TUESDAY, May 26 (HealthDay News) -- Teenage girls who picked provocative representations of themselves and put those online were more likely to be approached sexually and to meet the individuals who approached them, a new study has found.
"The ways in which adolescent females present themselves online as potentially provocative is correlated with the number of sexual advances they're getting online with people they don't know," said study author Jennie Noll, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati, Children's Hospital Medical Center. "The number of sexual advances in turn is directly related to the number of times they agree to meet offline," she said.
"I wouldn't let my daughters walk out of the house in scantily clad clothes with a sign saying, 'Party Girl -- Come Get Me!'" Noll said. "But you see this all the time [on the Internet]. Girls wearing bikinis saying, 'I want to party.' Those are the snapshots that would-be exploiters are going to go to first."
Fifty-five percent of adolescents who use the Internet are on so-called social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, according to background information in the study.
Previous studies have shown that girls from families with a lot of conflict, who have depression or have been abused and who communicate with strangers about sex are most at risk on the Internet.
For this study, 173 girls aged 14 to 17 were asked to create an avatar and complete a questionnaire addressing Internet use, substance abuse, peers and sexual activities.
An avatar is a digital representation of one's self and is used on Web sites such as Second Life, which allows users to pick from hundreds of body characteristics to describe one's self.
Sixty-nine of the girls had not been physically or sexually abused or neglected; 104 did have such a history.
The avatars were rated on a scale ranging from provocative to conservative based on such factors as bust and hip size ("very large" to "very small"), clothing and number of visible navel piercings.
Overall, 40 percent of teen girls followed in the study reported having been approached sexually online, while 26 percent said they had actually met a person they had first encountered online.
Participants who had been abused were more likely to fall into both categories, as were girls with provocative avatars.
"It's not only the perceiver whose behavior we have to be careful about, but also the presenter," Noll said. "Their behavior can change because they see themselves a little bit differently than they really are developmentally. The danger is not only who's out there looking for girls, but how it can change the behavior of the actual presenter."
Unfortunately, these findings likely also apply to Internet sites that rely not on avatars but on actual photographs and written descriptions.
"Kids have put some very provocative stuff on Facebook and other sites, and that's gotten some into trouble," said Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City.
Not only predators can see a provocative photo. So can parents. Hilfer recounted the story of a 16-year-old boy who posted a picture of himself with a bottle of beer, which then circled back to his parents.
"Kids are very indiscreet. If it's out there, it's accessible by almost anyone," he said. "I don't think this article is saying anything that most of us aren't aware of but it is certainly something that we need to constantly be monitoring, just like we monitor teenage drinking or substance abuse."
Lack of parental presence is one of the biggest risk factors for inappropriate Internet communication, Noll said.
She advised parents to look at their kids' Facebook site periodically to see who they're talking to and how they're presenting themselves, and talk to their kids about it. Pediatricians can also get involved.
Internet users, but especially adolescent females, need to know how to discourage sexual advances: "How can you ward that off and still maintain your sense of self and still develop normally sexually, but without placing yourself at risk for more exploitation," Noll explained.
For more on teens and the Internet, visit the Nemours Foundation.
SOURCES: Jennie Noll, Ph.D., associate professor, pediatrics, University of Cincinnati, Children's Hospital Medical Center; Alan Hilfer, Ph.D., director, psychology, Maimonides Medical Center, New York City; June 2009 Pediatrics