Many teens are routinely exposed to pornography and sexual advances from strangers on the Internet whether they seek it or not, according to a new study sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

In chat rooms, the youth are sexually pursued, the study found.

Separate research detailed the extent to which teens seek advice on sex and relationships from anonymous peers on the Web -- and the ways they keep parents out of the loop.

Teenagers are often inadvertently exposed to porn when they conduct unrelated Web searches, said Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor and director of UCLA's Children's Digital Media Center.

Greenfield studied the topic at ground-level, entering a chat room targeted at teens.

"The sexuality expressed in a teen chat room was public, linked to strangers and had nothing to do with relationships," Greenfield said. "It was very explicit and focused on physical acts, and often associated with the degradation of women. I started to receive private instant messages, including a crude sexual advance, just by hanging out at the chat room, even though I had not participated in any of the ongoing conversations."

'I was pursued'

The unsolicited advances could be daunting for adolescents, Greenfield said.

"I was not looking for unsolicited personal messages, sexual or otherwise, but once I decided to enter the chat room, I could not avoid being exposed," she recalls. "I was pursued sexually."

Much of the innocence of childhood is lost "with today's all-pervasive sexualized media environment," Greenfield said. "By late childhood, it has become very difficult to avoid highly sexualized material that is intended for an adult audience."

The results show of this and other studies released Wednesday how teen Internet use has evolved quickly, said Amy Sussman, National Science Foundation (NSF) program officer.

"They illustrate both the dangers and opportunities on the Web, as well as debunk popularly held but incorrect notions about teen Internet use," Sussman said. "The guidelines based on the research should be helpful to parents and policy-makers alike."

Hiding from parents

The teen chat room participants talked about sex "a lot of the time," Greenfield said. "They were referring to various forms of sex, all in code, without using words about sex. The coded sexual allusions were still devoid of feelings and relationships."

If a parent enters the physical room, a child might type "POS" (parent over shoulder) to explain temporary quietude or absence from the virtual chat room, said co-researcher Kaveri Subrahmanyam.

A separate study, also reported today, found that some teens seek health advice from their peers on bulletin boards as a way to avoid the awkwardness of talking about sex with their parents.

"Questions referring to sexual techniques prompted a lot of interest in the teen sexual health issues board, and so did interpersonal aspects of sex, such as problems with boyfriends and girlfriends regarding whether or not to have sex," according to Lalita Suzuki and Jerel Calzo, also of the NSF-funded center at UCLA.

 

Examples of the questions and comments teenagers post on online bulletin boards:

  • "My boyfriend wants to have sex and I agreed, but now I don't want to ... I'm afraid that if I say no he'll break up with me."
  • "I'm embarrassed around my mom."
  • "How do I ask a girl out, or at least talk to her?"

Another study looked at Internet use by 200 students aged 12 to 15 in upper middle class suburban California schools. It found that instant messaging is the most common activity, done to "hang out" with friends and relieve boredom.

The students also spend 31.4 minutes per day, on average, visiting Web sites, mostly to download music.

No surprise: "The Internet appears to serve social functions similar to the telephone's," said study leader Elisheva Gross.

Other research, released last month, found that teens use Internet exchanges to virtually pair off, by exiting a chat room to engage in one-on-one instant messaging. They provide prospective partners with "a/s/l" (age, sex, and location) information.

What to do?

The findings may not surprise parents who've managed to track the problem.

In a 1998 study, nearly half of students in grades three through eight reported visiting Web sites with adult content. That figure is probably higher today, Greenfield said.

What's a parent to do?

Greenfield recommends keeping lines of communication open with children, and surfing the Internet with young children. And in particular, boys at risk for aggressive, antisocial behavior should have access to pornography strictly limited, Greenfield said.

"Without supervision, the risks far outweigh the potential benefits of unsupervised Internet use for young children," she said.

The new studies are detailed in a special issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.