When I was in early high school, I met a friend who was all about MySpace (remember that creepy, glittery, even-more-vain-than-Tumblr beta Facebook?). She had met several guys via the site after exchanging lots of edited, angled photos — thereby making it a little difficult to recognize one another — and had actually seen some success with dating one or two of them. At the time, I was awkward, unhealthily pale and afraid of approaching guys, so her means of acquiring significant others seemed pretty appealing. Of course, teenage online dating via social networking sites is extremely normalized nowadays, but at the time, it was new territory that was sort of seeing its primitive stages.
I started talking to some guy named Matt and we hit it off because, shockingly, bored, single 15-year-olds tend to have a lot in common. For example, we were both bored and single. The friend who had gotten me into the whole MySpace dating thing claimed she had gone out with him at some point (which he later denied when I questioned his introducing himself to her), so at the time, I felt like it was safe to meet him. We wound up seeing a movie, I believe, and then getting to know each other further, culminating a few weeks later into an awkward make out session in my basement wherein we both realized we weren’t actually attracted to one another. So it goes.
Granted, at least mostly-stupid 15-year-old me had the sense to meet the guy in the mall and I was lucky that he was just some sophomore Catholic school stoner who was dropped off by his mom just like myself, but this is not the case with everybody. It’s eerily easy to lie on the Internet and so many people take advantage of that fact which is pretty unsurprising to most of us who have lived with and been gradually jaded by the web. However, more young girls than ever are meeting strangers from the Internet.
30 percent of surveyed teenage girls reported meeting strangers from the Internet, even when their identities were not yet confirmed. Jennie Noll, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati, conducted the study that revealed these alarming results. In it, Noll and her team surveyed more than 250 teenage girls ages 14 to 17, 130 of whom had “experienced a documented form of abuse or maltreatment.” They were attempting to see if the girls who had experienced trauma at the hands of others were more likely to engage in risky Internet behavior (like meeting somebody from the Internet or having an explicit profile on a social media site).
The results of the study after about a year to 16 months of observation showed that 30 percent had met a stranger from the Internet in real life, with the young women who had experienced abuse being more likely to do so. Noll said that predators tend to target teens who have more risque photos than others:
“If someone is looking for a vulnerable teen to start an online sexual discourse, they will more likely target someone who presents herself provocatively. Maltreatment poses a unique risk for online behavior that may set the stage for harm.”
Of course, regardless of what a kid has on her Facebook or wherever else, she doesn’t deserve to be abused by some e-predator. Nevertheless, it’s a lot different than when an adult has explicit photos. For one thing, it’s obviously illegal for minors to have highly sexual photos on the Internet, but it’s also important to remember that a lot of the the creeps on the Internet know how to manipulate young teenagers into feeling safe, comfortable and as though the two are tight friends. Remember how lonely middle and high school were? Sometimes, the Internet is the only place where kids feel like they can make connections — even though those connections are not always safe ones.
In order to combat the potential for kids to engage in such behavior, it’s important for parents to take a role in their kids’ e-lives. According to the study, those filtering programs that remove sexual content from view don’t actually have any impact on the teens’ behavior. However, building trust between the parents and kids as well as keeping an eye on what teens are doing can greatly reduce the risk of them winding up in a terrible position like around some predator they thought was their friend. And it’s also important that parents keep in mind that their daughters and sons can partake in this type of behavior and be in danger even if they’re not showing skin in photos and have never experienced trauma before.
Hopefully, this number reduces in the near future, as hypocritical as that sounds since I once engaged in such an idiotic act as meeting somebody from the Internet when I was just a youngish teenager. But until then, it’s best to just discuss the importance of being safe online with your younger siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and kids.
Photo: Loosepunctuation / Flickr