The Internet and computer-mediated communication, such as email and instant messaging, is transforming the lives of young people. Although being online can have many social benefits, it has also created unique opportunities for sexual harassment. New research led by a Michigan State University cybercrime expert found children are being pressured by their friends to talk about sex online.

The study, published in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, found about one in four children report being sexually harassed online by those they are closest to. This is one of the first studies to examine the factors of online child sexual victimization. "Research has focused on certain forms of sexual activity online, such as sexting, but little study has been devoted to coercion to engage in sexual conversations as a form of sexual harassment," researchers wrote in the study.

In the study, researchers collected and analyzed data from 439 middle- and high-school students aged 12 to 16. They found children who were victimized were more likely to be girls, have low levels of self-control, view pornography, and have peers who engaged others in sexual conversation online.

"This is not to downplay the danger of pedophiles acting online, but it does draw attention to the potential threat of child sexual victimization by the people our kids are closest to, the people they spend the greatest amount of time with online," Thomas J. Holt, associate professor of criminal justice at MSU, said in a statement.

What's more was the methods often used to protect children from online strangers and predators, like parental software or keeping the computer in an open space such as the family living room, were futile in reducing the problem.

"So it seems like this is not something that can be technologically solved, at least for the moment," Holt said. "Instead, it has to be something that's resolved through engaged conversation between parent and child."

Researchers said the best way to protect children from being coerced to engage in sexual conversations online is for parents to have a talk with their kids about what they are doing online in the first place. As difficult as it may be, Holt said having an "open dialogue is one of the best things they can do to minimize the risk.

Source: Holt T, Bossler A, Malinski R, May D. Identifying Predators of Unwanted Online Sexual Conversations Among Youth Using Low Self-Control and Routine Activity Framework. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. 2015.