The Social Media Sites That Pose a Unique Risk to Teenagers
The lure and danger of interactive virtual platforms
Posted Jun 28, 2020
As parents, we worry just as much about our teenagers now as we did back in the days before the Internet. We are concerned about keeping them safe after school, when they go out with their friends, and almost anytime they are not home. Now, with the amount of time they spend online, we are worried about where they are and what they are doing when they are under our own roof.
Virtual platforms like Zoom, that host a wide variety of meet-ups featuring topics from sports to music, cooking to travel, and everything in between, are easy to find and easy to join. But so are other types of chatrooms—specifically geared to adolescents. These might just be the most dangerous. So because our young people have the opportunity to meet more people than ever before, the question is, who are they meeting and what are they talking about?
Meeting Friends in All the Wrong Places: The Unique Danger of Chat Rooms
The virtual world affords users the opportunity to interact with other people from all across the globe, from all demographic backgrounds, and of all ages. It is also a place where fact-checking can be difficult, due to the ease with which users can (and do) misrepresent themselves. This justifiably worries parents whose teenagers spend a lot of time online. But are young people at greater risk depending on what type of virtual platforms they use? Research appears to say yes.
Janis Wolak et al. (2010) in a piece entitled “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims” examined this issue, among many others.[i] They note previous research found that visiting chatrooms is an interactive behavior related to receiving aggressive sexual solicitations. They note that chatrooms, unlike static platforms, permit direct, immediate communication between users, and according to research, chatrooms geared to adolescents often include “explicit sexual talk, sexual innuendo, and obscene language.” Wolak et al. note that this type of sexually charged atmosphere may attract Internet child predators.
Certain types of adolescents may be at higher risk in chatrooms due to increased vulnerability. Wolak et al. note that young people who spend time in chatrooms are more likely to have a history of sexual abuse, more likely to engage in risky behavior, have problems with parents, and to experience negative emotions such as depression, sadness, or loneliness. They further acknowledge that chatrooms may provide a place for young people who lack social skills, or are otherwise shy or lonely, to form relationships online, that are difficult to form offline.
Although interactive virtual platforms appeal to young people of different ages, adolescents differ in their ability to navigate social interaction in a chat room. Wolak et al. note that particularly younger children may not be prepared developmentally to face explicit sexual invitations—either in terms of how to avoid them, or to respond. This is important, because chatrooms are frequently used by child predators. But what ages are they targeting? Usually, children who are old enough to respond to their advances.
Where The Teenagers Are
Young children are generally not spending their time on the Internet meeting friends; teenagers are. Accordingly, online predators usually target adolescents. Wolak et al. explain that consequently, these offenders do not fit the clinical profile of pedophiles, who are attracted sexually to prepubescent children. And as a practical matter, adolescents are also more likely to be unsupervised online than younger children, which makes them easier for a predator to correspond with.
Wolak et al. note that in one of the studies they reviewed, most online predators met their victims in chatrooms. They cite different research studies corroborating this danger, showing in one study that about a third of young people who received sexual solicitations online received them in chatrooms, and in another, that young people were more likely to receive sexual solicitations through chatrooms or instant messages than through social network sites.
Accordingly, they advise that given these findings, adolescent vulnerability online appears to depend more on interactive behavior than by posting personal information—which they describe as a relatively “passive” activity.
Nonetheless, Internet safety is always enhanced by withholding personal identifying information when interacting with strangers, whether in chatrooms or other types of social media sites. Less is more in most online settings, considering the ease with which such information can be accessed, and acted upon.
Protection is Prevention
Knowing the differences between how different types of online platforms operate, as well as the risks associated with each type is vital to ensuring our youth are protected online. Good communication and relationships enhance the ability of family and friends to monitor the online activity of teenagers, who spend a significant amount of time socializing both on and offline.
[i] Wolak, Janis, David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Michele L. Ybarra. 2010. “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims: Myths, Realities, and Implications for Prevention and Treatment.” Psychology of Violence 1 (S): 13–35. doi:10.1037/2152-0828.1.S.13.