A new study in the journal Pediatrics found that teenage girls who had experienced abuse in real life were more likely to exhibit "high risk" online behavior, such as responding to online sexual advances and meeting Internet "friends" offline.
Researchers found that nearly a third of all teenage girls had met people offline after becoming online friends. And alarmingly, 1 in 10 experienced some kind of exploitation -- ranging from unwanted sexual advances to rape -- during that offline interaction.
Jennie Noll, a psychology professor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, had been studying abused teens when she began noticing their online profiles were different. "They would, more often than some other kids, post racy photos of themselves or sexual utterances," Noll told LiveScience.
As reported by LiveScience:
To test that observation, she and her colleagues studied 130 girls ages 14 to 17 who had seen Child Protective Services for sexual and physical abuse and neglect, as well as 125 demographically similar teenagers with no abuse history. The girls answered questions about online behavior. A year later, Noll asked how many of the girls had met an Internet friend offline.
Thirty percent of girls (both abused and not) reported an in-person encounter with someone they first met online. About 10 percent of the girls experienced something negative — often creepy sexual overtures or intimidation during that meet-up. Only one prosecuted rape occurred as a result of the offline meetings, Noll said.
Consistent with her anecdotal experience, abused teens were likelier than non-abused teens to have racy social media profiles or report fielding sexual advances from strangers — behaviors that were separately tied to meeting strangers offline.
But as Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy lawyer, also told LiveScience, it's unlikely that the study's findings apply to the general population. "Straight strangers? No way. I just don't see that as happening. The kids have gotten very sophisticated about this issue," Aftab said.
In general population surveys, very few teens report meeting strangers in person. And of the small subset who do, so few are sexually assaulted that researchers can't draw meaningful conclusions from available data.
The study also found that talking to teenagers about their online activity can greatly reduce risky behavior, but with a majority of parents in the dark about their kid's Internet lives -- a recent study found that 70 percent of teens go out of their way to hide this information -- that's no easy task.