How Do You Portray Yourself on the Internet?
What's your digital footprint?

The Internet has become a potentially dangerous place for teens to socialize. Although the Web is full of informative and helpful sites, unsupervised teens can run into trouble – including connecting with sexual offenders who are liable to use chats, forums and instant messaging software to gain a teen’s trust and arrange a face-to-face meeting for sexual exploitation purposes.

One recent study, conducted by developmental psychologist Dr. Jennie Noll, associate professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center at the University of Cincinnati, found that a history of childhood abuse and the use of a provocative avatar, or digital image, increases the risk of Internet victimization of adolescent girls. The research, published in June 2009 in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, asked 104 non-abused adolescent girls and 69 abused girls between the ages of 14 and 17 to create their own avatars – or virtual personas online. The girls could choose what their avatars looked like, including hair, clothes, bust and hip size.

“In the context of this study, I thought, 'If these girls are at high risk of victimization in other ways, why wouldn’t that generalize to their Internet lives?' ” Noll says. Noll and her team found that those girls who chose a more provocative avatar, or “smutty” persona, as Noll calls it, were the ones who told her that they were experiencing more sexual advances online and making dangerous encounters in the real world. Noll found that the abused girls were more likely to exhibit this kind of provocative behavior.

Noll calls this the Proteus effect, which says the ways you represent yourself can change your behavior. “The ways in which you present yourself can change the way the perceiver perceives you. The Proteus effect generalizes the fact that the ways you interact socially can change depending on the ways you present yourself,” Noll says.

TROUBLE AHEAD

Those who had depicted themselves as provocative in terms of body and clothing choices were more likely to have had online sexual advances.