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Kids' exposure to online attacks and deviant behavior appears to have leveled off, but as more kids socialize by cellphone, sexual and other bothersome text messages are on the rise, a new study finds.
Young people use technology to converse and connect with one another and, as with face-to-face methods, "there are positives and negatives," said lead study author Michele Ybarra, president and research director of Internet Solutions for Kids, a nonprofit research organization in San Clemente, Calif.
The good news is "our data don't support that things are getting worse online in frequency or intensity" in terms of harassment, bullying and unwanted sexual experiences, she said.
The study looked at violence exposure from computers and text messaging (but not from accessing websites from a smartphone). It also measured young people's reactions -- how they rated their own level of distress.
About one-third of teens and preteens reported being very or extremely distressed from Internet-based sexual experiences, while between 20 percent and 25 percent felt that way because of online harassment.
For the study, researchers used online surveys to reach almost 1,600 adolescents, ages 10 to 15, starting in 2006, with yearly follow-ups in 2007 and 2008.
"Unwanted sexual solicitation" by text messaging was 1.9 times higher in 2008 than in 2006, a significant increase. Participants reported whether within the past year "someone tried to get me to talk about sex when I did not want to" or "asked me for sexual information about myself" or "to do something sexual that I did not want to do."
The survey looked at perpetration -- attacking -- as well as victimization, asking whether adolescents had sent unwanted text messages or pictures of a sexual nature, commonly known as "sexting." Odds of doing so increased between 2007 and 2008, but it was not a statistically significant change.
Earlier this month, HealthDay reported on findings that sexting was common among Boston-area high school students and emotionally disturbing for some.
Harassment by text-messaging also rose significantly as time went on. A question on bullying that was added in the second year suggested a similar trend.
"Bullying is something that happens over time, repetitively, and between people of differential power," Ybarra said. "Harassment is more generally annoying and obnoxious behavior. It can happen once or more often, between people of equal power or not."
Researchers also measured technology-related exposure to violence in the news, death and hate sites on the Web and "adult" sites.
Even after being asked about it throughout the study, many kids didn't know what an online hate or death site was. Violent cartoon viewing dropped as participants got older, and minority adolescents were less likely to be victims of any kind of online or texting violence, the researchers found.
The study appears online Nov. 21 and in the December print issue of the journal Pediatrics.
The results are a cause for concern, said Dr. Jorge Srabstein, medical director of the Clinic for Health Problems Related to Bullying, at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"This excellent study raises awareness that young people's exposure and experience of mistreatment or victimization on the Internet has remained unabated for several years and that 25 percent of youth reported feeling very distressed by this experience," said Srabstein, who testified before the U.S. Congress on student cyber safety in June 2010.
"People who are bullied and or those who bully others, as well as those who are bystanders, are at a significant high risk of suffering from frequent physical and emotional symptoms, including depression, irritability, sleeping difficulties, headaches, stomachaches, anxiety and above all, suicidal attempts," he said.
While computers and cellphones add a virtual dimension to bullying and other forms of violence, Srabstein and Ybarra pointed out that many real-world opportunities exist and should not be discounted.
In previous research, Ybarra found that "children were more likely to report in-school distress than online-related distress" from bullying. Children's journeys to and from school provide yet another venue for abuse, she noted.
"Bullying or mistreatment not only occurs in schools and on the Internet but also in the home between siblings, in dating relationships and in the workplace," Srabstein said. "Its occurrence over the Internet highlights the serious international public health need for its prevention."
Parents and kids can visit the Cyberbullying Research Center to learn more about bullying by computer, cellphones and other electronic devices.