Risks Children Take Online

Frequency of Interaction with Strangers

By Nancy Taylor

Do you really know who your child is talking to online?

Most of us have Internet access. And most of us, as hard as we may try, cannot police our children online as much as we may like. If we warn them of the risks of talking to strangers on the web, and impress upon them the danger of meeting anyone they may have developed a relationship with on the Internet, they are probably pretty safe, right?

Wrong.

A recent survey sponsored by the Polly Klaas Foundation shows that a startling number of teenagers between the ages of eight and eighteen have talked to strangers online, and an equally shocking number have made arrangements to meet the people they communicate with. With online correspondence becoming easier and more commonplace, it is imperative that parents understand the very real possibility that their children may be engaging in potentially harmful relationships with people they have never met.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project recently reported that 87 percent of young people ages 12 to 17 (21 million) use the Internet. Of these, more than half create web pages or blogs that list personal information. Many of these teenagers also post personal information on the web. This puts children at risk to be targeted by predators who often lie about their ages and personal information to lure teenagers into meeting them.

Polly Klaas Foundation is a national non-profit organization that helps find missing children and educate kids and their parents in ways not to go missing in the first place. In October 2005, a survey of 1,468 children ages 8 to 18 was released by this organization. The study consisted of six questions that teens answered in a national online questionnaire. The survey, designed to gauge how teenagers behave online and the risks they are willing to take, produced some frightening results.

Potentially Risky Internet Behavior by Teens and Pre-teens

Frequency of Use

The vast majority of teens surveyed reported that they use the internet and check email daily, most at least once a day. The use of Instant Messaging (IM) is very commonplace, and most teens reported frequent use of IM either from their computers or cell phones, half of them do this daily.

Use of Chat rooms, blogs and online web journals are becoming more prevalent as well. More than half of teens admitted to spending time in chat rooms, and three-fourths of teens have read blogs and online journals. Many teenagers also admitted to using code words when parents come into the room. Be aware of your child writing PIR (parent in room) or exiting the page they are on quickly when you enter a room where they are accessing the internet.

Teens are Frequently Asked Personal Questions Online by Someone They Have Never Met.

We all tell our kids not to talk to strangers. For the most part, we feel like they know this pretty well, and are safe. But kids think they can trust the people they ‘get to know’ on the internet. One 15-year-old girl surveyed began communicating intimately with a man she met online. They shared feelings for each other and agreed to meet, until the girl’s parents stepped in and convinced her to call the meeting off. She later found out that the man was a 22-year-old who was actively courting a number of teenage girls.

Frighteningly, more than half of teens reported that they have been asked personal questions such as their sex, age and location while online. Many of these kids answer these questions. 34% of kids admitted to making arrangements to meet people they had met online. These meetings can have disastrous results! Remind your kids that people can pretend to be anyone they want to be when online, and they should not communicate with anyone they don’t know.

Girls are far more likely to engage in risky behavior online than are boys. While all parents should be diligent when policing kids online, parents of girls should be especially mindful of the risks their daughters may be willing to take. We must realize how frequently the topic of sex comes up in the online encounters our teens have with strangers. At least one fourth of kids have discussed sex with the people they’ve met online, and an equal number of kids have reported being sent to online porn sites by the people they are communicating with. It is not uncommon for their online ‘friends’ to ask to meet them, and 27% of kids have done that. Although these numbers do not represent the majority of kids – three fourths of our children are not involved in this sort of risky behavior – it is worrisome that so many youths are willing to talk about sex and agree to meet with people who they have never met. As parents we have to be diligent in supervising our kids on the internet and be sure to keep reminding them of the risks of meeting people who ‘seem so nice.’

There is no doubt that the internet is a wonderful tool for all of us. There is a wealth of information online, and there is no limit to what is available, from shopping to homework help. The ability to communicate with others in one of the most desirable things for kids, but as parents we have to be mindful and realistic about the dangers our children may encounter on the internet, and understand their lack of savvy when engaging in online relationships. Without diminishing the value of the internet, parents must stay vigilant.

For more information, visit the Polly Klaas Foundation online at www.pollyklass.org  or call 1-800-587-4357. For key findings from this survey, visitwww.pollyklaas.org/internet-safety/.  Mark Klaas is not associated with the Polly Klaas Foundation.

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