A new study has just come out which reveals something about the relationship between technology and our social lives. At no time in history have we been so technologically connected to one another. We can get and stay in contact with people at any hour of the day from virtually anywhere on the planet. The reason I’m saying this is because I don’t want you to be too shocked when I tell you the percentage of teenage girls are meeting people offline.
The Internet Strangers Study
For 12 to 16 months, Jennie Noll and her colleagues at the University of Cincinnati tracked hundreds of adolescent girls regarding their online and offline behavior. They were intending to find out what was correlated to high-risk behavior on the internet (e.g., meeting a total stranger offline), which they did – but they also found a very interesting number that I’m sure will be toted as a statistic for years – maybe decades – to come:
Thirty percent of adolescents reported having offline meetings.
There it is. One in ten adolescent girls have met someone from the internet in person.
Here’s how the research was done… Researchers recorded parenting quality and online & offline behaviors for 251 adolescent girls. 130 girls suffered from abuse and 121 did not (they were the control group). Parents reported on their daughters’ behaviors and how much they were monitoring the internet in the home. Then the researchers looked at how the girls presented themselves on social networking sites like Facebook, and offline meetings with people met online first were assessed 12-16 months later. So the 30% number is among a sample of 251 people – a good number of research participants.
But let’s keep this into perspective.
A Little Perspective
First of all, this doesn’t necessarily mean that 30% of adolescents are meeting people to have sex, or even date; but let’s also not be too naive. It’s likely that people who want to meet offline are interested in pursuing romantic/sexual relationships. This is not necessarily or inherently even a bad thing, though – many people meet online and have great relationships offline.
The world is changing, and the technology is changing with it. It wouldn’t be farfetched to say that if the older generations had this technology available, they would be doing the same thing. In fact, I believe this, and I think that anyone who says otherwise is out of touch with the interaction between technology, culture, and youth.
However, the one thing we can say that is unequivocally bad about meeting someone offline is this: When you meet someone offline that you met online, there’s always a certain amount of risk, because you don’t know who you’re going to meet. I mean you don’t really know. For example, I’m sure the pedophiles who were caught on “To Catch a Predator” thought they were going to get sex; just as many young rape victims (mostly but not exclusively female) thought that they weren’t. This is actually why one popular dating app – Skout – banned its underage users last June. Three cases from the US - perpetrated by male pedophiles at the ages of 37, 24, and 21 – made the Skout creators begin an age requirement of 18.
[February 17 Update: Japan is dealing with the issue of teens using a very handy instant-messaging app called "LINE." Functionally, it is pretty much the exact same as "Skype," and much more popular than "Viber," all of which are largely the same. With around 41% of LINE's 100 million users living in Japan, some people are concerned that the app is using for hook-ups, as well as teenage prostitution. But the issue is certainly not the app itself; just the way people use it.]
So what can be done to prevent the offline meeting from happening? One thing is simple (or is it?): Good parenting.
The Family Environment
Parental monitoring, for example, was much more effective than “parental control software.” But there are other factors that contribute to high-risk behaviors, some of which are more surprising than others.
The more exposed a girl is to sexual material, the dumber they are (i.e., those who have “low cognitive ability”), and the sexually suggestive they make their Facebook profiles, the more likely they are to meet someone offline. Girls with behavioral problems and those who suffer from maltreatment or parental abuse are also more likely to do so. In short, parenting is the key to keeping your daughters from risking the offline meet-up. One NIH report said it like this:
Girls with a history of neglect or physical or sexual abuse were particularly prone to presenting themselves online (both in images and verbally) in ways that can be construed as sexually explicit and provocative. Doing so, researchers warned, increases their risk of succumbing to the online advances of strangers whose goal is to prey upon such girls in person.
“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 study lead author Jennie Noll, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati and director of research in behavioral medicine and clinical psychology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “The vast majority of online meetings are benign.
“On the other hand, 90 percent of our adolescents have daily access to the Internet, and there is a risk surrounding offline meetings with strangers, and that risk exists for everyone,” Noll added. “So even if just 1 percent of them end up having a dangerous encounter with a stranger offline, it’s still a very big problem.
“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.”
Nothing to Worry About?
So far, we have also glossed over several other important factors in this study. For one thing, if the risk factors increase with things like maltreatment, and over half of the participants fit into that category, the 30% number can only be generalized to the greater population if we presupposed that over half of our population experiences maltreatment. There’s no evidence to suggest that this is the case, and I don’t believe it for a moment.
Therefore, the study’s results actually suggest that the true number should be lower, because the control group – which skewed the number downwards – is more representative of the greater population. But leave it to news sources like CNET to round the percentage up for some inexplicable reason, saying “For 1 in 3 teen girls, online meetings lead to offline encounters.” Wrong. This is just a headline that they want people to notice.
On a slightly more disturbing note, Janis Wolak – a researcher at the Crimes against Children Research Center – says that the general population surveys they conduct show that very few teens meet strangers from the internet offline; and from those, barely any are sexually assaulted. This is not the disturbing note, though. The disturbing note comes from Digital Life, who say “Still, it’s important for parents not to worry too much about online predators, as the most likely abusers are relatives, family friends, or acquaintances of children known in real life, Wolak said.” Indeed, research has always shown that you’re much more likely to be raped by someone you know than someone you don’t. In fact, a 2008 study Wolak and others conducted had this to say:
The publicity about online “predators” who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate. Internet sex crimes involving adults and juveniles more often fit a model of statutory rape – adult offenders who meet, develop relationships with, and openly seduce underage teenagers — than a model of forcible sexual assault or pedophilic child molesting. This is a serious problem, but one that requires different approaches from current prevention messages emphasizing parental control and the dangers of divulging personal information.
Also, according to Deseret News, “Predators seek youths vulnerable to seduction, including those with histories of sexual or physical abuse, those who post sexually provocative photos/video and those who talk about sex with unknown people online.”
A Serious Solution
The Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s clinical director of adolescent medicine, Jonathan Pletcher, thinks communication is the key. “It’s really about building a foundation of knowing your kid and knowing their warning signs and building trust and open-minded communication.” Of course, if your daughter meeting someone from the internet is a concern for you, it’s much easier to prevent this from happening before she gets into contact with people online rather than after. This means parents have to talk to their children very early.
“[You have to] set up that communication at an early age and establish rules, a framework, for Internet usage, because they are all going to get online. At this point, it’s a life skill that has become almost essential for teens, so it’s going to happen.” This is supported by a large 2011 study, which suggested that parental involvement and proper education of the dangers of high-risk internet activity and communication are probably the best way to prevent a child from doing such activities.
But that is good for early education. I would argue that if you suspect your daughter is already meeting someone offline, or hell-bent on doing so in the near future, then as a parent, it would probably be a good idea to have that person come to your home. Yes, this could cause problems, but it would probably solve many more, and it’s much safer than having your daughter go to an undisclosed location alone.
After all, unless a parent wants to be a helicopter parent (i.e., overprotective), they would have to rely on what their daughter says, and it would be a shame if she didn’t trust you enough to tell the truth. The problem is that we don’t know if she is lying or not – so the choice is either to bar them from going out with their friends (not advised) or to let them be free. With that said, I know that if I had a daughter who wanted to meet someone from the internet, I would want to see who he/she is. So as a preemptive strategy, it might be in a girl’s best interest to have a parent say that if a girl is dead-set on meeting someone, it’s better to bring him to the home than have her go somewhere alone.
In fact, you can’t know whether or not a girl is lying about who they’re going out to meet, and you can’t expect that by saying “don’t meet anyone from the internet!” they will necessarily listen. In fact, we know from psychology studies that this kind of prohibition would induce reactance, thereby making her want to meet that person even more. So if she knows that there is a supportive parent there from the start, it would probably be beneficial. Besides, pedophiles and weirdos would certainly be deterred to meet parents, so there is already a weeding-out process from the start. But obviously the first things parents should do is talk to their daughters. Early.
The Bottom Line
Adolescents date. This is not something that should be stopped, because romantic relations are an integral part of the human experience. All we should be doing is protecting girls. The question is: How (much) should we protect them? It’s true that meeting someone online could end up in something as horrible as a rape, or worse, a murder. This is extremely rare, but it’s always a (read: rare) possibility.
However, it’s also possible that you’ll be raped or killed by someone you’ve known your whole life. Furthermore, the possibility of meeting someone online, falling in love, and living happily ever after also exists. So there is no “one size fits all” solution. Some girls are ready to date, some aren’t. Some parents are ready to accept this fact, and others aren’t.
But instead of throwing up our hands, saying “Oh, kids these days!” we should remember that every generation thinks the younger generations are getting crazier, and that “we were normal.” Well meeting people online is becoming normal. It’s not inherently good or bad, but parents and children alike have to act responsibly when talking about meeting people online and offline.
Adolescents can be very irrational, but there’s nothing irrational about wanting to feel a connection with someone – romantic or otherwise. It’s all a balancing act between autonomy and safety, and it’s easier to walk across that tightrope if the talk starts early on.