Children's Exposure to Negative Internet Content: Effects of Family Context

Article excerpt

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). …