Do Sexy Profile Pictures, Previous Abuse Make Girls Online Targets?

A new study published in Pediatrics claims that girls who have already suffered abuse and who create sexual avatars for themselves are more likely to be victimized by online predators.

Researchers at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center examined 69 non-abused teens from age 14 to 17, and 104 abused adolescent girls recruited from child protective agencies, CNN reports. The girls participated in a laboratory session in which they were asked to create avatars on a fake social networking site that allowed them to choose their physical features, provocative or conservative clothing, bust and hip size, and visible navel piercings. The participants were then asked to rate how many times they had received sexual advances online, which was described as "explicit sexual chatting in virtual worlds," and how many times they'd met a person who first contacted them online in real life.

Forty percent of the girls said they had received sexual messages online and 26 percent said they had met someone after getting to know them on the internet. The study reports that "abuse status was significantly related to online sexual advances, which were, in turn, related to offline, in-person encounters." There was no direct link between abuse and online solicitation, but researchers said the abused girls were at a greater risk.

The study also found a connection between a provocative avatar, or more sexual profile pictures posted on sites like Facebook and MySpace, and the girls who had received sexual messages online. The study says:

Those adolescents who may be unaware of how their appearance might be perceived may not, from a developmental perspective, possess the social sophistication necessary to field and ward off sexual advances in ways that protect them from sexually explicit suggestions.

Though in the past, experts on children's online safety reported that some pimps are recruiting from social networking sites and looking for girls whose profiles indicate that they are vulnerable, the new study may be too alarmist. A report released in January by a Harvard University task force found that the percentage of children who received sexual solicitations online fell from 19% in 2000 to 13% in 2006. Of those sexual messages, most came from other minors, and predatory incidents occur online about as often as they do in the real world.

The Prevention study's analysis of something as innocuous as a girl creating an avatar with a belly button ring and pouty lips places too much blame on girls for inviting online predators to victimize them. However, the study's main recommendation, that parents monitor their kids' online activities and talk to them about how they portray themselves online, is a good idea for either gender.

Study: Abuse, Provocative Images Increase Internet Risk For Girls [CNN]
Percentage Of Kids Solicited Online Drops, Harvard Report Says [National Sexual Violence Resource Center]

Earlier: Pimps Finding New Ways To Recruit Women, Girls