By Richard Lenti
In what could be seen as a wake-up call for parents everywhere, a new study reports that nearly one out of three underage girls say they’ve gotten together with someone they first met online, without really knowing for certain who they were.
Published in the journal Pediatrics, the study from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that 30 percent of teenagers reported having offline meetings with people they met on the Internet and whose identity had not been fully confirmed prior to the meeting.
“These meetings may have been benign, but for an adolescent girl to do it is dangerous,” said Jennie Noll, PhD, a psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the study’s lead author. “Many adolescents do not possess the necessary skills to ward off sexual advances whether online or in person.”
More disturbing, researchers found that abused or neglected teenage girls were more likely to present
themselves online in a sexually provocative way than other teenage girls. And those high-risk, online profiles were more likely to lead to offline meetings.
“If someone is looking for a vulnerable teen to start an online sexual discourse, they will more likely target someone who presents herself provocatively,” said Dr. Noll. “Maltreatment poses a unique risk for online behavior that may set the stage for harm.”
Researchers studied 251 adolescent girls between the ages of 14 and 17 over the course of 12 to 16 months. About half were victims of abuse or neglect; the same amount was from single-parent households.
At the start of the study, parents were asked about adolescent behavior and on the level of Internet monitoring in the home.
To maximize anonymity, researchers used a computer survey to assess the teens’ Internet use and behaviors, sexual attitudes and activities, alcohol and substance use, parenting quality, and depressive symptoms.
Social networking preferences were recorded and profiles were coded for behaviors that included intentionally seeking adult content, provocative self-presentations on social networking sites and receiving sexual advances online.
Researchers found that if a parent’s involvement was limited to installing Internet filtering software at home, it made no difference in the association between maltreatment and high-risk Internet behaviors.
On the other hand, Dr. Knoll said that “high quality parenting” and parental monitoring helped reduce the association between adolescent risk factors and those online behaviors.
National surveys indicate that 95% of American adolescents aged 12 to 17 have access to the Internet, and 80% use social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook.
“Social networking sites can provide valuable opportunities for adolescents to explore novel aspects of social discourse and expand social contexts,” writes Dr. Knoll.
Because these sites allow adolescents to post personal photos and autobiographic information, some will post provocative images or use sexual language that can inadvertently signal an interest in sex.
That, Dr. Knoll notes, is when parental involvement, along with education, makes all the difference.
She stresses that Internet safety and sex education programs need to highlight the implications for provocative self-presentations, offer skills for handling sexual solicitations, and recommend ways to protect adolescents whose parents are not Internet savvy or who are otherwise uninvolved.
“Parents should be encouraged to use tools that go beyond simply installing filtering device,” writes Knoll. “Such tools include engendering open lines of communication with regard to online and offline practices and targeting problem behaviors that can lead to Internet risk behaviors.”
“In this way, parents and adolescents can work together to promote the safe and optimal use of the Internet.”
A recent poll found that nearly 30 percent of teens also admitted to sexting — having sent a nude photo of themselves to someone. Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston report that teen girls who sext are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior than their male counterparts.