National Trends in Exposure to and Experiences of Violence on the Internet Among Children

Whether it is through a news story, a nasty text message, or a game that involves stealing cars, violence seems to surround us – and this seems to be especially true with newer technologies.

Certainly, it is not hard to find media mentions of awful things that can happen online, including experiences like cyberbullying and nefarious exposures, such as hate sites or pictures of people dead or dying on a news site. Past research has shown that technology-based exposures to and experiences of violence, which includes harassment, bullying, or unwanted sexual exposure, can sometimes be associated with psychosocial challenges. These psychosocial challenges, which can include depression and alcohol abuse, not only affect the young person but also can be a burden for their families and the community as whole.

As social media sites seemingly become viral overnight, it makes sense that these exposures and experiences would increase. In a recent paper titled, National Trends in Exposure to and Experiences of Violence on the Internet among Children, published by the Center for Innovative Public Health team in the journal, Pediatrics indicates that technology-based violence may not be on the rise. From 2006 to 2008, over 1500 adolescents in the national Growing up with Media study reported their experiences of and exposures to violence online and via text messaging. The finding? It was a surprise: Harassment went down by 10%, as did exposure to violent cartoon sites like Just as important: rates of distress resulting from Internet harassment do not appear to be increasing. And rates of other Internet-based violent exposures and experiences seem to be holding steady over time.


Interestingly, many text-messaging-based violent experiences seem to have increased. Why? Well, although researchers do not know the exact cause, it may be related to increase in text message use.1 Indeed, partly related to the affordability of unlimited plans and the ease of instantaneous communication no matter where one is physically, text-messaging is fast becoming the primary communication tool for the majority of adolescents.2 It is also possible that because of the ease and speed of sending a text it is more conducive to violence, including harassment, bullying, and unwanted sexual exposure. Certainly, the lack of cell phone based filtering and parental controls software, that are commonly on computers, may have some impact on this increase in text-messaging violence.

General technology use and age both are predictive factors for almost all technology-based violent experiences and exposures. This makes sense because the more time young people are online, the more time they have to experience this violence. And, as young people get older and likely more adventurous, the more likely they are to go places online that may have violent content. Just like with other places that young people need to learn to navigate safely, adults can help young adults learn how to make safe choices about where to go and what to do online; and how to deal with negative experiences and exposures they may come across.

In short, online violent experiences and exposures do not appear to be getting worse or more frequent. As rates of cell phone use increase, ongoing surveillance of text-messaging-based experiences of and exposure to violence is needed to understand trends as the number of people using cell phones begins to steady.

Preventing these technology based violence exposures is critical for reducing risk as youth age and to help heavy technology users manage their risk for violence. Parents, teachers, school systems, public health officials, and the many others that interact with youth must be aware and adaptable to dealing with these changes in technology and technology-based violence experiences in order to best prevent later psychological challenges.