30 percent of teenage girls have met their Internet friends and crushes IRL without confirming their identity beforehand, according to a new study — and, no, "confirming" doesn't mean asking "A/S/L?" and kicking the relationship up a notch by exchanging SnapChats.
Study author Dr. Jennie Noll, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati, queried more than 250 teenagers aged 14 to 17, who were observed for a year to 16 months to see if they met their internet buddies offline. Around half of them had been abused or maltreated — Noll's team wanted to see if those girls would act more recklessly on the internet. Their hypothesis was correct: those girls were at a significantly higher risk, as were girls with behavior problems, low cognitive abilities, teens who "found sexual content" online (so, everyone?), and those with "provocative" profiles.
"If someone is looking for a vulnerable teen to start an online sexual discourse, they will more likely target someone who presents herself provocatively," Noll said in a press release. "Maltreatment poses a unique risk for online behavior that may set the stage for harm."
But she also told HealthDay that the key to making sure your teenager is a smart internet user doesn't involve banning her from logging on completely.
"As parents, you always have the right to observe your kids without their knowing," she said. "But I would be careful about intervening in any way that might cause them to shut down and hide, because the most effective thing to do is to have your kids communicate with you openly - without shame or accusation - about what their online lives actually look like."
That's good advice. I was obsessed with a site called Teen Open Diary when I was 13 (I later moved to LiveJournal, to keep up with the times) and made a ton of friends on the site whom I eventually exchanged addresses with (for postcards and packages) and, in a few cases, met in person. I told my parents I knew them from sleepaway camp, and so they barely paid any attention, even though I talked to some of these girls so often that I considered them my best friends. I thought I was being safe about it — and I was looking for friendship, nothing more — but I was thirteen. What did I know?
These days, meeting friends online is less taboo, and there are more ways to verify one's real identity, so maybe it's possible for parents to be more open about the idea of their teenagers bonding with people they've never actually met even though the potential drawbacks are so terrifying. "It's really about building a foundation of knowing your kid and knowing their warning signs and building trust and open-minded communication," said Dr. Jonathan Pletcher, clinical director of adolescent medicine at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "[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," he added. Truth.
Image via Nagy-Bagoly ArpadShutterstock.