New study will track internet ‘footprints’ to measure what teen girls really do online – and look for better ways to protect them

It is one of every parent’s worst fears: To discover that your teenage daughter calls herself “Bad Girl” and has been posting racy photos of herself online for any stranger to see. Even worse, she’s broadcasting her name and phone number.

Every parent has heard of online predators. Every parent knows the internet is saturated with sexual content. What we don’t understand – yet -- is why some teen girls willingly put themselves out there as potential prey. We do not have a clear idea of how often this happens, and we know even less about effective ways to prevent the harm that can result.

Jennie Noll, PhD, director of research, Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology at Cincinnati Children’s, hopes to find some answers. She is using a five-year, $3.7 million federal grant to gather deeper, more accurate data about “high-risk internet behaviors.” The study will recruit 400 girls, ages 12 to 15, to participate.

“In our previous pilot study, we asked girls whether they have ever met anyone offline after meeting them online and we heard some chilling stories,” Noll says. “One patient told a story about a guy who started texting her a lot and he seemed ‘really nice.’  So she agreed to meet him at the mall, she got in his car, they drove somewhere and he raped her.”

 Provocative self presentations can signal a readiness for sex that adolescents may not necessarily intend, Noll says. Perpetrators approach these sorts of teens as likely targets.  

Going beyond self-reported data

“These might be rare cases. But when 90 percent of teens have regular access to the internet, that 1, 2 or 3 percent of girls who become victims can add up to a really big number,” Noll says.

But how big is that number? Which girls are most at risk? Unlike most research in this field, Noll’s study will rely on direct, observable activity instead of inherently limited self-reported data. Noll worked with Michal Kouril, PhD, Division of Biomedical Informatics, to develop custom software that can track and analyze a teenager’s entire internet “footprint.”

“Previous studies tended to focus on whatever platform was popular at the time. Several years ago, it was all about MySpace and chat rooms. More recently, teens have shifted to Facebook and YouTube.  And even more recently they’ve begun using other social media channels, such as Instagram,” Noll says. “In our study, it won’t matter what method a teen uses. Our software will track everything they do online and everywhere they look on the Web.”

Deeper understanding of abused girls

The new project will expand upon the findings of a smaller-scale study Noll and colleagues published in Pediatrics in 2009.   That study compared how 104 girls chose to portray themselves when creating an online avatar – a type of cartoon alter ego. It found that girls who were abused earlier in childhood were much more likely than other girls to create avatars with provocative physical features. They also were much more likely to have real sexual encounters with people they met online. 

In the new study, half of the 400 participants will be girls who have suffered sexual abuse. The rest will be girls of similar backgrounds who have not been abused.  “We expect to see significant differences between these groups, both in terms of risky online behavior and in the likelihood of future victimization,” Noll says.

Crucial longer-term findings

Unlike other snapshots of online trends, Noll’s project will span several years. Each girl in the study will have their online activity tracked for a month at three points in time, spaced about 15 months apart. During these periods, the girls also will participate in three comprehensive psychosocial interviews.

“We already know from previous research that abused girls have a higher propensity for risky sexual activity and teen pregnancy. They also have a propensity to be re-victimized. We see some of these kids over and over again,” Noll says.

The researchers will intervene if a participant appears to be getting into any danger, including calling authorities if needed. The researchers also are prepared to deal with girls who might change their online behavior because they know they are being watched.

“We know from other experience that participants who try to mask their habits will quickly return to their regular patterns once they see that they will not be punished for their behavior,” Noll says.

Beyond analyzing which girls are most likely to engage in risky online behavior, Noll says the study may shed new light on how the internet explosion  can shape  long-term sexual development.

“Given that this is the first generation to experience such a massive proliferation of access to the internet, there is much we don’t know,” Noll says.  “We want to find out if there’s any kind of causal link between what teens see online, when they start seeing it, how much of it they see and how they behave later.”