WebMD Medical News
Laura J. Martin, MD
Nov. 21, 2011 -- Texting among U.S. children is increasing in popularity, and as a result, more kids may be harassed or bullied via text messages, a new study finds.
The study included 1,588 young people aged 10 to 15 who answered questions online in 2006, 2007, and 2008 as part of the Growing Up with Media survey.
While there was not an increase in exposure to violent material, harassment, bullying, or unwanted sexual encounters on the Internet during this time frame, there was an uptick in texting-related bullying or harassment.
The study is published in Pediatrics.
Rates of text messaging among adolescents increased from 59% in 2008 to 72% in 2009, while rates of Internet use remained stable at 93% from 2006 to 2008.
It is too early to say why harassment and unwanted sexual communication is increasing among adolescent texters, but not Internet users.
"It may be because aggressive behavior is shifting from online to text messaging or it may be because text messaging is relatively new and we're all figuring out how to communicate well using it; in this case, rates should stabilize as we become more familiar with it," says study researcher Michele Ybarra MPH, PhD, of Internet Solutions for Kids, Inc. in San Clemente, Calif.
Parents can also use filtering software to prevent children from accessing inappropriate web sites, but no such technology is available for cell phone texting yet, she says.
In the study, children were asked if or how often they visited violent sites, such as one showing images of war, death, or terrorism. They were also asked if they had been cyberbullied online or via text. Those who said they had been targeted were asked how they felt after their worst experience.
The online world may be becoming safer for children, Ybarra says. "Rates of violent exposures and experiences online do not seem to be increasing; nor do rates of distress."
The majority of young people are not harassed, bullied, or targets of unwanted sexual communication online or via text messaging, and most of those who are do not report extreme distress even by their most serious experience. "For most young people, navigating technology-infused relationships is generally OK," Ybarra says.
Still one in four children who are harassed or bullied online or via text are "strongly and negatively" affected by the experience.
"We need to do a better job of identifying these kids, and getting them the support and help that they need," Ybarra says.
Some of the onus falls on parents. "Talk to your kids about your values and how you want and expect them to treat others," Ybarra says. "Give concrete examples across modes."
At core, these are relationship and communication issues. "Parents can help their children by talking to them about healthy relationships, how to communicate assertively but healthfully when their children are unhappy with others," she says.
"View technology as an additional space that you can help your child learn to navigate safely and independently," Ybarra says via email. "Work with your children to go online and use text messaging safely."
Victor Strasburger, MD, says the most important step parents can take is to take control of their children's media exposure.
"That means setting limits, leaving the cell phone in a basket in the kitchen at bedtime and reporting hostile texts," says Strasburger, professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico. "Any technology in the bedroom means that parents will be absolutely unable to control what their children are exposed to."
SOURCES:Michele Ybarra, MPH, PhD, Internet Solutions for Kids, Inc., San Clemente, Calif.Ybarra, M.L. Pediatrics, 2011.Victor Strasburger, MD, professor of pediatrics, University of New Mexico.
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