A study shows that teen girls who depict themselves online in a provocative way and who have a history of child abuse are more likely to receive online sexual advances. Then they meet those individuals offline. It suggests parents should know how their teenage girls present themselves online.

Published in the June issue of Pediatrics, the study reveals that 40% of all 173 teen girls in the study reported experiencing online sexual advances, and 26% reported meeting someone in person who they first met online.

“The importance of parental monitoring of adolescent Internet use cannot be understated,” says Jennie Noll, PhD, a psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the study’s main author. “This is particularly important given that 55% of adolescent Internet users have or are currently using social networking Websites.

Dr. Noll studied girls between the ages of 14 and 17. Each was asked to create an avatar — an electronic image to represent herself — and complete a questionnaire regarding her computer and Internet usage, sexual attitudes and activities, substance use, involvement with peers, and presence of maternal and paternal caregivers.

The avatars they created were evaluated based on previously defined categories spanning a continuum from conservative to provocative, depending on such factors as bust and hip size, upper body clothing, lower body clothing and piercings. Those who had depicted themselves as provocative in terms of body and clothing choices were more likely to have had online sexual advances.

In addition to choosing a provocative avatar, other risk factors for online sexual advances included substance abuse and being preoccupied with sex and sexual thoughts. Associating with high-risk peers was an additional risk factor for in-person encounters.

The presentation of oneself in a provocative manner, however, is not necessarily limited to Websites that rely on avatars as the primary interface. For female adolescents in particular, says Dr. Noll, self-presentations such as a compilation of photographs and narrative descriptions on networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace might also increase their vulnerability.

Parents can play an important role in preventing exposure to online sexual solicitations, according to Dr. Noll. For example, she says, parents should emphasize to adolescents ways to ward off sexual advances and explain to them how virtual self-representations can influence behaviors and perceptions.

While its findings were released Tuesday (May 26), the study was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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About Rakesh Raman

Have extensive editorial, content management, and integrated communications experience and have worked as a senior tech journalist, analyst, and columnist with different newspapers, magazines, and Web/online properties in India.

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