra said. "We need to stop trying to scare our kids. We need to start having real conversations," she said.
"We need to help parents understand it's not about social networking sites, it's about monitoring what's going on," Ybarra said. "Just as you should know where your child is after school, you should know where they go online."
One expert isn't sure that social networking sites are as safe as Ybarra's team found.
"I am most concerned that they have surveyed kids who are younger than I would have expected, with only half of the survey population in the 13 to 15 age range," said Kimberly M. Thompson, director of the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health.
MySpace and Facebook have age restrictions to prevent youths under ages 14 and 13 from using the sites,, Thompson said. "This means that many of the kids in the survey are theoretically prevented from exposure, and one interpretation of the author's findings is that setting an entry age is keeping many kids out of these sites," she said.
"The authors downplay the role of social networking sites instead of recognizing that these are the newest form of online media opportunities, and hence, their use and uses are still growing as people adopt the technology," Thompson added. "I wonder what they would have found if they surveyed a slightly older population."
The fear of social networking sites has lead one state to propose a law that would attempt to bar sex offenders from these sites.
Recently, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo drafted a bill mandating that e-mail addresses and screen names of registered sex offenders be reported to social networking sites.
The bill would make it easier to stop sex offenders from using popular teen-oriented sites. It would also bar paroled sex offenders from social networking sites and ban online communication with minors.
For more on teens and the Internet, visit the SafeTeens.com.
SOURCES: Michele Ybarra, Ph.D., M.P.H., founder, Internet Solutions for Kids Inc., Irvine, Calif.; Kimberly M. Thompson, Sc.D., associate professor, and director, Kids Risk Project, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; February 2008,Pediatrics