By Margarita Nahapetyan
New findings from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center suggest that parents must carefully monitor their teenage daughters' lives on the Internet. According to the study published in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics, the use of a provocative identity of themselves significantly increases the risk that the girls will be abused by someone they meet online.
"The ways in which adolescent females present themselves online as potentially provocative is correlated with the number of sexual advances they are getting online with people they do not know," said a lead author of the study Jennie Noll, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati, Children's Hospital Medical Center. "The number of sexual advances, in turn is directly related to the number of times they agree to meet offline," she said.
Fifty-five per cent of teenagers who browse the web are using so-called social networking sites such as Facebook, Second Life or MySpace, according to the background information in the study. Some sites, such as Second Life, for example, require that users create a character which would be representing them in the world of virtual reality. The program offers users a variety of possibilities to choose anything from a completely dressed person to a hardly dressed one. Adolescents also get to select features such as color of hair and type of figure. Other websites, such as MySpace and Facebook, allow posting self-descriptions and downloading photographic images. But even there, according to the study, users can choose what to post, and those identities can shape behavior and interaction on the Internet.
Some research that has been carried out in the past years, has demonstrated that girls from families with a lot of conflict, who are under stress, experience depression or have been abused are most at risk on the Internet. The experts found that those girls who had a provocative avatar, which is a digital image that allows users to pick from hundreds of body characteristics to describe one's self, were more likely to engage themselves with strangers into sex-related topics or have offline encounters.
In the present study, the investigators analyzed more that 173 teenage girls with the ages between 14 and 17 years. Among all, 69 of the girls had never been physically or sexually abused or neglected, while 104 did suffer a history of abuse. Abused girs, who went through neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse, were involved from child protective agencies, the researchers explained. Of all the participants, 54 per cent were white and 46 per cent were African American and mixed-race girls. The experts conducted a laboratory session in which all the girls were asked to create avatars on a program that was specifically designed to mimic one of the popular social networking websites, the name of which was not mentioned in the research.
In the experiment, the girls could choose the size of their bust and hips, the type of clothing they preferred, visible navel piercings and the color of skin, eyes and hair. Girls were presented with a number of options to choose from, such as more provocative or more conservative avatar. In addition, the study participants were asked to rate how many times they had had online sexual advances, which were described as "explicit sexual chatting in virtual worlds," and also, how many times they had met someone in person after meeting first online.
The results revealed that 40 per cent of the girls said they had experienced sexual advances online, and 26 per cent reported that they met someone in person after "meeting" with the person on the Internet. The investigators found that the girls who had been abused in the past, were much more likely to have experienced both. "Results indicated that abuse status was significantly related to online sexual advances, which were, in turn, related to offline, in-person encounters," the authors said.