Chat rooms, IM riskier than social-networking sites for kids

Perceptions of MySpace, Facebook may be misplaced, survey finds

Parents who are concerned about their children being exposed to sexual predators and harassment on the Internet need to stop thinking of social networking sites, such as MySpace.com and Facebook, as the biggest threats.

Rather, it is in chat rooms and on instant messaging sessions that children are more likely to become victim of predators and unwanted sexual solicitation in general. That's the finding of a study conduced by child health researchers at Internet Solutions for Kids, a nonprofit group and the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

The survey of 1,588 youths ages 10 to 15 was conducted in September 2006, although the results were released just this Monday. The survey was reviewed and approved by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What the results show is that much of the public perceptions related to child safety on social networking sites are misplaced, said Michele Ybarra, founder of Internet Solutions for Kids and co-author of the survey.

"There has been a lot of concern in the media and other places about the potential risk children face on social networking sites. But it is not clear when you look at the data that such sites are as dangerous" as popularly believed," Ybarra said.

About 15 per cent of the survey respondents reported an unwanted sexual solicitation, while 33 per cent reported they had been harassed online over the past year. Among those who had been victimized, only 4 per cent reported an unwanted sexual solicitation on a social networking site, while 9 per cent said they had been harassed on such sites. For purposes of the study, online harassment included the use of offensive language, threats and malicious directed against a specific individual.

In contrast, 43 per cent of those who reported unwanted sexual solicitations said they had been victimized via instant messaging, while 32 per cent% said they had happened in chat rooms. Similarly, 55 per cent of those who said they had been harassed said the incidents happened during an instant messaging session.

"Certainly this focus on social networking sites and the assumption that young people are facing a greater risk on such sites does not seem supported by the data," Ybarra said.

The issue is important because an increasing amount of attention is being paid by lawmakers to the issue of sexual predators on social networking sites, Ybarra said. Such scrutiny has already resulted in calls for greater regulation and oversight of social networking sites and moves to restrict access to such sites minors.

In addition, "discussions also have emerged from states' attorneys general about the possibility of legal action against social networking sites to force them to introduce age-verification technologies to prevent children under the age of 16 or 18 years from posting profiles," the survey report noted.

Most of the measures being contemplated are aimed at protecting children ages 16 and under, she said. Kids in this group are already technically at least prohibited from signing up for social networking sites. MySpace, for instance, requires members to be at least 14 before they can register. As a result, younger children are more likely to be using instant messaging and chat rooms than older children, she said. And the survey shows that those who register for sites such as MySpace face less victimization than on chat rooms and IM, she said.

"The point is not to identify where online we need to be most fearful of for our kids' sake," Ybarra said. Rather, the survey shows that wherever youth communicate online, there is the potential for positive as well as negative interactions, she said.

"We need to stop focusing on and vilifying the medium and instead focus on our kids." Ybarra said. "It's not about figuring out what to restrict youth access to online, but how to give them the skills they need to safely navigate through multiple environments online."

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