One Third of Teens Have Talked with Strangers Online About Meeting in Person; Nearly One in Eight Have Learned that Adults Online Were Pretending to be Younger

New Survey Data on Youth Internet Behavior and Experiences Reveals Risks Teens and Tweens Take Online

December 21, 2005.  PETALUMA, Calif. – The Polly Klaas® Foundation, a national nonprofit that helps find missing children and prevents them from going missing in the first place, today released the results of a nationwide survey of online teens and tweens about their behavior and experiences on the Internet. The online poll of 1,468 U.S. teens and tweens (ages 8-18) revealed that youth frequently take risks with their personal information and communicate with people they have only met through the Internet.

The Foundation conducted the survey because the recent explosion in online networking puts young people at increased risk of sexual encounters and abductions by predators. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that, between 2004 and 2005, its Internet Crimes Against Children program saw an 84 percent increase in complaints nationally for predators that enticed minors online or traveled to meet them.

"We knew that child predators posed a problem to young people on the Web, but we were stunned to learn the vast numbers of teens engaging in incredibly risky behaviors online," said Glena Records, Director of Communication & Education at the Polly Klaas® Foundation. "This is a wake up call for parents. Simple warnings or safety lectures are not going to work in the current Internet age."

The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently reported that 87 percent of young people 12-17 (21 million) use the Internet. More than half of these teens (12 million) create content online, such as Web pages or blogs, which often include personal information. The Polly Klaas® Foundation poll also found that youth frequently post personal information. Key findings from the survey, available at http://www.pollyklaas.org/internet-safety/, include:

  • Two in five (42 percent) online teens (ages 13-18) said they have posted information about themselves on the Internet so others can see it and contact them.
  • Significantly more online teen girls than boys (ages 13-18) reported posting a profile (56 versus 37 percent), sharing personal information (37 versus 26 percent), and being asked about sexual topics (33 versus 18 percent).
  • Online teens frequently communicate virtually with someone they have never met: 54 percent have done so using Instant Messaging; half via e-mail; and 45 percent in a chat room.
  • More than half of the respondents (56 percent) said they have been asked personal questions online. One-fourth said they receive such questions weekly, one in 10 get such requests daily.
  • Nearly one-third of online teens (30 percent) said they have talked about meeting someone whom they have only met through the Internet.
  • One in four (27 percent) said they have talked online about sex with someone they never met in person. And nearly one in five (19 percent) reported knowing a friend who has been harassed or asked about sex online by a stranger.
  • Nearly one in eight online teens (12 percent) have learned that someone they were communicating with online was an adult pretending to be younger.
  • "Tweens" (ages 8-12) also report risky behaviors online, although in lower numbers than teens 13-18. But they also report feeling more concern about Web safety.

"The level of risks teens and tweens take is vastly different, although both groups report online practices that could put them in harm's path," said Records. "Parents need to confirm the concerns and cautiousness of younger tweens while convincing teenagers of the actual dangers and consequences other teens have experienced.

"In light of how much—and how bold—kids are online today, all parents need to be armed with more realistic strategies and guidance," said Records. The Polly Klaas® Foundation plans to publish a free Internet Safety Kit for parents containing such guidance in Spring 2006, and some suggestions are available now at: http://www.pollyklaas.org/internet-safety/. "It is essential that teens hear the stories of other young people who were deceived or had close calls online."

In 2002, Katie Canton of San Francisco, then 15, began communicating intimately online with a man she had never met. They shared their feelings for one another and discussed meeting in person until Canton's parents stepped in and convinced her — through an Internet safety game called "Missing" — to call things off. Law enforcement soon informed Canton that her online "boyfriend" was a 22-year-old who was actively courting a number of teenage girls.

"I don't know what would have happened if I had met this man," said Canton. "I was young, naïve and convinced I was in love. I was completely unaware of the danger I was in until the potential consequences — and examples of other kids who had been tricked or harmed — got through to me. The more I learned about him, the more I realized how misguided and lied to I was."

Officer Kim Mercer, a 10-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, is a member of the Internet Crimes Against Children unit that helped convince Canton to call off her meeting with the older man. In her three years with the unit, Officer Mercer has frequently posed as a 13-year-old online. The 17 men that traveled to have sex with the supposed 13-year-old have all been convicted.

About the Polly Klaas® Foundation

Founded in 1993 following the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, the Polly Klaas® Foundation is a national nonprofit that helps find missing children, prevents them from going missing in the first place and promotes laws like Amber Alert that help keep children safe. For more information, contact www.PollyKlaas.org or 800-587-4357.

Marc Klaas is not associated with the Polly Klaas® Foundation.

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