One in three teenage girls have met Internet contacts in real life

We all know the importance of keeping our kids safe online, and a new study suggests that a significant proportion of teenage girls, particularly those who have already suffered some form of abuse or neglect, are at risk of abuse at the hands of people they first befriended on the Internet.

Published in the journal Pediatrics, the survey found that 30% of teenagers reported having ‘offline’ meetings with people they had initially met on the Internet and whose identity had not been fully confirmed prior to the meeting.

Abused or neglected teenage girls were more likely to present themselves online in a sexually provocative way, thus drawing attention to themselves.

Research shows that high-risk online profiles are more likely to lead to offline meetings.

“If someone is looking for a vulnerable teen to start an online sexual discourse, they will more likely target someone who presents herself provocatively,” said Dr Jennie Noll PhD, a psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “Maltreatment poses a unique risk for online behaviour that may set the stage for harm.”

The study of some 251 adolescent girls aged between 14 and 17, of which about half were victims of abuse or neglect, found that having Internet filtering software at home made no difference in the association between maltreatment and high-risk behaviours.

Such behaviours include intentionally seeking adult content online, provocative self-presentation on social networking sites, and receiving sexual advances online.

On the other hand, “high quality parenting” and parental monitoring helped reduce the association between adolescent risk factors and these online behaviours.

As you might expect, during the research Dr Noll uncovered some chilling stories about the real dangers of meeting up with people first engaged with online.

The Pediatrics study was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Continuing work is funded by a five-year, $3.7 million (about £2.3m) federal grant to gain deeper data about high risk Internet behaviours.