In the information age, teens have vast opportunities to explore sexuality online. New research suggests this exposure comes with big risks as online sexual experiences can predict whether a teen becomes a victim of sexual assault one year later.
This discovery underscores the importance of helping teens understand how online sexual experiences may shape their offline experiences.
Investigators from Michigan State University used a novel, person-centered approach to detect the association. This methodology identifies specific patterns of behaviors in sub-groups of people rather than general observations across a large group.
Researchers say the new approach allowed them to track the girls’ online experiences and subsequent offline experiences more intricately than prior studies.
“It makes sense that engaging in risky behavior online would translate to offline risks,” said Dr. Megan Maas, research author and MSU assistant professor of human development and family studies at MSU.
“But we were able to identify specific online behavioral patterns that correlated with susceptibility to different offline outcomes – which was never captured from conventional approaches before.”
Maas and colleagues assessed data from 296 girls between 14- and 17-years-old, who self-reported their online and offline sexual experiences over five years. Additionally, the girls would visit a lab each year for a trauma interview to measure experiences such as sexual abuse, assault or violence that may go undetected in a survey.
“By assessing the teens’ online sexual experiences using the person-centered approach, we were able to group the teens into four classes of experience patterns, which predicted sexual health and victimization outcomes one year later,” Maas said.
The four classes were:
- online inclusive: These teens have a high probability of having several online sexual experiences, including looking at Internet porn, chatting with strangers about sex, sending nude photos and posing provocatively on social media. This class often has strangers posting sexy comments on their social media accounts, requesting nude photos and soliciting them for sex;
- seekers: These teens purposefully seek out Internet porn, chat with others about sex and post sexy photos on social media, but purposefully do not have a sexy profile picture and do not receive a lot of online attention from others;
- attractors: This class of teens gets attention from others online, though they’re not explicitly looking for it. They had a sexy social media profile, had people requesting nude photos, received comments about how sexy they are and have strangers solicit them for offline sex;
- online abstinent: This group had little probability of having online sexual experiences.
The goal was to pinpoint online patterns of sexual experiences related to three offline outcomes one year later: HIV risk, sexual assault and intimate partner violence, Maas said.
They discovered that attractors were more likely to be sexually assaulted than the seekers; online inclusive were likely to be sexually assaulted or engage in risky sex, especially if they’d experienced prior sexual abuse or assault; whereas, the seekers were more likely to have a physically violent romantic partner, especially if they’d experienced prior sexual abuse or assault.
Maas said her findings demonstrate how critical it is for teens to receive education to understand how online sexual experiences may shape their offline experiences. Specifically, she hopes that schools and families will educate youth on sexual health and consent as well as healthy relationships, as their online experiences could have serious consequences.
“Rather than trying to tackle the impossible like eliminating teens’ exposure to porn or ability to sext, we can and should educate them about these realities and risks and offer alternatives for learning about and expressing sexuality,” Maas said.
The study appears in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
Source: Michigan State University