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Youngsters are confronting sexual overtures in e-mail

June 21, 2001

Usually, Kelly Ryan ignores the occasional online messages she gets from strangers, and they go away. But when one persistent fellow began badgering the 18-year-old with lewd messages two or three times a day a few months back, she responded more aggressively.

She told her mother about the problem, and used software filters to block the unwanted messages. She had friends warn the stranger - electronically -- to leave her alone.

When he changed his online name so he could bypass the blocks, she filtered out his new name.

Finally, the harassment stopped.

Ryan is part of an alarming phenomenon. According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 19 percent of surveyed Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17 had been targets of "unwanted sexual solicitation" at least once in the past year. The survey used the term "sexual solicitation" to encompass not only requests to engage in sexual activity but also sexual talk and unwanted sexual information.

The report, published this week, said only 3 percent of the youths reported that the stranger who made an online sexual overture made - or attempted to make - offline contact by phone, mail or in person.

None of the youths was actually sexually assaulted by anyone encountered over the Internet.

As a precaution, Ryan, a recent graduate of a Catholic girls school in Villanova, said she has deleted personal information from the personal profile she had posted with her service provider. She also avoids more-serious potential for harassment by staying out of Internet chat rooms, the online gathering places accessible to anyone; instead, she communicates with friends via instant messages, a somewhat more controlled environment that lets her block messages from unwanted visitors.

While concerned by the online harassment, she said she never felt physically threatened. "Unless he's a hacker, he has no way to know where I live.''

Kimberly J. Mitchell, a research assistant professor at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and one of the principal authors of the study, said she has encouraged those who have received sexual messages to report them - to their Internet service provider, to local law enforcement, and to the cyber tip line maintained by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which backed the study.

"They are a good central place for reporting," Mitchell said. "And the Internet service providers are now required to report [youths' complaints] to the cyber tip line."

Ryan said she didn't find the survey results surprising, because she has often been approached online by strangers providing lewd descriptions of themselves and suggesting they "hang out together."

"Everyone gets them all the time," she said. "No one thinks it's a big deal. You just ignore them."

Nevertheless, Joan Almon, U.S. coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood in College Park, Md., found the report alarming. The group has called for a moratorium on computers in preschools and elementary schools until researchers have determined whether technology is harmful to young children.

She said the incidence of sexual overtures made to preteens and teens reported in the study was significant.

"I would imagine it would have an effect, especially in puberty and adolescence when you are shaping so many of your attitudes about sexuality."

Almon said parents should limit their children's time online, and place computers in an open area such as a family room so they can keep an eye on what children are doing online.

She said parents also need to help children build healthy social relationships - offline.

"They need to bond with their peers," she said. "For youngsters to be trying to do that online with strangers in chat rooms is pathetic. They need real, human relationships."

By Martha Woodall, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER, Copyright © 2001


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