The types of sexual experiences girls have on the internet can help predict the kinds of risk they face offline, including HIV infections, physically violent relationships and sexual assault, new research suggests.
"Girls are under immense pressure to prove themselves to be sexually 'hot' or attractive online," said the study's lead author, Megan Maas. She is an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Online sexual experience groups
And that pressure can lead girls into potentially dangerous situations, Maas noted.
The study looked at almost 300 girls, aged 14 through 16, over a five-year period. About half had previously experienced neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse. Forty-six percent were white, 44% were black, and the rest were bi-racial, Hispanic or Native American.
Based on the girls' self-reported experiences, the investigators found that they fell into one of four online sexual experience groups:
- Online inclusive: These girls are likely involved in different types of online sexual experiences. They may look at internet pornography, talk to strangers about sex, post sexy pictures on social media and send nude photos. They're also likely to get requests for sexy pictures, sexual comments on their pictures and requests to have sex.
- Seekers: These girls might view porn, chat with others about sex and post provocative photos, yet they deliberately don't have sexy profile pictures.
- Attractors: While they may not actively seek attention, these girls often get it. They may post a provocative profile picture and get comments from strangers about how sexy they are, as well as offers for offline sex or requests for nude photos.
- Online abstinent: Though these girls may have spent time online, they didn't appear to have significant online sexual experiences.
Just over half of the girls fell into the online abstinent group. About 20% were online inclusive, 15% were attractors and 13% were seekers, the findings showed.
Girls in the attractor category were more likely than seekers to be sexually assaulted. Maas said it's not clear why, but it's possible that attractors may be more naive and vulnerable.
Difficult to get kids offline
Seekers were more apt to have a physically violent boyfriend. Maas said researchers couldn't tell if the online sexual experiences of seekers were consensual or not. It's possible girls may have been coerced to send nude images or view pornography.
The online inclusive group was more likely than others to report HIV risk behaviours, such as having sex without a condom or using intravenous drugs, the findings showed.
In addition, girls who had been mistreated prior to the study were more likely to experience physical violence and HIV risk.
Maas said it's not reasonable to think that parents can just get kids to stay offline. But she suggested getting children involved in other activities from an early age.
"For girls, in particular, if they're less invested in getting attention on social media, they're way better off. Emphasise those experiences and achievements that aren't based on looks. When girls are focused on basketball, horseback riding or art or whatever else, they may not be as vulnerable," she explained.
And, Maas said, kids need to be educated so they can navigate these situations.
"Predators will promise the world to get you to meet them offline. You need to prepare kids for that. And, with peer on peer. Boys need to know if someone has a sexy social media profile or is flirting, it doesn't mean that's a guarantee for a sexual experience. There has to be a conversation about consent. We have to hold boys and men accountable for their behaviour, too," she said.
Maas also recommended that parents take away kids' phones, tablets and other devices at night for sleep and for social protections. She suggested having times during the day – for an hour or two in the evening, for example – where everyone in the family shuts down their devices.
Frederick Scholl, associate teaching professor of cybersecurity at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, reviewed the study. He noted that this study included a significant number of girls who were probably at increased risk because they had been mistreated.
Protection against billions online
But Scholl agreed with Maas that parents need to set limits.
"Instead of just saying no to being online, you have to insist that kids get involved in other activities," he said. "I am concerned that kids are generally online so much of the time."
Scholl also recommended that everyone upgrade their home technology security. If parents upgrade their internet security, they can set restrictions (such as blocking sites) to limit what kids can do online, he noted.
"Families will spend hundreds of dollars on having good locks on their front door. We also need to spend money to protect our families against the billions of people online," Scholl said.
In the end, however, no technology can substitute for good parental oversight, he explained.
The study was recently published online in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
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