There's good news and bad news out this morning about the dangers facing children when they go online. It appears all the news reports and educational efforts to warn parents and kids about online dangers may be having an impact.
In a study released today by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, fewer kids report being solicited by strangers online for sex. On the other hand, there is an uptick in kids who report being exposed to unwanted sexual material such as pornographic spam; and there's a sharp rise in something experts call cyberbullying. If you're not familiar with that term, you will be soon.
Back to the good news for a moment. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported back in 1999 that 1 in 5 children aged 10 to 17 had been solicited for sex online. You've seen that statistic repeated again and again in online safety marketing campaigns. Well, things are a bit better now. A telephone survey conducted last year found that number shrunk to 1 in 7.
The good news ends there, however. The study found that the most serious kinds of solicitations — those that involve a predator attempting to make real-world contact with a victim — have not declined.
Also in the survey, one-third of children reported they were exposed to sexual material online, compared to 25 percent five years ago.
And there was an increase in the number of kids reporting cyberbullying — from 6 percent 5 years ago to 9 percent today.
Cyberbullying involves technology-based taunting of children. It can range from a few nasty text messages, to a deluge of ugly e-mails, to hacking children's MySpace accounts and placing pornographic pictures on them. Kids can be cruel. And kids with technology can be cruel on a world-wide scale.
"There is no question that cyberbullying is a big deal now," said Parry Aftab, who runs child safety Web site WiredSafty.org. She offers tips for parents and schools at StopCyberbullying.com.
Polls are, of course, are subject to interpretation. It's hard to say exactly how many children have been hit by the most serious form of sexual exposure or bullying. But it's clear far too many children are finding trouble online, and parents need to know what kind of trouble can be found there.