Children's exposure to negative Internet content: effects of family context.

Author:Cho, Chang-Hoan

The Internet has become an indispensable element of life for most people in the contemporary world, and children are not excluded. Because of the ubiquitous availability of Internet access, in schools and libraries, children are increasingly becoming involved in this new technology (Steyer & Clinton, 2003). As of December 2003, 23 million children in the United States ages 6 to 17 have Internet access at home, which is a threefold increase since 2000 (MediaPost, 2003). According to a survey conducted by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in July 2002, 78% of family households with children have Internet access at home. A survey by Yahoo and Carat showed that children ages 12 to 17 used the Internet an average of 16.7 hours per week in 2003 (Indiantelevision, 2003). Given this extensive usage, the Internet has the potential to be a very powerful socialization agent (Huston, Watkins, & Kunkel, 1989).

The Internet has a double-edged sword characteristic for children: providing many opportunities for learning (ParentLink, 2004; Wartella, Lee, & Caplovitz, 2002) while exposing children to potentially negative content (Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Wolak, 2000). The Internet not only provides significant benefits for children, such as research access, socialization, entertainment, and a communication tool with families, but it also connotes negative aspects such as violence, pornography, hate sites, isolation, predators, and commercialism (Media Awareness Network, 2003; National School Boards Foundation, 2003). The Web sites considered detrimental include those dedicated to negative content such as pornography, violent online games, online gambling, and so forth. For example, many children can easily access pornographic content on the Internet. They can also be accidentally exposed to numerous obscene pop-up banner ads and extensive pornographic content when they type seemingly innocent key words into a search engine, for example, the name of a singer such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, or Madonna (U.S. House of Representatives, 2001). According to Finkelhor et al., 25% of the respondents (n = 1,501, ages 10-17) reported receiving unwanted exposure to sexual materials while online, and 19% received a sexual solicitation online.

Despite the potential negative effects on children using the Internet, more than 30% of surveyed parents had not discussed the downside of Internet use with their children (Internet Advisory Board, 2001), and 62% of parents of teenagers did not realize that their children had visited inappropriate Web sites (Yankelovich Partners, 1999). Recognizing the ever-serious negative aspects of children using the Internet and parents' possible underestimation of, or ignorance about, their children's Internet usage and its effects, this study explores the degree of children's exposure to negative Internet content and detects the possible discrepancy between what parents think their children are doing online and their children's actual activities. In doing so, this study carefully dissects the possible causes and consequences of perceived parental control over children's Internet usage. Concerned that inappropriate Internet content may jeopardize the health or safety of children, the present study is a crucial attempt that aims to address the following research inquires with regard to children's Internet usage: (a) to understand the degree to which children are exposed to negative Internet content, (b) to detect a possible discrepancy between parents' perception and children's actual exposure to negative Internet content, (c) to examine various antecedents explaining perceived parental control over children's Internet usage, and (d) to suggest various ways to decrease children's exposure to negative Internet content.

Literature Review

In fall 2002, 99% of public schools in the United States had access to the Internet and 64% of children ages 5 to 17 had Internet access at home (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Children ages 13 to 17 spent more time online than watching television--3.5 hours versus 3.1 hours per day, and used the Internet mostly for exploration (surfing and searching), followed by education (learning and homework), multimedia (music, video, etc.), communications (e-mail, chat, and instant messages), games, and e-commerce (Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 2002). The place children were most likely to use the Internet was in the home, rather than at a library or school: 20% of children ages 8 to 16 had a computer in their bedroom, of which 54% had Internet access (Wartella et al., 2002).

Negative Effects of Using the Internet

There is an increasing concern from educators, psychologists, and parents about the negative effects of using the Internet on the physical (e.g., information fatigue syndrome), cognitive (e.g., inability to discriminate between the real and cyber world), and social development (e.g., identity confusion) of children (Cordes & Miller, 2000), among which, detriment to social development (hurting children's skills and patience to conduct necessary social relations in the real world) is a paramount problem (Affonso, 1999). One of the most serious concerns regarding children's social development involves the proliferation and easy accessibility of negative content on the Internet, such as pornography, violence, hate speech, gambling, sexual solicitation, and so forth (Internet Advisory Board, 2001; ParentLink, 2004). It is easy to see how these types of negative content harm children and destroy their development. Extant literature shows that children's exposure to inappropriate media content yields many negative outcomes such as increased aggression, fear, desensitization, poor school performance, prevalence of symptoms of psychological trauma, antisocial behavior, negative self-perception, low self-esteem, lack of reality, identity confusion, and more (e.g., Donnerstein, Slaby, & Eron, 1994; Fleming & Rickwood, 2001; Funk & Buchman, 1996; Strasburger & Donnerstein, 1999; Wartella, O'Keefe, & Scantlin, 2000).

In particular, sexually explicit materials on the Internet can desensitize children to deviant sexual stimuli and encourage them to enact antisocial aggressive sexual behaviors (W. Fisher & Barak, 2001). Furthermore, the anonymity of the Internet makes it easier for pedophiles to approach children through online chatting. Children who spend hours in chat rooms looking for friends or just passing time can be easily targeted and abused by unknown adult sexual offenders (KidsHealth, 2004). Violent online games are another serious concern. It is known that violent computer games increase children's physical, verbal, relational, and antisocial aggressions (Donnerstein et al., 1994). These negative effects of violent games on children are even more serious regarding the Internet because access to such violent games has become easier for unsupervised children due to free or fee-based online games (Collwell & Payne, 2000). Online gambling has also been cited as a serious Internet problem affecting children. It can seriously disrupt children's social and psychological development, for example, addiction, being unable to repay debts, missing school, and so forth (Ho, 2002; Mikta, 2001).

However, little is known about children's actual amount of exposure to such inappropriate content and activities on the Internet. Extant literature shows that a discrepancy exists between the reports of parents and children on children's media usage; for example, parents tend to underestimate time spent on television viewing and the amount of violence to which children are exposed (Pearl, 1982; Strasburger & Donnerstein, 1999). This discrepancy leads parents to underrate the impact of media messages on their children and to not exert much control over their children's media use (Gentile & Walsh, 2002). Surprisingly, 38% of surveyed children ages 8 to 18 said that their parents do not enforce any rules on watching television, 95% of older children watch television without their parents, and 81% of children ages 2 to 7 watch television unsupervised (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, & Brodie, 1999). This may be true for children's Internet usage, but we know little about the possible discrepancy between parental estimates and children's actual Internet usage. In this vein, the present study tries to detect the degree to which children are exposed to these sources of negative content and whether parents overestimate or underestimate their children's exposure to such content. In doing so, this study strives to examine how children's exposure to such negative Internet content relates to the social context of Internet usage, that is, the role of family communication and relationship on children's exposure to such content.

Social Context of Children's Internet Use

People use media within a social realm, and children are no exception. Social context of media usage, especially parental influence, is crucial in children's social development. However, many social aspects of children's Internet usage are still unknown. Therefore, this study focuses on the social context of children's Internet use, especially relative to family environment such as parental guidance, influence, and relationship with children.

Children live within a family boundary; therefore, parental influence on children's media usage and effect is very important. Extant research shows that family communication exerts the greatest influence on children's socialization and development (McLeod & Chaffee, 1972; Moschis, 1985; O'Keefe, 1973). Stemming from political socialization research (Chaffee, McLeod, & Atkin, 1971), family communication patterns have been widely applied to various socialization contexts such as consumption, political process, media usage, and so forth. In particular, in mass media research, it was found that family communication patterns mediate the extent and type of children's mass media...

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