A new study about the risks teenage girls face when they go online caught our eye recently. Published in the eFirst pages of the journal Pediatrics, the study by lead author and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center psychologist Jennie Noll showed that 30 percent of surveyed teenagers reported physically meeting with people they had first met on the Internet and whose identity was not fully known prior to the meeting.
Additional studies are needed to gain more data about high-risk Internet behavior. And this study’s sample size was small — 251 girls between the ages of 14 and 17. But the fact remains that some teen girls, particularly those who have a history of abuse or neglect, are meeting boys and men in person who are not known to them. The meetings are dangerous whether they result in victimization or not.
Still, it’s important to remember that, just as sexual assaults are most often perpetrated by people known to their victims, the overwhelming majority of online problems occur between people who are known to one another. And though about one-third of all teenagers who use the Internet say they have been targets of annoying or menacing online activities — according to the Pew Internet Project, part of the Pew Research Center — teens are still more likely to be bullied offline than online.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that parents and teachers shouldn’t address the likelihood that some teens will seek in-person meetings with people they first encounter online. Noll discovered that what works best to prevent high-risk Internet behavior is obvious: “high-quality parenting.” That means keeping communication lines open — not having parents spy on their teen’s Internet activity. Noll said it’s important for parents to talk to their teens about the potential outcomes of certain online behavior without being accusing.
The lesson extends to cyberbullying, which often ends up being gender-based or sexual in nature. Parents can inform themselves about and explain to their teens the consequences of online harassment. If someone sends repeated and unwanted text messages, IMs, online messages or phone calls that are harassing in nature because of a student’s gender or sex, the behavior may violate the federal civil rights law Title IX, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
It’s always important for parents and schools to address online safety, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has some tips: Parents should be aware of what their kids are doing online, know the sites they visit and ask about what they’re doing and with whom. They can ask for their teens’ passwords, to use in case of an emergency, and “friend” them on Facebook or “follow” them on Twitter. They can encourage their kids to tell them immediately if someone is being cyberbullied and make clear that their computers or cellphones will not be taken away if they confide about a problem.
Students have the power to stop bullying. So parents can talk to their kids — even if they’re not bullying or being bullied — to help them understand what bullying involves, how to stand up to it safely and get help. Communication is key, whether the goal is to prevent kids from doing harm to one another, in person or online, or pursuing something that will harm them, like meet up with a stranger.