Does Social Media Use Increase Risk for Adolescent Girls?
Over the past twenty years, the internet has changed life for everyone in ways that are too numerous to list. In the 21st century, we’re connected to one another digitally, through the human-centered internet. We use social media and internet-based direct messaging apps and other systems. Most of us share pictures and videos in as many ways as you can count. We post. We tweet. They may be called stories or reels or snaps. We may go live and show people what we’re up to right then and there in the moment.
Let’s not even start on what’s known as the internet of things: in some cases, our refrigerators, microwaves, and even slow-cookers are connected to the internet.
Let’s stay on track, though, because this is a serious subject: the human-centered internet helps us stay in contact with one another, helps us keep up with what’s going on in the world, and, in the best case, helps us feel connected, alive, important, and less lonely.
However, there’s a flip-side to all that: the connectivity that benefits us can also harm us.
That’s what we’ll discuss in this article. We’ll narrow our focus from the entire internet to social media sites. We’ll concentrate our attention on one group of people in particular: teenage girls. The primary question we’ll explore is this:
When teenage girls use social media, do they increase their risk of sexual assault?
Most people – even those without teenage daughters and those who don’t think about this subject very often – would immediately respond to that question by saying, “Yes, obviously, but I guess it would depend on what they do while they’re on those sites.”
We’ll share the latest data on this topic, and explore whether that answer is as obvious as most of us think it is.
First, though, we’ll take a moment to discuss the consequence of sexual assault, in order to remind parents – and anyone reading this – of the devastating emotional, psychological, and physical consequences of sexual assault.
Sexual Assault, Teenage Girls, and Mental Health
Data published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that, compared to people who never experience sexual assault, victims of sexual assault show higher risk of:
- Alcohol and substance use disorders
- Eating disorders
- Engaging in risky sexual behavior
- Experiencing interpersonal, domestic, or dating violence in adulthood
Evidence shows risk of those negative consequences is higher for adolescent females than males, but both males and females experience those same negative consequences. However, there are some consequences of sexual assault specific to adolescent females.
Compared to those who never experience sexual assault, adolescent females who experience sexual assault are:
- Six times more likely to become pregnant as teenagers
- Twice as likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease
In addition, data shows that women – including adolescent females – who have been sexually assaulted or raped experience significant mental health issues.
Sexual Assault and Subsequent Mental Health Issues: Females
- 94% report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with two weeks of the incident, including:
- Panic attacks
- 84% develop moderate to severe emotional issues, including:
- Self-harming behavior
- 30% report PTSD symptoms within nine months
- 33% report suicidal ideation (thinking about or planning suicide)
- 13% attempt suicide
Experiencing sexual assault can disrupt relationships and impact victims in all areas of life. These statistics apply to all victims of sexual assault, dating violence, and/or rape:
- 38% develop difficulties or impairments problems at school or work
- 37% report difficulty with friends and/or family, including:
- Increased conflict
- Decreased trust
We’ll end this section with two statistics that give us an idea of the big picture, with regards to females, sexual violence, and/or rape:
- Over 33% of women experience sexual violence during their lives (about one in three women)
- Just below 20% of women experience completed or attempted rape (about one in five women)
Those facts and figures explain why we write articles like this. In addition to sexual assault being a terrifying, traumatic, emotionally and physically devastating event in the moment, for most women, that’s not the end. For most women, that moment never really ends. It can stay with them for life, and lead to the wide range of emotional and psychological consequences we list above.
It’s crystal clear that sexual assault is something no parent wants their teenage daughter to experience. Now we’ll address the question we pose at the beginning of this article: does social media use by teenage girls increase their risk of experiencing sexual assault?
Social Media Interactions, Sexual Predators, and Teenage Girls
What we have to say now may surprise you: the archetype of the internet-based sexual predator is not entirely accurate.
In a paper called “Online “Predators” and Their Victims” published in 2008, which was revised, updated, and republished as “Online Predators—Myth versus Reality” in 2012 by the University of Massachusetts, child crime researcher Janis Wolak explains that most social media or internet-related sex crimes – including sexual assault – typically don’t happen in the stereotypical way we think they happen.
The Online Predator Stereotype
- Sexual predators frequently visit internet sites, social media sites, or other online spaces that are popular with teenage girls
- They find/acquire publicly available information from:
- Online profiles
- Comments on posts
- Comments by friends on posts
- Likes on posts
- Shares of posts
- Friend and contact lists
- They initiate interactions with their target victims:
- Contact is based deception: they lie about their age and never reveal their sexual intentions
- They lure victims into meetings, or stalk them, then, when they have them in a vulnerable place, they use coercion, force, violence, or all three, in order to abduct and sexually assault/rape them.
However, in most recorded cases of sexual assault that results from initial contact online, known as internet-initiated sex crimes, only the first bullet point in this stereotype is true. Data from crime reports does not support the predator stereotype we describe above.
Internet-Initiated Sex Crimes Against Minors: Crime Report Data
- 25% of sex crimes committed against teenagers involve statutory rape
- As heinous and reprehensible as statutory rape is, police investigations indicate that in around half of statutory rape cases, the victim reports being in love with or having strong sexual/romantic feelings for the perpetrator
- 16% of sex crimes against teenagers involve coercion, wherein the perpetrator pressures the victim into having sex or engaging in sexual activity they don’t want to engage in
- This often happens at a second or third meeting
- 7% of arrests for statutory rape resulted from initial online contact
- 5% of meetings between adults and minors initiated online involved violence/sexual assault
- 3% involved abductions
- 1% of all arrests for sex crimes committed against minors involve initial online contact
We need to stop right here and clarify something: online predators do manipulate vulnerable teenage girls into situations that involve illegal sexual activity. That’s a fact. It’s an awful, terrible fact. Heinous and reprehensible – the words we use above – don’t begin to approach the depth of our revulsion for these crimes against children. And make no mistake: any talk about sex between an adult and a minor is already a crime. An adult who meets a minor to engage in sex commits the crime we describe above, statutory rape.
What we’re saying here is that our stereotypical idea of an internet initiated sex crime against a minor female – sexual predator lures teenage girl to dangerous place to abduct and rape her – makes up a very small percentage of sexual crimes by adult males against minor females.
So what happens, then?
Manipulation, Not Deceit, is the Primary Tool
What happens is that adults engage in a process called grooming. They spend time talking to, gaining the trust, and eventually the willing participation, of a minor in a sex act. Again, while deception is not unheard of, the idea that online predators most often use fake profiles and start the grooming process by pretending to be teenagers themselves is simply not supported by data.
It does happen – but not as much as most of us think. If you’re a parent reading this and that information surprises you, you’re not alone: it surprised us, too, because that’s one of the main tools those of us who are parents use to warn our kids about their online behavior: we tell them that online, you never know if someone is who they say they are.
Which is true – but in the case of teenage girls, social media, and sexual assault, that’s not typically how it happens.
That fact surprised us. This next set of bullet points may surprise many parents, too. However, this is what peer-reviewed data from a nationwide study shows:
- Perpetrators in internet/social media-initiated sex crimes against minor females generally did not deceive victims about:
- Their age (95% did not hide their age)
- Their sexual motives (21% did not hide their intent)
- Teenage victims of internet/social medias-initiated sex crimes knew the perpetrator’s real age and real intentions before meeting them offline
- The majority of perpetrators do not force, coerce, or abduct their victims
- In most cases:
- Teenage victims agree to meet the adults
- Teenage victims know the adults they plan to meet want sex
- Victims engage in sexual intercourse, or other sexual activity, with the adults, on multiple occasions
Those are the facts. Now let’s talk about what we can do about those facts.
Teenage Girls: Online Safety Begins With Awareness
Let’s also be clear about something else, which may get lost in our effort to address stereotypes and raise awareness about how teenage girls can recognize the strategies adults my use to lure them into sexual activity.
This quote comes from an article in the Journal of Adolescent Health Called “Use of Social Networking Sites in Online Sex Crimes Against Minors: An Examination of National Incidence and Means of Utilization”:
“Social networking sites [or social media sites] were used to initiate sexual relationships, to provide a means of communication between victim and offender, to access information about the victim, to disseminate information or pictures about the victim, and to get in touch with victim’s friends.”
It may seem like we’re contradicting ourselves now – but we’ll explain. Adults absolutely do use social media for the goal of having sex with minors, which is a crime. Both the sex itself and the solicitation of the sex from a minor are crimes. What we’re saying is that in almost all cases – ninety-five percent, according to the statistics – the predators do not use social media sites to target victims for sexual assault, sexual violence, and/or abduction for sexual reasons.
What they do is manipulate vulnerable minor females for sex.
Thankfully, there are specific steps teenage girls can take to prevent this from happening. Teenage girls who take these steps can avoid being manipulated into sexual activity by an online sexual predator, and also avoid being manipulated into a position where a sexual predator can abduct, sexually assault, and/or rape them.
We have two lists to share. The first details the types of online behavior experts deem risky, while the second is a list of general tips for online safety that all teenage girls should follow.
Risky Online Behaviors in Order of Risk and the Percentage of Teens Who Engage in Them
- Posting personal information: 56%
- Interacting with people they don’t know: 43%
- Having people they don’t know on their friends list: 35%
- Making rude comments: 28%
- Sending personal info to people the don’t know: 26%
- Downloading images from file-share sites: 15%
- Viewing porn or visiting porn sites: 13%
- Harassing or embarrassing peers: 9%
- Talking to people they don’t know about sex: 5%
Parents of teens should make it clear those behaviors are risky, and they should not do those things. The next list we’ll share is a list of internet safety tips published by The Crimes Against Children Research Center. There is some overlap between these two lists, but all these tips are important enough to say twice, if not more.
Internet Safety: Ten Tips for Teens
1. Be Smart
The internet is far more public and far more permanent than it seems. Things you say can end up places you never imagined, and deleting something from a post doesn’t mean you’ve deleted it from the internet.
2. Be Conservative
Racy, sexy, suggestive pictures can get you attention you don’t want from people you don’t want to know.
3. No Nudes
Sharing nude pictures of an underage person is considered child pornography, and it’s illegal for anyone who does it – including teens.
4. Avoid Sketchy Sites
There are some things you don’t want to see, and once you see them, you’ll wish you hadn’t.
5. Avoid Sex-Oriented Chat Rooms
When you visit these types of online spaces, you increase your vulnerability to sexual harassment.
6. Say No to Free Downloads
Offers of free content, granting file-sharing access to your computer, and participating on peer-to-peer sharing sites enables others to place pornography on device. Any pornography involving children will get you in serious trouble.
7. Let’s Not Talk Sex
If you’re a minor, and an adult talks about or solicits sex from you, it’s a crime. Meeting you for sex is also a crime. If an adult starts going down that road, report it immediately.
8. Resist Peer Pressure
If your friends are checking out porn or talking to adults online about sex, don’t join in. Use your best judgment and do what you know is right, not what they think is cool.
9. No Trolling
By that we mean don’t be mean, don’t harass people, don’t make fun of them, and dial back the off-color humor. People may react in ways that can cause you, your friends, or family serious harm.
10. Know Your Limits
You may read all these points and think you’re smart and mature enough to handle anything that happens online. You still need to be careful: adult sites are for adults and have adult consequences. If you’re a teenager, keep being one: adulthood will arrive faster than you think.
Our last piece of advice is this: when in doubt, find an adult and tell them what’s going on. If it looks and feels unsafe, it’s probably unsafe. If you feel in danger or threatened by any online activity in any way, get your parents or primary caregivers involved immediately. It may be nothing, but it may be something that merits the attention of law enforcement. You can log off, step away, and let your parents decide.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.