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Your Life Online

What you should know before you send your next text or update your status online.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Amanda Randolph says she was just 15 when she "met" a 44-year-old man in an online chat room.

Amanda was looking for someone to talk to. She was lonely. All the attention at home was focused on her older sister, who was pregnant with twins.

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"I was telling him that basically my home life sucked because of my older sister. I didn't feel like anyone noticed me at home," she says. The man, whose name is withheld for privacy, seemed genuinely interested in her. He gave her all the attention she wasn't getting from her family.

Soon, Amanda says he began enticing her to leave her house in rural Illinois to visit him in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"I live next to a cornfield that's next to a cornfield…He was telling me there's beaches here, and they've got all these shops," says Amanda, who knew the man's age. "He said, 'If you come here, we can do all these things. Go places.'"

Finally, Amanda agreed to go. After telling her mother she was going to a friend's house, Amanda hitchhiked to Florida. But as soon as she got to the man's apartment, there was a knock at the door. Her mother had called the police. Two detectives were waiting to take her home.

Not long after Amanda returned home, the man came to Illinois. Amanda had given him her address, so he knew exactly where to find her. Again, Amanda went off with him. Again, her mother tracked them down and Amanda was returned home.

Many years later, Amanda found out that the man had kidnapped and sexually assaulted another 15-year-old girl. Today, he's serving jail time.

Now that she's 26, Amanda can't believe how naïve she was to agree to meet a strange man she'd met online. "I just can't believe I did it. But at the time, I didn't think anybody was out to hurt me," she says.

How Safe Are You Online?

Before you panic, thinking that predators are lurking in cyberspace waiting to kidnap you, know that what happened to Amanda is really rare. It's unusual for teens to get lured by online strangers. Most of the time when teens are sexually harassed online, it's kids their age who are doing it.

Most teens who share information and interact with people on the Internet don't get into any trouble.

"Literally millions of kids have Facebook pages. And most kids are not having any sort of issues about these pages," says Janis Wolak, PhD. Wolak is a senior researcher at the Crimes Against Children Research Center of the University of New Hampshire.

"If they're following the basic rules of behavior both online and offline, which most kids are, they're not likely to have big problems with unwelcome sexual harassment," Wolak says.

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