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REPORT: Kids Have Online Sexual Interactions With Adults And Peers At The Same Rate

February 9, 2023

4 Minute Read

LOS ANGELESFeb. 9, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — New research on youth attitudes from Thorn, a nonprofit that builds technology to defend children from sexual abuse, found that 22 percent of kids report having online sexual interactions with adults—the same percentage of kids who report having sexual interactions with peers their own age – in 2021.

The survey findings also suggest that online safety tools and features – like blocking and reporting – are insufficient in helping kids avoid these harmful online interactions.

The research, Responding to Online Threats: Minors’ Perspective on Disclosing, Reporting, and Blocking in 2021, builds on Thorn’s 2020 report on the same topic and aims to help inform online platforms’ implementation of effective, accessible, and co-created safety tools and features—ones that incorporate the voices of youth and the reality of their lived experiences.

Other significant takeaways from the report include:

  • Kids overwhelmingly prefer online tools when addressing potentially harmful online sexual interactions. In response to potentially harmful online sexual interactions, youth were 2 ½ times as likely to use online support tools—such as blocking or reporting—than to seek offline support from a parent or peer.
  • Blocking tools remain kids’ most used online safety feature in controlling potentially harmful online interactions. 68% of kids blocked users when experiencing potentially harmful online interactions, while 50% used a reporting feature, 23% muted the users, and just 15% ignored them.
  • Existing online safety tools were insufficient in stopping abusive users. Kids reported the online safety tools like blocking and reporting they used were insufficient in preventing a harasser from recontacting them. Approximately half of the children who utilized online safety tools experienced recontacts from online harassers. One in six kids who reported a user indicated their report was never resolved.
  • For many minors, the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with increased online sexual interactions. Among minors who reported they have had an online sexual interaction, about 1 in 2 indicated online sexual interactions like being asked to send nude imagery of themselves or being sent sexual messages happened more during the pandemic with both adults and peers
  • Youth from marginalized groups reported the highest levels of continued online harassment. LGBTQ+, African American, Hispanic, and Latino kids noted the highest rates of recontacts from problematic users they had previously blocked or reported.

Since 2019, Thorn has undertaken multiple research initiatives into self-generated child sexual abuse material (SG-CSAM), commonly known as “nude selfies,” a key area of concern for those working to combat online sexual exploitation. The current report illuminates the need for functional online safety tools and offline support systems that incentivize children to take action.

“Young people are growing up online and finding themselves in potentially risky situations with people they meet there,” said Julie Cordua, CEO of Thorn. “Online safety tools, like blocking and reporting, play an integral role in helping kids protect themselves from potentially harmful interactions. However, these findings show that our current features remain insufficient. There’s a clear need to scale and improve systems that protect children in online environments. At the same time, parents have an opportunity to engage in more frequent conversations with their children about online safety, so kids feel comfortable coming to them when they’re faced with a potentially harmful situation online.”

To help these conversations and encourage young people to seek offline support, Thorn launched Thorn for Parents. Launched in 2020, this digital resource hub is designed to assist parents and caregivers in having earlier, more frequent, and judgment-free conversations with kids about digital safety. Thorn for Parents brings caregivers face-to-face with the reality that digital safety conversations need to start much younger than they may think and underscores the importance of having them more often to help guide kids through these difficult topics with understanding, empathy, and support.

Thorn’s full report, Responding to Online Threats: Minors’ Perspectives on Disclosing, Reporting, and Blocking in 2021, can be viewed here.

Methodology: This research was conducted by Thorn in partnership with Benenson Strategy Group. The survey collected self-reported data from minors aged 9-17. In total, 1,141 minors of a nationally representative sample participated in an 18-minute online survey from October 25 to November 28, 2021. Data was weighted to age, gender, race, and geography, based on US Census data. The 2021 survey also incorporated an increased recruitment of minor participants who identified as persons of colors. This research represents a continuation of research originally performed in 2020.

About Thorn: Thorn is a nonprofit founded in 2012 to build technology to defend children from sexual abuse and eliminate child sex abuse material from the internet. Thorn creates products that identify child victims faster, provides services for the tech industry to play a proactive role in removing abuse content from their platforms, and works directly with youth and communities to build resilient kids. Learn more about Thorn’s mission to build technology to defend children from sexual abuse at

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