Teens and the Sex Partners They Meet Online

Teens report sexual satisfaction with partners met online.

Posted Sep 24, 2011

An increasing number of adolescents are initiating romantic and sexual relationships through online venues. A recent study dared to ask a taboo question: How satisfied are youth regarding these online relationships?

Most of what we hear about adolescent sexuality and the Internet is alarming. One of the very first studies, "Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth," was released in 2000 by the Crimes Against Children Research Center and funded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It found that approximately one in five youth had received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet in the last year and that one in thirty-three received an aggressive sexual solicitation (i.e., a solicitor who asked to meet them somewhere; called them on the telephone; sent them regular mail, money, or gifts.) This report - and many that followed -- established a myth of a cabal of child molesters using the Internet to lure children into sexual dangers.

A 2008 follow-up study by the Crimes Against Research Center corrected earlier studies. This study stated, "Publicity about online "predators" who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate." Researchers found that in the great majority of cases, victims are aware they are conversing online with adults and offenders rarely deceive victims about their sexual interests. Sex is usually broached online, and most victims who meet offenders face-to-face go to such meetings expecting to engage in sexual activity. Many victims professed love or close feelings for offenders.

Undoubtedly, many youth are also meeting romantic and sexual partners of the same age online.

Dr. Eric Buhi & Heather Blunt, researchers from the University of South Florida, collected
data about online relationship satisfaction for their study "Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction of Teens Reporting Online- and Offline-Initiated Partnerships." The participants of Buhi and Blunt's study were 273 teens attending a publicly funded clinic in Florida. They were between the ages of 13 and 19 years. Most were female (89.4%) and identified as heterosexual (80.7%). Overall, 15.4% reported that they had had sex with someone they first met online, and of these, 57% had met more than one partner online. Of the teens reporting an online sexual partner, most reported meeting their online partners for the first time on a social networking site, such as MySpace (60.5%) and Facebook (23.7%).

When questioned about the satisfaction of these relationships, scores indicated that participants were highly satisfied both with their sexual relationships and their romantic relationships though offline relationships were more satisfying than online-initiated relationships.

Buhi & Blunt concluded by stating, "[O]ne of our next steps is to conduct in-depth interviews with teens to better understand the context and process of meeting partners online. Because 9 in 10 teens who met a partner online reported meeting that partner on a social networking site, we have a lot to learn about communication and other processes around relationship formation, and the progression to dating and sexual relationships."

Are there dangerous individuals skulking the Internet? Of course there are. But Buhi and Blunt's study helps us acknowledge the complexity of the issue. Teenagers actively seek out sexual partners on the Internet for their satisfaction, but we rarely give them a voice to describe their experiences and too often uniformly paint them as "victims." Simply listening to them may better help us understand their desires and minimize their risks.

Finkelhor, D., Mitchell, K., & Wolak, J. (2000). Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth. Durham, New Hampshire: Crimes Against Children Research Center.

Wolak, J., Finkelhor, D., Mitchell, K., Ybarra, M. (2008). Online "Predators" and their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention and Treatment. American Psychologist, 63(2), 111-128 (CV163).

Blunt, H.D., Klinkenberger, N., & Buhi, E.R. (2011, March). Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction of Teens Reporting Online- and Offline-Initiated Partnerships. Oral presentation at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality: Eastern and Midcontinent Regions Conference, Philadelphia, PA.