Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, September 8, 2014
Sex, lies and the Internet: protecting teens from predators
Posted: Sunday, September 7, 2014
One spaghetti strap slid down her shoulder in the photo, exposing part of her cleavage as she stuck her tongue out Miley Cyrus-style and pushed up her butt as if in mid-twerk.
Sounds like a typical Facebook profile picture for a college freshman. Only this one belongs to a 12-year-old girl.
While such a provocative pose posted on social media may shock some adults, Jennie Noll is not among them. The girl who posted the sexy selfie is one of the subjects in the Penn State University professor’s latest study on the Internet lives of teenage girls.
Also not shocking to Noll is that a teenage girl would meet a strange man after accepting an online friend invitation and never confirming his identity. In a study published last year, Noll found nearly one in three girls, some as young as 14, admitted doing that.
“It’s a bigger problem than you think it is,” said Noll, a human development professor and director of research and education at Penn State’s Network on Child Protection and Well-Being.
It’s a problem that captured local attention recently with the arrest of 27-year-old Adam Carnevale, a Lawrenceville, New Jersey, man accused of offering at least six Bucks County girls money in exchange for nude pictures and sexual favors. He recruited the girls, who were between 12 and 15 years old, through Facebook friend requests.
Five of the six accepted his offer, police say.
This case isn’t the only recent incident involving an older man who allegedly used social media to meet underage girls for sex, police say.
Michael Dougherty, 42, of Middletown, is accused of sexually assaulting and filming a 16-year-old girl who first met him on the smartphone app “Whisper.” The girl alleges she thought Dougherty was going to help her run away from home, but the suspect took her instead to a Bensalem motel where he sexually assaulted her, police said.
Both suspects have preliminary hearings scheduled for this week.
Behavior experts say such cases illustrate shortfalls in Internet safety campaigns. Such programs fail to address teens at highest risk for potential online exploitation and don’t recognize the wide technology gap between a generation who grew up with the Internet and their parents who did not.
The proliferation of electronic devices with instant information access combined with teenage bodies that develop faster than emotional and cognitive reasoning lays the groundwork for inappropriate social interactions that can easily move from cyber to real world encounters, behavior experts say.
HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT
Many studies suggest teens frequently engage in inappropriate behavior online, but data show most teens don’t take those relationships beyond cyberspace.
However, Noll believes much available data is incomplete. Most of Internet behavior surveys are complied through random telephone questionnaires that rely on teens self-reporting behavior, which frequently doesn’t mirror their actual habits, she said.
“My viewpoint is Internet safety programs aren’t addressing provocative profiles, how do you say ‘no,’ how do you manage sexual discourse online, how do you know when you’re in too far. These topics aren’t well covered,” she said.
Noll is currently conducting an Internet safety study for the National Institutes of Health that involves monitoring the social media and Internet behaviors of a 450 teenage girls between 12 and 15 years old. The study is a follow up to one she published last year in the professional journal Pediatrics.
The first study found teen girls whose Internet habits included viewing sexually explicit content and creating provocative social network profiles were more likely engage in sexually explicit conversations with people they met online. They also are more likely to meet someone in person that they knew from only online contact.
Of the 251 participants in her 2013 study — who were between 14 and 17 years old — 30 percent admitted to such in-person meetings and most didn’t confirm the person’s identity beforehand, according to the study findings. Her research also found that one in 10 teen participants experienced sexual propositions or sexual assaults in offline meetings, and girls with a history of abuse or neglect were more likely to engage in sexually provocative behavior online, thus raising the odds of an in-person meeting.
Behavior experts agree that how people act on electronic devices or the Internet is frequently far different than face-to-face interaction. The Internet provides users a sense of anonymity that allows people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do out of fear of social ramifications.
“The Internet is bringing out extremes in human behavior; where in a pre-Internet era it would be very hard to do what (Carnevale) did,” said Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University. “You’d be known immediately in your community.”
The Internet reduces inhibitions about everything from sex to secrets, Farley said. The result is online activity that once was considered embarrassing or horrific no longer holds its shock value, Farley said.
“The Internet can validate anything. People are doing this, that and the other thing, so I’m going to do it,” he added.
A 2012 study involving online interviews with 1,000 U.S. teens between the ages of 13 and 17 found that one-third accessed sexual topics online, 32 percent accessed pornography, and roughly half admitted posting risky comments on social networks including foul language and sexual hookups.
The study, conducted by the security technology company McAfee, found teens don’t think of online friends as dangerous strangers and 12 percent admitted meeting someone in person they only knew through online interactions.
In her research, Noll has found few teens use the strictest privacy settings on their online devices. Large social medial followings are considered a status symbol, which explains why stranger “friend” requests would be accepted among teens, he said.
These judgment lapses are exactly what child predators are looking for when searching for potential victims, behavior experts said. It’s one reason Noll doubts the Facebook friend requests Carnevale allegedly sent to his victims were “random,” as police have described.
“I’ll bet you a million bucks it wasn’t random. I bet he went searching for profiles that indicate this kid was interested in sexual discourse,” she said. “Those are the places where these people stop and say, ‘I’m going to friend this person.’ ”
Once a predator is part of an online friend circle, he or she will make themselves familiar through compliments or shared interests in an effort to lower the teen’s guard.
What online predators rarely do is pose as teens chiefly because it’s unnecessary, according to a 2008 American Psychological Association study, which found most Internet predators reveal their age and intentions with kids online. These adults also take time to develop a teen’s confidence and lower conventional social barriers so they see their relationships as romances or sexual adventures.
Nearly three-quarters of teens who met predators in person had multiple meetings, according to the 2008 study. It also found teens and children who engage in multiple risky online behaviors — such as maintaining friend lists that include strangers or discussing sex online — are much more likely to report receiving online sexual propositions.
Temple University’s Farley suspects alleged predators such as Carnevale and Dougherty are the exception, not the rule.
“I hope it’s not happening elsewhere,” he added. “But we don’t know.”
Much of this behavior is going on under adult noses. Most parents underestimate how much access to the Internet their children have, said psychologist Meredith Weber, who specializes in trauma and sexual abuse.
Three-quarters of the parents surveyed in the 2012 McAfee study answered they were “not very” or “not at all” worried about teens cheating or accessing inappropriate content online. Only 22 percent believed their kids could get into trouble online and one-quarter of parents surveyed said they don’t monitor their child’s online activity.
Monitoring online activity has become more difficult with the prevalence of smartphones providing kids with nearly unfettered and nearly impossible to monitor access to the Internet.
Weber said more recent research suggests teens are becoming savvier about Internet safety and privacy. She believes the key to getting through to kids is not telling them they can’t use social media, but sitting down and teaching them how to avoid online trouble.
Penn State’s Noll agrees parents play a critical role — not by acting as censors — but taking an active role in their kids’ lives on and offline. Parents need to learn about social media and how it works so they can teach their kids social boundaries and empower them to avoid inappropriate interactions or requests.
“It’s just like talking about sex and drugs with your kids in the old days,” Noll added. “It’s the same conversation.”