A shockingly high number of teenage girls say they personally met with strangers they connected with online. A study involving 251 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 showed that 30 percent of them had taken the risk of meeting with a stranger they knew only online. About half the girls in the study were victims of abuse or neglect.
“These meetings may have been benign, but for an adolescent girl to do it is dangerous,” says Jennie Noll, PhD, a psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the study’s lead author.
Researchers also found that abused or neglected teen girls are more likely to act in a sexually provocative manner online than other teen girls.
“If someone is looking for a vulnerable teen to start an online sexual discourse, they will more likely target someone who presents herself provocatively,” says Dr. Noll. “Maltreatment poses a unique risk for online behavior that may set the stage for harm.”
High-risk behaviors include searching for adult content, presenting themselves provocatively, and receiving sexual advances. Abused or neglected girls did not change their behavior when parents used Internet filtering software. Parental monitoring and what the researchers call “high quality parenting” was shown to make a difference.
Noll’s previous studies about high-risk online behaviors brought some disturbing stories to light. “One patient told a story about a guy who started texting her a lot, and he seemed ‘really nice.’ So she agreed to meet him at the mall, she got in his car, they drove somewhere and he raped her.”
A study out of the University of Southern California last year showed that teens who sexted (sending and receiving sexually explicit messages and photos on a cell phone), were more likely to be sexually active and have unprotected sex than those who didn’t sext. The sexting study used data from more than 1,800 high school students in Los Angeles.
“Teens live in a world where sexting seems like a normal behavior and not just among their friends,” said Eric Rice, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in the USC School of Social Work. “They hear about politicians and celebrities in the news doing it, too. Imagine how vulnerable teens are to this behavior when it seems like adults do this all the time.”
Details of both studies are published in the journal Pediatrics.