University of New Hampshire researchers, reporting the finding in the June 20 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, said that the Internet can be a World Wide Web of suggestion, innuendo and depravity.
None of the children in the study was physically harmed, although it's not clear how many kids fall victim to Internet-related crime, the researchers said.
At the time of the study, The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, had received 43 000 reports of online threats to children over the previous three years, or about 500 to 600 a week, said the centre's president, Ernie Allen. Most related to enticement or child pornography, he said.
The study expanded a previous report from scientists at the Crimes Against Children Research Centre at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Kimberly Mitchell, a researcher at the centre, and colleagues interviewed 1 501 Internet users, ages 10 to 17, about their surfing habits and sexual encounters online.
The vast majority of boys and girls said they'd never experienced an unwanted approach, but 19 percent said they had at least one such encounter, typically in the form of sexually explicit "talk" or a request for personal sexual information.
Three percent of children said the encounter had advanced from a single message into a more aggressive interest, in which the solicitor tried to contact them by phone, regular mail or even in person.
None of the attempts was successful, but very few children reported the contacts to their parents, Mitchell says.
Allen said that it was not surprising because children are afraid they'll lose their computer privileges if they report threatening incidents.
Girls, particularly those ages 14 to 17, were more likely than boys and younger children to report an unwanted advance.
Adding detail to their earlier study, Mitchell's group found that children who visited chat rooms and those who communicated online with strangers were about four times more likely to receive an unsolicited pass.
Kids who used computers at more than one location, such as a friend's house, were 50 percent more likely to say they'd been propositioned. Those who practiced "risky" behaviour, like going intentionally to an X-rated Web site or talking about sex with someone they didn't know, were at double the risk of getting an online proposition. Many children said they stumbled into sexually explicit sites inadvertently.
The researchers also found that troubled youth, for example those suffering from depression or whose home lives were turbulent, were about 70 percent more likely to report unwanted advances than those without such difficulties.
"That's been found with conventional forms of child victimisation, and it could be that with the anonymity that the Internet provides they can make friends and talk to people" more easily, putting themselves at greater risk, Mitchell says.
Three-quarters of the children who experienced an unwanted advance shrugged the incident off. However, 25 percent, and especially the younger kids, said they were "very or extremely upset or afraid," Mitchell says.
Allen said, "The good news about the research is that it shows that overwhelmingly kids are dealing with [the undesired sexual attention.] They recognise it for what it is, and they're not troubled with it."
He said, "We're most concerned about the small subset who indicated that they were very disturbed" by the threatening interactions.
What to do
More parental control over the PC might seem like the best way to reduce the risk of child victimisation. But the researchers found that parental supervision, in the form of restricted computer hours, rules about surfing, or checking browser history files and floppy disks, did not make kids more likely to report unwanted advances. Neither did filtering software or blocking technology correlate to the risk of solicitations.