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Study Confirms Risky Online Teenage Behavior

PHOTO: Thirty percent of teen girls reported having offline meetings with people they met on the Internet.
PHOTO: Thirty percent of teen girls reported having offline meetings with people they met on the Internet.
February 6, 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Internet can be a particularly dangerous place for teenage girls, according to a new report.

The study's lead author, psychologist Dr. Jennie Noll, said 30 percent of teen girls report meeting up with people they met on the Internet - and that those meetings are more likely to happen for girls who engage in high-risk behaviors.

Those who troll the Web for vulnerable teens are looking for a specific type of online profile," Noll said.

"A girl who's maybe put herself in a bikini, or describes herself as a sexual person, or describes herself as someone who's willing to engage in some sexual conversation," Noll said. "Then that might be the person that you stop and talk to."

Another point of concern, Noll said, is that abused or neglected teenage girls are more likely to present themselves online in a sexually provocative way. She said parents can do a lot to change their teen's behavior if they are willing to have tough, face-to-face conversations about the dangers online.

The lines of communication can easily be shut down if teens simply think they're being spied on, Noll said. Her advice is to talk to them about the consequences of their online behavior without being accusing or shaming. One of her suggestions is to ask them to educate you.

"Engage them by saying, 'Hey, help me figure this out. How can I follow you on Twitter?' or, 'What does this hashtag thing mean?' and they're actually educating me," she said. "But in doing so, I'm creating a bond of trust, and I can have conversations in the midst of that about dangerous ways to present themselves."

The study is part of a larger body of Noll's work on high-risk Internet behaviors. She said she has heard some chilling tales from girls who believed they were meeting someone quite different from who really shows up. She described one girl's story:

"A guy was friends with me on Facebook and he suggested that we finally meet, and I didn't see any harm with it. And I met him at the mall and he asked me if I would go somewhere else with him. I got in the car, and then he took me somewhere, and that's where the victimization happened."

The study was published in the eFirst pages of the journal Pediatrics, and is online at pediatrics.aappublications.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV