Youth and Tell

The health and wellness of our children

How the Social Network Is Changing Teen Victimization

A gateway to online victimization.

If you take a moment to look around most likely you'll see kids aimlessly ensnared in a technological device. Whether it's a slick new iPad, iPhone, laptop, or other type of technology - today's teens are more tech savvy than most adults.

The rise of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have completely changed the way teens communicate with each other and the world around them. Revolutions in their own right, these sites have powered the modern-day digital media blitz that has capitalized on one of the things adolescents do best - socialize.

The rise of the social network allows all of us instant access to a plethora of information which can greatly benefit our lives but can simultaneously become a gateway to online victimization. According to the National Crime Prevention Council over a million teenage girls are victimized psychologically, physically, or both as a result of online socializing. By giving up privacy for the online world of instant gratification, teens are unknowingly helping create an online culture that breeds victimization and serves to ignite assaults that were traditionally found off-line.

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How predators and abusers have changed:

Prior to the social network, predators were confined mainly to online chat rooms. However the lure of instant access and immediate connections offered by social networking sites have not only provided a place where strangers can acquire instant access to teen information, but they can serve as a platform to victimize teens. And if you think it's just strangers your teen should be weary of, think again. Gone are the days when a pedophile might be the only predator online trying to victimize your teen, with the ease of communicating over the social network, teens are now able to victimize each other.

Peruse any of the national papers on a given day and you'll probably see at least one news story about the horrors teens can suffer at the fate of the social network. Many teens I've spoken with report that cyber stalking, cyber bullying, and cyber abuse are common among their peers. Teens say there really is no way to avoid coming into contact with some sort of "cyber issue" on social networking sites but they are willing to take the risk if it means they'll have a cool social life. The result is a teen culture that is constantly bombarded with inappropriate and potentially damaging comments, suggestions, and harassment.

While there are several types of cyber attacks, there is one in particular that has parents across the country talking - and worrying. One that is so damaging that it can have similar psychological effects as those of rape victims. Welcome to the teen world of sexting.

Sexting, Rape, and PTSD:

The popular term sexting - when teens send semi-nude or nude photos via cell phone to their friends - has become commonplace in teen culture. Sexting is one of the most psychologically damaging aspects of online victimization that can trigger symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some psychological symptoms experienced by teen sexting victims include flashbacks, isolation, self destructive behaviors, and sleep disturbance. Often, as in the case of rape victims, the psychological trauma of online victimization can have a lasting impact. While there are no definitive studies defining the link between sexting and PTSD to date, there are numerous cases in which victims of sexting have suffered similar psychological responses as those of rape victims.

How teens are victimized online:

Date rape and acquaintance rape have long been issues in the adolescent culture, but now teens who are sexually assaulted by a boyfriend or acquaintance can find themselves re-victimized courtesy of cell phones and the social network when their abusers brag online or forward degrading pictures to classmates. Victimization becomes a form of entertainment, amusement, or revenge for the abuser and for anyone else roaming their social network (which can be hundreds to thousands of views).

The emotionally close proximity teens place themselves in with their peer group can also lead to their undoing. The concept of privacy is often overlooked in favor of posting anything and everything about themselves which only fuels victimization. When revealing pictures get into the wrong hands it can cause psychological trauma. Look no further than cases like those of two teenage girls from Florida and Ohio who committed suicide in 2008 after suffering extreme degradation and humiliation when their ex-boyfriends displayed sexually explicit photos of these girls. Both girls eventually took their own lives as a result.

What are we doing about it?

As of 2011, there are 21 states introducing bills or legislation aimed at sexting, and yet society still minimizes the devastating impact of sexting and other cyber attacks because it's a virtual medium and lacks the ability to provide physical evidence. The question then becomes how do we anticipate online abuse, protect teens and prosecute the abusers? Since keeping up with the latest technology has become an ongoing battle for law enforcement and school districts across the country, parents and educators must remain vigilant about protecting our children online.

Tips for Parents:

Do you know if your teenage daughter or son is being victimized online? Probably not. Despite parents best efforts, teens are good at what they do - getting around the rules - and chances are either your teen or one of their friends has been victimized via the social network. This is not to say that all teens are in danger online, but understanding ways to help your teen protect themselves is the key to preventing further victimization.

1. Set clear, consistent rules with your teen around the use of technology. It's also important to talk with your teen about the consequences of sexting.

2. Get familiar with technology. If your teen is using it, so should you. Make sure you understand concepts like email, texting, IMing, gaming, social networking, cell phone and web cameras.

3. Ask your teen about Facebook and MySpace. While Facebook has tried to make it easier to set your teen's privacy settings, many people still have personal date exposed and don't even know it.

4. Set clear boundaries about what your teen may and may not do with their cell phones. This includes monitoring the amount of time your child spends on social networking sites and when they use the sites.

Elizabeth Donovan, M.A., is a psychotherapist and writer. Her work has appeared in magazines including BabyTalk, Parents, and Parenting.

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