30% of US Teen Girls in Study met up with Online Strangers
Thirty percent of the teenage girls in a study had a real-life meeting with people they first met online, showing a prevalence of risky online behavior. The result was found in the context of a wider study by the same researchers on high-risk Internet behaviors, and was published in the journal Pediatrics.
The researchers studied a relatively small sample of 251 adolescent girls between the ages of 14 and 17, of which half had been identified by their local Child Protective Service agency as victims of abuse or neglect, within the year before the study.
The study tracked the online and offline activity of the teenage girls for the period of about one year. Within this timespan, nearly one in three girls had in-person contact with online acquaintances, which raised concerns of high-risk behavior in the context of social networking, since the identity of the persons they met had not been fully confirmed before the meeting.
"These meetings may have been benign, but for an adolescent girl to do it is dangerous," Jennie Noll, PhD, a psychologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and the study's lead author, said in a statement.
According to Dr. Noll, director of research in behavioral medicine and clinical psychology at Cincinnati Children's, the research also shows that more risqué, online profiles are more likely to lead to offline meetings.
"On top of that, we found that kids who are particularly sexual and provocative online do receive more sexual advances from others online, and are more likely to meet these strangers, who, after sometimes many months of online interaction, they might not even view as a 'stranger' by the time they meet," Noll continued. "So the implications are dangerous."
Not surprisingly, the tendency to put more provocative material online, and likelihood of in-person meetings, was found to be higher in the half of the evaluated teen girls that had a record of mistreatment. And those who posted provocative content were found to be more likely to receive sexual solicitations online, to seek out so-called adult content and to arrange offline meetings with strangers.
"If someone is looking for a vulnerable teen to start an online sexual discourse, they will more likely target someone who presents herself provocatively," she said. "Maltreatment poses a unique risk for online behavior that may set the stage for harm."
Noll also cautioned that if families of the girls in the study had installed Internet filtering software at the house, it did not make a difference in the association between maltreatment and high-risk Internet behaviors. As a precaution, the authors advise parents to foster open communication about the online activities of their children, and have conversations with their teenagers about the involved risks as well.
"Statistics show that in and of itself, the Internet is not as dangerous a place as, for example, walking through a really bad neighborhood," said Noll "The vast majority of online meetings are benign."
The study was supported by a $3.7 million federal grant from the National Institutes of Health to help deepen the data about high risk Internet behaviors.