About 20% of youths have been exposed to unwanted sexual material online, a recent
meta-analysis of 15 studies found.
As children’s use of internet-connected devices like tablets and smartphones increases,
researchers set out to look at inappropriate content they may stumble across.
They performed a meta-analysis that included 31 samples of online exposure to explicit
material and nine of solicitation. The research included children ages 12-16.5 years
and included studies published from 1990-2016.
Data showed about one in five children had been exposed to unwanted pictures or videos
that were sexually explicit through means like pop-up windows or spam emails.
About 11.5% had been solicited online, which could include requests to talk about
or do something sexual. Males were solicited more commonly than females, potentially
due to visiting more risky websites, authors said.
Both exposure and solicitation have decreased over time, which they attributed to
education about internet safety, use of programs that block explicit content, industry
controls and aggressive prosecution.
Still, they said more work is needed to protect children and cited research showing
25% of youths found exposure to explicit material distressing.
“Consequently, prevention and intervention efforts should inoculate youth against
online sexual exposure and solicitation by arming them with accurate and developmentally
appropriate information about what constitutes healthy relationships, promoting social
skills to foster strong interconnections with peers, and building self-esteem and
capacity to refuse solicitations online,” authors wrote.
Families should continue to use filtering software and parents should be taught how
to support children who have been exposed to explicit material and report related
The findings were limited by not including younger children, survey questions that
did not go into detail about the types of exposure, reliance on self-reporting and
a lack of data after 2011.