A big thanks to Alison Stegert from e-Quipped for this article! Check out e-Quipped for information relating to a myriad of modern issues, from cyber-parenting to sexting.

Most young people today have a head full of cybersafety information, thanks the vigilance of their parents and schools. It seems like grown-ups are doing a fine job of skilling up a generation of children to stay safe online.

Then you see something like Coby Persin’s recent “social experiment.” The link is at the end of this paragraph, but before you click it, let me tell you what you’ll find. Media personality Coby used a hoax to test three teen girls’ cybersafety knowledge. Their parents agreed to set-up their daughters to find out if they would meet up with a stranger they met online. Click here to see the link and watch the video.

All three sets of parents were sure their daughter wouldn’t do meet the stranger. All three sets of parents were wrong.

Coby, a presumably good-hearted twenty-something male, used the fake profile of a 15-year-old male and friended the girls on Facebook.

– One girl met him at a park.
– Another, a twelve-year-old girl, opened the front door to let him in.
– And the last one actually sneaked out of her house and climbed into a van driven by someone she’d never met.

Their parents were horrified. They’d had the conversations. They’d done the right things. Their girls could recite cybersafety information. They knew that a profile picture of a cute 15-year-old guy could be anybody, even a predator.

These girls knew meeting up was risky, but they ignored cybersafety precautions they’d been taught and did it anyway.

Why? WHY!

Why do girls who clearly know about cyber-predators still make such risky choices? It’s not a slim minority who are making these bad choices. A 2013 study by Pediatrics Journal found that 30 per cent of girls age 14-17 admitted to meeting up with a stranger they’d met online.

Blame the Teenage Brain

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photo by PinkPersimon

The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is the section of the brain that facilitates rational decision-making; it is also known as the “housing of the conscience.” This part of the brain is under a radical overhaul in the teen years, and at the same time, the limbic region of the brain, responsible for reward-seeking and emotions, has been developing earlier and faster.

Youth sexuality educator Liz Walker explains the impact of these developmental changes. “Young people are capable of rational decision-making while the PFC is developing, but with the PFC taking back seat to emotional and reward-seeking motivators, teens can find themselves unable to foresee outcomes beyond immediate rewards.”

What is the thinking process that overrides safe choices? It comes down to thrill-seeking behaviour and a craving for validation. Dr Barbara Greenberg is an adolescent psychologist who frequently comments in the American media.

She told Yahoo Parenting:

“It’s not that teens don’t care about the risks. But what happens with teen girls is they weigh the benefits more than the risks, and it’s really exciting to get attention from a male. So they weigh those thrills more than ‘oh, this could happen to me.’”

Blame the Media

Popular music, movies, and magazines promote the notion that a woman’s desirability is equated with being “out there,” available—even predatory in her appetites. Power, sexuality, beauty, and attention are all conflated to create this sexy media monster that bumps-n-grinds her way through life.

And this isn’t late time TV; it’s rife in the music videos shown immediately after Saturday morning cartoons!

The message is something like, “Sexy gets the spotlight.” (Everyone else is invisible, or at best the doo-whopping support act.) The girl in the limelight gets so much attention, she can shoo away the surplus. What a confusing mess for young girls (and boys) to decipher! What a wacky standard to live up to!

It’s no wonder attention from males ranks pretty high in some girls’ schema. For these girls, male interest validates their attractiveness, social clout, likability, experience, power/agency and many other “desirable” traits.

If the guys in their (real) life aren’t offering this type of validation, teen girls may seek it out in arenas—namely online, where they can hide behind (perceived) anonymity, shed their inhibitions, and role-play a savvier, worldlier persona.

Which persona? You guessed it: the media monster mentioned above, Ms Sexy-and-I-Want-It.

The study from Pediatrics Journal found that girls who used provocative profile pictures were more likely to engage in risky online behaviour. They also found that girls who had experienced previous maltreatment were more likely to behave in unsafe ways.

Sadly, for some girls—especially vulnerable girls—risky validation is better than no validation.

Are Your Daughters Cybersafe?

With 30 per cent of adolescent girls admitting to meeting up in real life with a stranger from social media, clearly, our attempts to educate and parent young people about cyber-risks need to be honed.

Filters on home computers aren’t enough. (In fact the Pediatrics study found, “…Software that filtered inappropriate Internet content had no effect on lowering high-risk Internet behaviours.”) Sometimes, putting those types of interventions in place induces a false security. Nothing can replace parental involvement.

Cybersafety education isn’t enough. Knowing that predators (and other cyber dangers) are lurking out there doesn’t encourage safe behaviours. Scare tactics backfire. Young people switch off, believing it’s all parental hype, aka Techno-Panic.

Experts Recommend:

– Open relationships, where girls can talk to their parents about what they are doing on-line. “High-quality parenting” is the goal.
– Explicit education about personal safety. Teach young people to recognise the signs of sexual overtures, when it’s appropriate and when it’s not, and what to do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable.
– Parental monitoring of social media. Who really needs 500 friends on FaceBook? Cut it down, way down, to people you know personally. Not even friends of friends, just friends. Experts recommend a monthly cull with parents asking questions. Who is this? How do you know them? Why do you need them here?
– Don’t let your children rush into social media. The age limits are 13 for a reason. Even then, 13 is just a number. If your daughter is 14 and immature (evidenced by high levels of social drama), hold out for a signs of greater maturity.

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The School Counsellor’s Two Cents

– Teach young children to regulate their emotions. Kids who enter adolescence with good emotional moderation skills will be less likely to get into trouble when their limbic system takes the steering wheel. Practise calming down, cheering up, and bouncing back.
– Help your teens identify long-term goals and strategise about how to meet them. Good goals may help teens offset less-than-wise, emotionally-driven impulses.
– Educate students in critical analysis of media. Young people need this today as much as they need to know about cybersafety. Talk about the sexualised, unrealistic, and stereotypical images in the media. Point out instances of girls limiting themselves (or selling out) to use sexuality to get ahead. There are healthier ways! Brainstorm with your daughters—and your sons!
– Encourage balance. Make sure your kids have plenty of real-life activities to balance out media time. Encourage healthy, face-to-face friendships with peers.
– Introduce your daughter to good role models. Let her mix with real women who are genuine and find and use their strength in positive outlets. Mum, comment on and admire these aspects of other women, not just their great hair or fantastic figure.
– Dad, (uncles, granddads), be sure to affirm your daughter (niece, granddaughter). Tell her she is lovely AND so much more: she’s smart, strong, resilient, kind, compassionate, and wise. Assure her she’s doing fine. Tell her she deserves to be treated well (and explain what that looks like). Give her a hug! Do this from your heart every day.

The Last Word

While Coby Persin’s video teaches an important lesson, it’s too bad three girls had to be humiliated (and possibly traumatised) to make this point. Meanwhile, Coby is sitting pretty with nearly 2 million views of his work.

Thirty per cent of girls admit to having met up with a stranger from cyberspace, but an encouraging 60 per cent have not. And, it’s important to remember cyber-predators are a real but fairly rare risk. The more prevalent and pressing danger is girls (and boys) who buy into the media’s lies.

And What About Boys?

Don’t think for a moment that teen girls have a monopoly on reckless online shenanigans. Some boys behave just as dangerously, meeting up with strangers and more. Just like the girls, their brains are under construction (for a little longer!) and the media messes with them too.

e-Quipped will address boys’ risky behaviours and how to keep your sons safe in a future post.

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Liz Walker

About Liz Walker

Sexuality & pornography educator and advocate. Liz provides consultancy, schools education & presentations, and is sought after internationally.