(RxWiki News) It's no secret that the Internet is full of sex – and sexual predators. This environment presents risks to teenagers especially, but some are more at risk than others.
A recent study compared the Internet behavior and sexual attitudes of teenage girls.
Some of the girls had been abused, and others had not. The abused girls were more likely to engage in risky activities and receive online sexual requests.
The girls whose parents monitored their Internet use were less likely to engage in risky behavior, meet up with online strangers in real life and receive sexual requests.
"Monitor your child's Internet activity."
The study, led by Jennie G. Noll, PhD, aimed to understand how the behaviors of teenage girls online might affect whether they meet strangers in real life that they met on the Internet.
The researchers tracked 251 girls, aged 14 to 17, over 12 to 16 months. Just over half the girls (130 total) had experienced maltreatment. The other 121 were matched to the first group in terms of their demographics (race/ethnicity, family income, age, number of parents in household).
The researchers defined maltreatment as "physical neglect, physical abuse, and/or sexual abuse" which had been investigated by Child Protective Services.
Among the girls in the maltreatment group, 43 percent had been sexually abused, 37 percent had been physically abused and 20 percent had been physically neglected.
At the start of the study, the researchers assessed the girls' online social networking profiles for how risky and/or provocative they were. These assessments were based on the amount of personal information the girls provided and any sexual images or statements on their profiles. References to smoking, alcohol, drugs, profanity and violence or aggressiveness were also considered.
The girls also completed IQ tests and online questionnaires about their Internet use and behaviors, their attitudes toward sexual activities, their use of alcohol and drugs, how they rated their parents' care of them and any symptoms of depression they experienced.
The girls' parents also reported on their daughters' activities and on how much they monitored the Internet in the home.
By the end of the study, 20 percent of the girls reported getting at least some online sexual solicitations. Also, 30 percent reported having met up with someone offline (in real life) that they had first met online.
The girls who met an online acquaintance in real life were more likely to view sexual content online, to create high-risk social networking profiles and to receive online solicitations related to sex.
These risky online behaviors were more common among girls who had been abused, who had behavioral problems and who had a low IQ.
Overall, the girls who had been abused were more likely to have depression symptoms, more high-risk nonsexual behaviors, poorer parenting and lower IQs. They also had higher risk social networking profiles, received more online solicitations that were sexual in nature and stumbled accidentally onto sexual sites more often.
However, good parenting, including more direct monitoring of the girls' Internet use, reduced the likelihood that the abused girls would unintentionally become exposed to sexual content online.
The girls whose parents monitored their Internet use closely were also less likely to get sexual solicitations, to have high-risk social networking profiles, to view sexual content online and to have risky sexual attitudes or behaviors.
Yet parental control software on the computer did not have any of these effects. It required a real parent monitoring the girl's online activity.
The researchers said that parents should be aware of the risks of different Internet behaviors and monitor their children's activity.
"Adolescents and parents should be aware of how online self-presentations and other Internet behaviors can increase vulnerability for Internet-initiated victimization," the researchers also said.
The study was published January 14 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The authors had no conflicts of interest.