Raise your hand if you’ve ever met some of your friends from the Internet in meatspace.
Yeah, I thought so.
Now, raise your hand if you did it as a teenager, assuming you were a teen in an era when meeting people from the Internet was a thing that people did.
A recent study in Pediatrics, authored by Jennie G. Noll, Chad E. Shenk, Jaclyn E. Barnes and Katherine J. Haralson, looked at “Association of Maltreatment With High-Risk Internet Behaviors and Offline Encounters” and found that 30% of adolescents in the study reported offline contact with online friends. The sample included a mix of girls with a history of “maltreatment” and those without for a balanced look at behaviors online, and how personal history might affect the way people presented themselves online and made choices about what to do with online friends.
Full disclosure: I’ve met tons of my friends from the Internet in meatspace, and I’ve even done so as a teen. I’ve committed to spending a week in a hotel room with someone I’ve never seen in person, to meeting people on a creepy ex-Navy base, to coming to someone’s house (hi, Daisy!) to meet up with a bunch of people I only know as Disqus aliases and Twitter names, and to a whole lot more. Never once has anything bad happened to me when meeting up with people from the Internet.
Well, except for a really bad hamburger eaten while meeting up with friends in San Francisco -- and yes, they were my friends, they were people I’d known for 10 years online -- but I don’t think that’s the “something bad” people think of when they talk about the Internet and bad things. I am, it turns out, not in the minority here; statistically, the Internet is not as dangerous as people make it out to be, claims Noll, who says walking through a “bad neighborhood” (I’ve lived in a few in my day) is much worse.
GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS
The study found that girls with a history of abuse were more likely to put up “provocative” content, and that such content was more likely to lead to real-world encounters. There are a lot of assumptions embedded here about young women, promiscuity, abuse, and presentation that require unpacking in a piece of their own, given the complexity of the subject; these are the same assumptions that suggest women working in the sex industries are always abuse survivors working out their issues, for example. But it is true that predators searching for potential victims are going to be drawn to that kind of content.
Noll noted that parents concerned about use of the Internet shouldn’t try a total lockdown, because it’s just not effective, and I agree with her. Where I don’t agree, and actually feel deeply uncomfortable (my eyebrows shot up extremely high when I reached this point, actually), is with her comment that, “As parents, you always have the right to observe your kids without their knowing.”
I’m aware that this is a controversial subject, but I actually support youth privacy, and believe that infringing on the privacy of your children is counterproductive, doesn’t build trust, and could actually expose them to more danger. I’m really grossed out at the thought of anyone being “observed” without awareness or consent and I’m horrified to see someone advocating for such a fundamental breach of someone’s rights that way.
Teenagers are human beings, and they do have rights. They are not, in fact, owned by their parents, and invading someone’s personal space without consent isn’t a “right.” It's also not going to address safety concerns in a meaningful way, which is supposed to be the goal, right?
PROTECTING TEENS WITHOUT ALIENATING THEM
The combination of teen girls and the Internet tends to provoke a specific kind of fear, one of tender innocents corrupted and potentially abused by older people, usually men. And given the fact that the Internet is a great place for predators, that grooming behaviors are often observed online, and that teen girls can sometimes make unwise decisions for a variety of reasons, that fear is not entirely unwarranted. The thought of teens meeting up with random people they met online scares a lot of people.
Part of that fear is definitely legitimate, rooted in concerns about young women being exposed to danger. Part of it, though, is also the result of beliefs about the Internet and culture that may not be quite in step with the times. The Internet is a much more open place now, and it’s much easier to present yourself as who you actually are, with detailed information that makes you something other than BirdDog763. You have a name, an address, photographs, a physical as well as digital presence.
Which doesn’t mean girls aren’t vulnerable to exploitation online, but it does mean that the nature of meetups is changing. Rather than trying to stop it from happening, forcing teens to go underground, which would expose them to more danger, we should be talking about harm reduction and how to do it as safely as possible.
Things that go hand-in-hand with online dating for adults, for example, should also be true of anyone meeting up with people from the Internet from the first time, including teens. Google first, consider talking on the phone before meeting, and make sure to arrange your own transit. Choose a crowded public place, ideally one you know, with a plan to stay there throughout the meeting, and make sure that you can access your car/public transit via well-lit and trafficked paths.
Tell people where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone, and have a check-in or buddy system. Make sure to leave information about who you are meeting and where. There are a lot of panic button phone apps out there, and you might want to download one and set it up so it will be there if you need it. Hopefully you'll have a great time and none of these precautions will be needed.
Ultimately, there's always going to be some risk in meeting people from the Internet. There's also going to be some risk in meeting people not from the Internet, though, and we need to acknowledge that when we look at the safety of teens and explore ways to make the world a better place for them. Encouraging autonomy, self-confidence, and self-respect should be a critical part of raising teens who are aware of risks and know how to mitigate them.
And who aren't afraid of reaching out to talk to a parent or another trustworthy adult for help when it's needed.