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Kids online often lack parental guidance, survey shows

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2000

Kids will be kids, but online they sometimes try to be more.

Such as pretending to be older and more sexually active. Just check comments from an online survey of 10,800 girls age 12 to 18 conducted last summer:

  • "I pretended to be all grown-up and cool like I was 20 when I was really 12 or 13. I did this because it made me feel really neat, you know, powerful somehow."
  • "I've had cybersex, but I refuse to have intercourse with anybody right now."
  • "I've had cybersex, 5 times with 5 different guys!"
  • "All I have done is visited a sex chat-room where I got a zillion offers to perform cyber sex. I didn't take any of them, but I did tell a perfect stranger my first name."

Harmless? Maybe not, according to Michael Berson, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida and one of those working on the survey withSeventeen Magazine Online.

"It is just amazing what we're seeing: Children involved in this kind of activity who think nothing is going to impact them," Berson said.

Kids believing they're invincible is not a new phenomenon. But what troubles Berson is that the online jokes and pranks may be masking a bigger problem: kids not reporting when they're stalked or solicited online, whether by other kids or by pedophiles.

Experts say the number of crimes against children that originate online is relatively small, though the cases tend to get a lot of publicity because they involve kids, sex and the Internet.

That doesn't mean dangers lurking online should be discounted, and research in the area is relatively new. The Seventeen survey last summer is one of the largest undertaken, and its results are still being analyzed. Berson, who teaches in USF College of Education, is working on the study with his wife, Ilene, an assistant professor in the department of child and family studies at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, and Parry Aftab, a lawyer, author and executive director of CyberAngels, an online safety group.

One reason the number of crimes reported may be low is the teens themselves. Some may simply turn off the computer and walk away, thinking the problem is far away, nothing really happened or they're embarrassed. So no one really knows how big the problem may be.

Where are the parents? According to this survey, 68 percent of the teens say they have talked with their parents about online safety but only 1 percent say an adult sits with them while surfing.

Most kids (92 percent) access the Internet at home, with 10 percent saying their computers have some kind of blocking software and another 24 percent saying their Internet service provider has filtering devices.

Teens understand the safety rules, according to comments gathered in the survey: Don't give out personal information, address or phone number, and don't meet in person with someone you don't know.

But the more time teens spend online, the more likely they will do some of the things they know to be dangerous, according to the survey.

"They're not following their own advice," Berson said. "That struck us as a little bit strange." They have an "it's just not going to happen to me" attitude, even as they advise their friends what not to do.

Berson says experts need to find a way to do a better job of getting the safety message to schools and parents. But even if the parents "get it," will they do anything?

Parents "really don't know what's out there online," Berson said. "They're not savvy enough to sit down and say what to do to be careful. The computer's still in the realm of children, and parents are not involved in it."

Seventeen Magazine
Online survey
Survey respondents by age:
Where they go online
At home: 92%
At school: 2%
At friend's house: 2%
At library: 1%
At work: 1%
What they do:
Instant messages/e-mail: 58%
Surf for new things on Web: 20%
Chat rooms: 16%
Build Web site: 1%
Discussion boards: 1%
Homework/research: 1%
Time online each week:
2 hours or less: 20%
3-5 hours: 30%
6-9 hours: 24%
10-12 hours: 12%
More than 12 hours: 15%
Internet safety talk:
Talked with parents: 68%
Talked with sibling: 11%
Talked with teacher: 36%
Talked with friends: 26%
Never discussed Internet safety: 17%
Adult monitoring:
Adult always sits with them at computer: less than 1%
Adult occasionally sits with them: 15%
Adult rarely sits with them: 33%
Adult never sits with them: 48%
Talk about activity with adult:
Always discuss online activities: 4%
Occasionally discuss online activities: 25%
Rarely discuss online activities: 37%
Never discuss: 31%
Source: Seventeen Magazine Online, CyberAngels, College of Education at the University of South Florida, and the department of child and family studies at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute.

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