Remember when Facebook only allowed people with college email addresses to join its network? It’s kind of hard to believe that was only 10 years ago. After Facebook opened its doors to high school networks, teens quickly jumped on a bandwagon originally geared for young adults. A decade later, a recent survey shows that 4 in 5 teens actively use Facebook, with more than a quarter of teens using Facebook “all the time” .
With Facebook and other popular social media sites, such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and Vine, all integral parts of teen social life , many parents feel the imperative to talk to their kids about Internet safety–including the potential for meeting nefarious people intent on exploiting children. This fear is reinforced with media messages suggesting that the Internet is an unsafe space: “Sexual predators no longer have to take to the streets to find their next possible victim .” … “Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Brandywine Hundred South [said:] “Gone are the days of just worrying when your child goes to the park or store. They can be solicited inside the home at any hour of the day .”
While having teens on the Internet opens doors into the unknown, this is perhaps similar although different to unknown people that they can talk to when they’re at the mall and other in-person places. Most teens who interact with strangers online are not at risk for sexual predation . Additionally, by about age 13, most teens understand the “social complexities of the Internet” and the need for exercising caution when on the web .
In a 2007 study, teens who had online profiles or who posted photos of themselves were indeed more likely to be contacted by strangers, but these strangers were of all ages and the interactions were not necessarily aggressive . Similarly, many studies suggest that at least half of all teens post personal information online–despite warnings against doing so–and yet they aren’t necessarily at more risk of being targeted by online solicitors . Online “predators” are also unlikely to use online profiles to locate and stalk victims . Other behaviors, such as sending personal info and pictures (rather than simply posting to a profile) or chatting about sex, make teens more vulnerable to online sexual solicitations . Additionally, the majority of romantic relationships that occur between a teen and an adult are with an adult who is upfront about their age and sexual intentions . As with other scenarios of sexual exploitation, teens with strong emotional attachment to online strangers may lack social or familial support, and thus seek out or are more vulnerable to online attention .
While the concern about online “predators” is mostly misplaced, it is still important to talk to your teens about Internet safety. Just as you ask them who they are with and where they go when they are out with their friends, ask them who they talk to and where they go online. Establish ground rules that are developmentally appropriate (e.g., older youth who are responsible should have more freedom online than younger youth). And, talk to your teens about sex. This may include your feelings about pornography and why you may not want them looking at it – either online or offline. While it can be difficult to think of your teens becoming sexually curious, recognize that it is normal in adolescence. Understanding healthy sex includes understanding the potential negative impacts of unhealthy sex and talking to your children about how they are different . Speaking honestly to your teens about healthy sexual behaviors can help them recognize when a situation on the Internet, as well as offline, is inappropriate .
To learn more about the myths and realities of online “predators” and their victims, read the full study here.
Learn more about our research at http://innovativepublichealth.org/
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Emilie Chen and Jennifer Renzas for their contributions to this blog.
 Wolak, J., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (in press). Is talking online to unknown people always risky? Distinguishing online interaction styles in a national sample of youth internet users. CyberPsychology & Behavior.
 Yan, Z. (2006) What influences children’s and adolescents’ understanding of the complexity of the Internet? Developmental Psychology, 42, 1-11.
 Lenhart, A., & Madden, M. (2007). Teens, privacy, and online social networks: How teens manage their online identities and personal information in the age of MySpace. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Teens_Privacy_SNS_Report_Final.pdf
 Wolak, J., Finkelhor, D., Mitchell, K., & Ybarra, M. (2008). Online "predators" and their victims: Myths, realities, and implications for prevention and treatment. The American Psychologist, 63(2), 111-128.