When a 16-year-old Florida girl and her 17-year-old boyfriend decided to take digital photos of themselves engaged in "sexual behavior," then sent the photos to the boy's personal e-mail account, the teens likely didn't realize they would be accused of distributing child pornography.
But that indeed is what landed them in a Florida court, which in 2006 convicted the minors for producing photographs of a child's sexual conduct. A state appeals court upheld the ruling on January 19.
Child advocates cite this tough lesson, among others, as an example of how more and more kids are using technology in ways that harm them or their peers--either intentionally or unintentionally. Online antics such as those of the Florida teenagers, as well as acts of online aggression known as "slapping" and "cyberbullying," occur with such frequency, child advocates say, they need to be addressed with the same urgency as child predators.
"The online safety field is moving to needing to figure out how to protect kids from themselves and each other as much as from criminals online, if not more so than in terms of sheer numbers," said Anne Collier, president and editor of Net Family News and codirector of parent site Blogsafety.com.
Of course, news stories about kids and the Internet do make it seem as if the biggest threat to minors is from sexual predators and pornographers. A recently published study reported that over the course of a single year, 4 out of 10 teens in the 10-to-17 age group had been exposed to online porn at some point. And 1 in 7 in the same age group received a sexual solicitation or other inappropriate contact over the Internet, according to the National Center for Missing Children.
Researchers say that there is very little data comparing similar threats to teens in the offline world, so it's difficult to understand the danger in a broader context. But researchers also are finding that, more than those involved in Internet-facilitated criminal cases, kids increasingly are victims of peer bullying via the Web, cell phone text-messaging, and other electronic means. According to a study by University of Wisconsin researchers, more than a third of kids online say they've been victims of cyberbullying. With about 20 million kids online in the United States, that would mean roughly 6.8 million kids have been victims of peer harassment.
"The porn issue is relatively minor in the context of other issues of concern. The greatest issue is online social aggression. Teens are using these technologies against each other, whether it's cyberbullying or dating violence, like using the Net to control a romantic partner," said Nancy Willard, director for the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use and author of Cyber-Safe Kids/Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly.
According to the University of Wisconsin survey, the most frequently cited types of bullying--an activity that occurred largely in chat rooms and via IM and e-mail--included being ignored or disrespected. But almost 5 percent of the victims said they were scared for their own safety when it came to cyberbullying, and almost 40 percent of victims said they didn't tell anyone of the harassment.
Anonymity is a favorite tool of bullies. New York City mom Jeannie Blaustein said that her two girls, ages 8 and 10, have told her about instances of cyberbullying on the virtual-pets site Webkinz in which the aggressors conceal their identity by logging in with stolen passwords. "Child A and B are together, and child A will ask, 'What do you think of C?' and B will say, 'She's a bitch.' So kids are not coming clean with who's there," said Blaustein.
Teaching online ethics
Safety experts say that in a Web 2.0 environment, with broadband Internet access so inexpensive and widely available, addressing child safety has become increasingly complex. The challenge no longer is just about shielding minors from adult material or child predators, it's also crucial to teach kids to be responsible and respectful online citizens.
Kids are not only absorbing material online, but they are creating it on sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Bebo. For this reason, educators are already considering new-media programs to teach kids about the ethics of producing material on the Web.
A handful of child-safety experts says there are two basic types of kids on the Net: savvy users for whom the technology is a relatively harmless extension of their social life in the real world, and kids who may be a bit marginalized and less likely to have good relationships with their parents or feel connected to a social set offline. That second category of kids, these experts say, may be more vulnerable to the dangers of predators or victimization online.
"Children face risks in all areas of their life," said Willard. "We simply have to protect younger children by keeping them in safe places and carefully paying attention to what they do and giving them simple guidelines."