Our new research, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, shows that one in five youth between the ages of nine and 17 will view unwanted sexual material online.
Our study also found that one in nine teens will received unwanted online solicitations.
Unwanted exposure includes seeing sexually explicit images or videos in pop-up windows or spam emails, as well as on websites — without intentionally seeking or expecting it.
Unwanted online solicitations can include requests to engage in unwanted sexual talk or activity, or to provide personal sexual information or images to another individual online.
Solicitation by other teens
Our team summarized data available in the research literature on more than 50,000 teens from the United States, Europe and Asia.
We were not able to decipher who solicited youth to engage in sexual talk or the sharing of sexual images or videos of themselves.
News headlines often highlight that youth are solicited online by adults. For example, in May 2018, a 21-year-old man from Nova Scotia was charged with luring and sexually exploiting a 12-year-old child. In April 2018, four adult men were charged with online solicitation of a minor, through an undercover operation in Texas.
But online solicitations can come from similar aged youth as well. That is, teens can ask, demand or coerce another teen — whom they know offline or meet online — to share naked pictures or videos of themselves engaging in sexual acts.
These requests and demands can be made online through computers and tablets, as well as through smartphones.
Fear, assault and sextortion
Not all youth are bothered or upset by what they see online. However, for some these experiences are psychologically upsetting. One study showed that approximately 25 per cent of youth who see, or have been requested to give, sexual content online report extreme fear or distress.
Online solicitation can also lead to more serious consequences, including internet-facilitated sexual assault (connecting with a stranger online, then meeting them offline and being assaulted), as well as sextortion. Sextortion occurs when someone is blackmailed into sending money or more naked images of themselves to thwart their images being posted or distributed online.
One of the most high profile cases of sextortion was that of Amanda Todd. When she was 13, Amanda Todd was persuaded to show her breasts to someone she met online. The individual, later identified as a 35-year-old man, took a screen shot and tried to blackmail Amanda Todd into sending more photos or suffer the humiliation of providing the topless photo to all her friends. He eventually posted the photo on Facebook.
Amanda Todd later committed suicide due in part to the humiliation she experienced from these incidences and extensive online bullying.
Risks have decreased over time
The finding that 20 per cent of teens are exposed to unwanted sexual content online, and 11 per cent to unwanted solicitations, is alarming.
However, some positive trends were found in the study as well. Between the first study on online risks for youth in 2004 and the last in 2015, the prevalence of these online risks have decreased for youth over time.
Now more than ever, parents, teachers and health practitioners are aware of the potential harms of the internet. Encouragingly, there has been a growing movement to discuss these risks with youth.
Internet safety education program have also been incorporated into most school programs. This is to the benefit of all students, as only four out of 10 parents are regularly discussing online safety with their teens.
Increased surveillance of these internet issues among law enforcement agencies may have also reduced the number of online individuals seeking to sexually exploit children and youth. The increased use and availability of filters and spam ware has also helped to block out unwanted sexual content.
Today’s youth are growing up online. While the internet has many benefits, it does pose risks to youth as well. Parents, educators and health professionals should regularly talk to children and youth about online and offline risks so they can be safeguarded.
In the same way we teach our children not to get in cars with strangers, we need to teach them to be safe in their online lives.
Read more: 12 ways to keep your kids safe from sexual encounters online
Internet safety resources for parents and youth can be found at Cybertip.ca. Contact local law enforcement if online solicitation has occurred and/or your local Child Protection Services if you are concerned about a child being at risk of harm.