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Mitchell KJ, Finkelhor D, Wolak J. Risk Factors for and Impact of Online Sexual Solicitation of Youth. JAMA. 2001;285(23):3011–3014. doi:10.1001/jama.285.23.3011
Context Health care professionals, educators, and others are increasingly called
upon to advise parents and policymakers about risks posed to children by Internet
use. However, little scientific information exists on the experiences of children
Objective To assess the risk factors surrounding online sexual solicitations of
youth and distress due to solicitation.
Design, Setting, and Participants Telephone survey (August 1999–February 2000) of a random sample
of 1501 youth aged 10 through 17 years who were regular Internet users.
Main Outcome Measures Demographic and behavioral characteristics associated with solicitation
risk and distress due to solicitation.
Results Nineteen percent of youth who used the Internet regularly were the targets
of unwanted sexual solicitation in the last year. Girls (P<.001), older teens (P = .005), troubled
youth (P = .004), frequent Internet users (P = .01), chat room participants (P<.001),
and those who communicated online with strangers (P<.001)
were at greater risk. Twenty-five percent of the solicited youth reported
high levels of distress after solicitation incidents. Risk of distress was
more common among the younger youth (P = .005), those
who received aggressive solicitations (the solicitor attempted or made offline
contact) (P = .001), and those who were solicited
on a computer away from their home (P = .001).
Conclusions Many young people who use the Internet encounter unwanted sexual overtures.
Health care professionals, educators, and parents should be prepared to educate
youth about how to respond to online sexual solicitations, including encouraging
youth to disclose and report such encounters and to talk about them.
Health care professionals, educators, and others concerned with children
are increasingly called upon to design policies and proffer advice about children's
Internet use.1 But much like parents, they
are perplexed because the media offer competing images depicting the Internet
as both a tremendous new tool for education and recreation for young people2 and a potential threat to their physical and emotional
As is often the case with child welfare issues, there are also competing
images of the vulnerable population of young people. On the one hand are descriptions
of naive and inexperienced children falling prey to exploitation as a result
of Internet use.4 On the other hand are images
of technologically savvy teens, whose propensities for risk-taking and getting
in trouble are exponentially expanded by the Web.5
While both images have their reality, they have different implications for
prevention and protection.
Little scientific information exists on the experiences of youth online.
The present study was designed to gather data about online solicitation of
youth and the characteristics of the youth at risk.
The Youth Internet Safety Survey consisted of telephone interviews between
August 1999 and February 2000 with a national sample of 1501 youth, ages 10
through 17 years, who used the Internet regularly (at least once a month for
the past 6 months on a computer at home, school, library, someone else's home,
or elsewhere).6 Households with children in
the target age group were identified through another large household survey
on missing children conducted at Temple University between February and December
When contacting a household, interviewers from a national survey research
firm screened for regular use of the Internet by a youth in the target age
group. Interviewers then asked to speak with the parent who knew the most
about the youth's Internet use, conducted a short interview assessing household
rules and parental concerns about Internet use, and gathered demographic characteristics.
The interviewer requested permission from the parent to speak with the youth.
Parents were assured of the confidentiality of the interview and were informed
that the interview would include questions about "sexual material your child
may have seen."
Upon achieving parental consent, interviewers described the study to
the youth and obtained his or her oral consent.6
Youth interviews, which lasted about half an hour, were scheduled at the youth's
convenience and arranged for times when he/she could talk freely. The questionnaire
used was developed through a series of focus groups with youth in the target
age group (10-17 years). Once completed, questionnaires were pretested with
both parents and youth. Feedback from the pretest was incorporated into the
final version used for the study. Respondents were promised complete confidentiality
and told they could skip any questions they did not want to answer and stop
the interview at any time. Youth respondents received brochures about Internet
safety and were paid $10. The survey was conducted under the supervision of
the University of New Hampshire's Human Subjects Committee.
Sexual solicitations were defined as requests to engage in sexual activities
or sexual talk or to give personal sexual information that were unwanted or,
whether wanted or not, were made by an adult. To distinguish a category of
potentially more serious incidents, aggressive solicitations were defined
as those in which the solicitor made or attempted offline contact with the
youth by telephone, by mail, or in person. To look more closely at the impact
of sexual solicitations, distressing sexual solicitations were defined when
youth rated themselves very or extremely upset or afraid as a result of solicitation
incidents. Several independent variables were initially examined to determine
their relationship with the dependent variable, with nonsignificant variables
excluded from the final analyses.
Using SPSS version 10.0 (SPSS Inc, Chicago, Ill), 2 logistic regressions
were conducted to test the relationships of demographic and behavioral characteristics
with solicitation risk and solicitation distress symptomatology. Variables
were entered in a hierarchical fashion, beginning with demographic variables
followed by variables associated with youth behavior and aspects of youth
Internet use. An additional step was included for the distress symptomatology
regression that included solicitation incident characteristics. Independent
variables were chosen based on their relationships to sexual victimization
found in past research in this field, along with aspects of Internet use that
could, conceptually, play a role in risk.
The completion rate among eligible households was 82%.6
Of the final sample, 53% were boys and 47% were girls. The mean (SD) age was
14 (2) years. The majority of youth were non-Hispanic whites (73%) and came
from households with annual incomes of more than $50 000 (46%). This
sample is not representative of all youth in the United States because Internet
use is not evenly distributed among the population, although the sample generally
matches other representative samples of youth Internet users.
As reported previously, 19% (286/1501) of the youth interviewed experienced
at least 1 sexual solicitation while using the Internet in the past year and
3% reported an aggressive solicitation.6 Only
10% of sexual solicitations were reported to the police, an Internet service
provider, or other authority.6 Moreover, most
parents (69%) and youth (76%) had not heard of places where they could report
In terms of risk, girls and older youth (14-17 years) were more likely
to be solicited (Table 1). Risk
was higher for youth who were troubled (for definition see Table 1 footnote). It was also higher for those who used the Internet
more frequently (for definition see Table
1 footnote), participated in chat rooms, engaged in risky behavior
online (for definition see Table 1
footnote), talked to strangers online, or used the Internet at households
other than their own. However, the impact of these risk factors should not
be overstated. For example, 75% of the sexually solicited youth were not troubled.
Ten percent did not use chat rooms, and 9% did not talk with strangers. Parental
supervision techniques such as requiring youth to ask permission before going
online (by 28% of parents with solicited youth), having rules about the number
of hours spent online (28%), having rules about things not to do online (84%),
asking what youth do online (81%), checking the computer screen while youth
are online (72%), checking the history function (47%), and checking files
or diskettes (35%) were not related to solicitation risk, nor was the use
of filtering or blocking technology (used in 25% of the households of solicited
Twenty-five percent of the solicited youth reported they were very or
extremely upset or afraid as a result of an online solicitation.6
Distress was more common among younger (10-13 years) youth and those experiencing
an aggressive solicitation; distress was also more common when the solicitation
occurred via a computer at someone else's home (Table 2).
The epidemiology of Internet sexual solicitation has elements that both
reassure and concern those seeking to situate this problem in the spectrum
of threats to children's safety and well-being. On the reassuring side, as
far as candor can be trusted, no youth in the sample was actually sexually
assaulted as a result of contacts made over the Internet. That does not mean
that such abuse does not occur, but that such events are probably not as common
as others, such as intrafamilial sexual abuse, date rape, and gang violence,
that do tend to show up in surveys of this size.8
On the concerning side, the study suggests that youth encounter a substantial
number of offensive episodes as they navigate cyberspace, including aggressive
incidents where offline contact is attempted or made. Enough of these encounters
threaten to spill over into real life that youth should be instructed how
to minimize their risk.
The findings suggest some directions for promoting Internet safety.
Young people who stay away from chat rooms and are cautious about corresponding
with strangers on the Internet appear to be solicited at lower rates. Parents
and practitioners may wish to establish such rules and to give such counsel
to teenagers. However, one of the attractions of the Internet is the potential
to widen circles of friends. There are moderated chat rooms and other online
meeting places that may be relatively safe and civil, but the present survey
did not gather enough details to differentiate them.
The finding that troubled youth have a higher risk of solicitations
suggests that youth who are alienated or depressed may be more vulnerable
to online exploitation by strangers. This is consistent with other studies
showing depression to be a general risk for victimization,9,10
and it highlights a group worth targeting for prevention information. However,
this finding should not be interpreted as implying that only troubled youth
encounter problems on the Internet.
Obviously, professional advice and family Internet policies need to
take into account the ages of children. The present study found younger children
less likely to be solicited but more likely to be distressed when they were.
Alerting younger children about online sexual solicitations and helping them
to role-play responses may reduce some of the potential for distress.11-13 At the same time,
the admonitions and prohibitions that may be appropriate and effective with
younger children may not work with older adolescents. It may be useful to
have more prevention efforts for older teens come from peers and other sources
credible with that group. Also, places to report these incidents, such as
the CyberTipline operated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited
Children (available at: http://www.cybertipline.com), should be
more widely advertised and reporting should be made easier, more immediate,
and more important to young Internet users.
It is reassuring that 75% of the solicited youth were not distressed
by their encounters, but the minority of targeted children who reported high
levels of distress should be special subjects of concern. These distressed
youth tended to be younger and to have had more aggressive solicitations.
In addition, distress was higher when the solicitation occurred on a computer
at someone else's home. Being solicited while accessing the Internet away
from home may make the youth feel more vulnerable or potentially embarrassed
because others may know, or guilty because these may be youth whose families
object to them going online. The findings suggest that pediatric professionals,
school counselors, youth workers, and others concerned about children's mental
health should become conversant about and be prepared to deal with distress
resulting from online sexual solicitations.
This study provides enough concerning facts for public health officials,
educators, law enforcement officers, and child protection workers to add Internet
solicitation to the list of childhood perils about which they should be knowledgeable
and able to provide counsel to families. At the same time, the concerns are
not so alarming that they should by themselves encourage parents to bar children
from accessing the Internet.