The rise of online networking has created social and educational opportunities, but that's not all. It has also created significant risk. The Internet may be the information superhighway, but it has also become a conduit for sexual exploitation of children and teens.
"The Internet has expanded our lives incredibly, but it has also expanded our kids' availability to predators and lowered the barriers between fantasy and behavior," said Judy Westberg-Warren, president of Web Wise Kids, an organization founded to educate youth about responsible Internet behavior.
According to a recent study titled "The State of Internet Security: Protecting Children Online," by Webroot Software, 43% of children aged 11 to 17 who use social-networking sites reported having been contacted online by complete strangers, while 37% said they've received a sexually explicit e-mail or pop-up advertisement over the past year. An April 2007 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, "Teens, Privacy & Online Social Networks," had similar findings: Of the 55% of teens who have online profiles on a social-networking site, 43% said they've been contacted by strangers. Although 65% of these teens said they ignored the contact or deleted it, 21% admitted following up on the solicitation. And many observers say these numbers are inaccurate, as children are notoriously unreliable when self-reporting behaviors they know will be frowned upon.
"The number of kids who are willing to set up meetings with people they don't know in real life is off the charts," said Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and executive director of Wired Safety, a Web site devoted to helping victims of cyber-abuse, ranging from online fraud to cyber-stalking and child safety. A 1999 study conducted by the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of Southern Florida -- to date the largest study of teenage girls' online behavior -- found that 12% of the 11,000 girls polled had arranged face-to-face meetings with strangers they met online. But at seminars for middle- and high-school students that Aftab regularly conducts across the country, she routinely finds between 20% and 25% of kids openly admit to arranging such meetings. "And you know it's larger than that, because kids don't talk," Aftab said. "They don't want to get into trouble."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children operates the CyberTip Hotline, created in 1998, to let members of the public report child exploitation. Today 2,300 to 3,000 cases are reported each week, "The numbers speak for themselves," said Michelle Collins, director of the NCMEC.
Very little is known about the perpetrators of online sexual solicitations. Experts suspect that the same anonymity that causes people to lower their social inhibitions and behave inappropriately online -- for example, sending rude e-mails and making abusive comments in online forums -- is leading to an epidemic of online sexual exploitation of children.