Teens' online behaviors may create real-life problems like relationship abuse and negative thoughts on body image, according to two new studies.
The studies, published in the journal Pediatrics, suggest that education and monitoring by parents may help reduce these behaviors and their negative consequences.
Both studies confirm "what we’re finding out in research, that the online behaviors seem to mimic offline behaviors,” Jeff Temple told Reuters Health.
Temple, who was not involved with the new studies, is a psychologist and women's health researcher from The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
In one study, researchers led by Rebecca Dick at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh surveyed a representative sample of 14 to 19 year olds from California in the 2012 school year and found that about 41 percent reported cyber dating abuse during the previous three months.
So-called cyber dating abuse can involve control, harassment, threats and stalking, the researchers write.
Cyber dating abuse was more common among girls than boys. It was also linked to a greater risk of physical abuse, sexual abuse and sexual assault.
Cyber dating abuse also increased the risk of not using contraceptives and being coerced to have children among girls, according to the researchers.
Dick told Reuters Health that the research is part of a larger study that will also look at how cyber dating abuse can be prevented and how its negative effects may be stopped. Those results will be published in January.
Until then, she said it’s important to know how common this type of abuse is.
“I think the message to parents is that this is really common and that also the relationship abuse - the hidden nature of this - could be potentially dangerous for their teens,” Dick said.
“We do want clinicians, health educators and coaches in high school to be aware of the abuse,” she said.
In the second study, Suzan Doornwaard at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and colleagues found that sex-related online behaviors are not widespread among seventh to tenth grade Dutch students. That includes looking at pornographic images online.
Those who do engage in those behaviors, however, are more likely to have negative thoughts about their bodies and perceptions of themselves sexually.
Social media use, which was common among the teens, was tied to more evaluations of their bodies and less satisfying sexual experiences. It was also tied to less physical self esteem among girls.
“We present ourselves in our social networks in a very positive light, which makes sense,” said co-author David Bickham from the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. "When they see their peers in such a positive way, they can’t help but compare themselves to them.”
The study also found that greater access to private Internet use among adolescents and lax rule setting by parents about Internet use was tied to more involvement in sexual online behaviors.
Bickham said that finding is similar to a previous study of his that found kids benefit from having rules of Internet use spelled out by parents.
“Kids and parents have vastly different ideas of when there is a rule and when there isn’t, when you look at the literature,” he said.
The authors of both studies warn that their results may not be applicable to a wider population, because one study looked at teens in a confidential healthcare setting in California and the other included only Dutch students.
Temple said people should continue to expect research and findings like these as devices like smartphones become increasingly common among children and adolescents.
“We probably for whatever reason have given kids access to the online world and said ‘that’s their thing,’ but I don’t think we can do that anymore,” he said.
Parents should have a similar presence in their children’s online lives as they do in their offline lives, Temple said. If that’s not possible, he said they should at least understand social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“There is this bidirectional relationship that what happens online can happen offline and what happens offline can happen online as well,” he said.
Dick said it’s also important for parents to exhibit good behaviors online and in their own relationships.
“It’s important for parents to think how they can be good role models for their kids,” she said.