‘Substantial portion of youth’ experience sex abuse online, study finds: How to talk to your kids

A new study published by the JAMA Network on Friday, Oct. 14, found that a “substantial portion of youth” have experienced online child sexual abuse.

The study, conducted in late 2021, surveyed 2,639 children aged 18 to 21 years about their childhood experiences of online abuse. Of these, 933, about 35%, reported experiencing at least one instance of “technology-facilitated abuse” before age 18, the authors wrote. Overall, the survey found that 15.6% of participants experienced online sexual abuse as kids.

Study: ‘Substantial portion of youth’ have experienced online sex abuse

  • Over 15% of 18 to 21-year-olds experienced sex abuse online before turning 18, a study found.
  • The types of abuse ranged from nonconsensual image taking and sharing to self-produced images shared with adults.
  • Strangers didn’t make up majority of perpetrators; dating partners, friends and acquaintances, including fellow teens, did.
  • Parents should have honest discussions with kids on how to know if people are trustworthy online and to identify the signs of sex abuse online, a study author advised.

The different types of abuse addressed in the survey and how often they were experienced include:

  • Over 5% experienced online grooming by adults. Grooming refers to “a set of manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse and reduce the risk of being caught,” TODAY previously reported.
  • About 11% experienced image-based sexual abuse, such as taking or sharing a picture without the child’s consent.
  • About 7% experienced self-produced child sexual abuse images, such as youth creating their own image and sharing with with someone who shared it without their permission or voluntary shared with adults. It doesn’t include peer-to-peer image-sharing.
  • About 7% experienced nonconsensual sexting, which included both nonconsensual taking and sharing of images.
  • About 3% experienced revenge pornography, when images were either taken or shared to intentionally humiliate the child.
  • About 3.5% experienced sextortion, when someone threatened to disseminate sexual images in order to get money or sexual activity from the victim.
  • Almost 2% experienced online commercial sexual exploitation, meaning the child provided sexual services for a reward, including talking, images or other online activity.

The authors also noted that the perpetrators in most cases were not online strangers, but instead people whom the respondents knew already, like dating partners, friends or acquaintances.

“Sexual abuse is migrating online, and most of the studies that have been done up until now about sexual abuse have not included the full range of sexual abuse experiences,” lead author David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, told TODAY. “The predominant image that people have from media is that this is stranger predators stalking kids online, and that’s not the full story. It’s much more complicated.”

Finkelhor noted that the perpetrators in the study often tended to be people who knew the children in offline settings and would begin to communicate with them in an inappropriate manner. But this doesn’t just apply to the adults in the children’s lives, he said.

“About a third of the perpetrators are other youth. There’s a considerable amount of sexual abuse occurring because kids are taking images or receiving images and then using them without consent,” Finkelhor said.

According to the study, girls were more vulnerable than boys, and the prime vulnerability age range was between 13 and 17 years, though teens were often also the perpetrators.

Finkelhor also said that the rise of technology has facilitated more sexual abuse cases than before, especially with the prevalence of cameras.

“Social life and interpersonal interactions of every sort now have a technological component to them, so it’s not at all surprising that it’s playing a bigger and bigger role,” he said. “There may be some facilitation by the fact that many people somehow thought mistakenly that they can do things online or get away with things online that they can’t do in a face-to-face environment.”

These findings bring monumental implications for teenagers and parents alike, Finkelhor said. The study notes that education efforts for youth must become more comprehensive and that there may be a benefit in integrating online safety tools into existing educational programs.

“There’s a whole variety of things that are happening, and we need to acknowledge the big picture,” Finkelhor said. “What we have to understand is that kids need much more information and training to make judgements of who is trustworthy, what the signs are, if someone is asking something inappropriate, how to extricate themselves and refuse propositions and manipulations they may receive, particularly from people they know.”

For parents, Finkelhor strongly recommends having an open conversation with children about the risks of online communication and what to do in certain situations.

“It’s very important that parents have conversations with their kids about romantic and sexual relationships and their values on that, and offering specific help in suggesting kinds of things they should watch out for,” he said. “So having frank conversations about the things that go on in the world of romance and sex.”

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