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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.

"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.

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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.

Teens can get sexual comments online, but usually it's the same rude kind of stuff (like catcalls) they'd hear at school or on the streets. "Most of those incidents are fairly mild," Wolak says.

When adults do try to seduce kids, it's usually in chat rooms or instant messages -- not social media sites. These predators don't hide in the shadows, either. They're usually very honest about what they're doing.

"Generally, they are quite open that they are adults looking for sexual relationships," Wolak says. "The kids who get drawn into these relationships tend to be kids who are really longing for romance and love."

Most teens are perfectly safe online. Still, there are a few things you should think about before you share any information on the Internet.

What Goes Online, Stays Online

One of the biggest problems teens have online is TMI (too much information). "At a young age, people are not very savvy about managing information. They don't really realize who their audiences are online," says Catalina Toma, PhD. She's assistant professor in the department of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"Another problem is that they don't know the bounds of sharing and over-sharing. I think that happens face-to-face as well as online. But online, you can't take it back," she says.

Online you have no idea who's looking at your pictures or profile. And you don't know how long your pictures are going to live in cyberspace. Pictures can stay on social networking sites or other people's computers even after you delete them.

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"You should realize that social network sites are going to be there for a long time," Toma says. "You may have a bikini photo or a drinking photo of yourself that seems OK when you're 18. But in a few years you're going to be looking for a job, and that's not the image that you want to present to an employer."

Pictures you send on your cell phone can also take on a life of their own.

Sexting

It might sound like fun to send sexy pics of yourself to your boyfriend on your cell phone. It's called "sexting," and 4% of cell-owning teens say they've done it. About 15% of teens also say they've gotten "sexts."

Remember -- once you hit send, that picture belongs to the person on the other end of the phone. They can do anything they want with it --including sending it to everyone they know. "They can spread it around like wildfire," says Toma. "And that's where the real harm can be done."

Don't think sexts are safe in the hands of someone you trust, either. In 2009, middle school student Hope Witsell sent a topless picture of herself to her boyfriend.

The picture got out to a few other teens. They sent it to their friends. Soon, kids were yelling "whore" and "slut" as Hope walked down the hallways at school, and also posted cruel comments about her online, according to media reports. Later that year, Witsell killed herself.

"Kids may think it's funny to send a picture of a 14-year-old girl topless that she meant for her boyfriend. But for the girl who took the picture, it can be humiliating and horrible," Wolak says.

Here's something you might not know: The minute you send a sext, you become a child pornographer. "Legally, they are violating child pornography laws. And those laws are very serious," Wolak says.

You're probably not going to get arrested or go to jail for sexting, but the embarrassment alone should be enough to stop you. "Do you really want your girlfriend's mother, the police, or people at your school to see a picture like that?" Wolak asks.

Another way you can get into big trouble is by bullying someone online.

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Cyberbullying

You might have heard about a Massachusetts high school student named Phoebe Prince. Her classmates allegedly bullied her so much on Facebook and through text messages that she killed herself.

What Phoebe experienced is called "cyberbullying." It's when people send mean or cruel messages online.

Cyberbullying takes place in cyberspace, but it doesn't usually start there. "It's offline behavior in a school… or other places that's spilling over into the Internet," Wolak says.

Because cyberbullying has been in the news so much, it might seem like the problem of bullying is getting worse. But Wolak says the number of kids who are being bullied isn't increasing. The Internet is just a new place for bullies to operate.

There are ways to prevent bullying and sexual harassment online.

Safer Surfing: 5 Tips

You don't have to stop going online or texting -- just be safer when you do it. The following tips are common sense. You probably know and practice most of these already.

1. Protect your privacy. Change the settings on your social media pages to make your profile private. Only let people you know see your profile -- like friends, family, and people at your school. Ask a parent or other adult to help you if you can't figure out how to use the privacy settings. If someone you've friended is harassing you, block him or her.

2. Watch what you write. It's fine to share information online. Just be careful about releasing any details that someone could use to find you. "Stuff like home address and phone number should be released with caution," Toma says. The same goes for the name of your school, your friends, or your parents. Use a fake screen name when you're on discussion boards and blogs.

Also be careful about posting mean or embarrassing things about someone else. Think about how you'd feel if someone said those things about you in public. Know that you could get in a lot of trouble if the person you're harassing tells their parents or the police.

3. Be alert. If someone online compliments you or asks questions about what you're wearing, watch out. These are ways that people use to test whether you'll be open to sexual contact, Wolak says.

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If a person is saying things to you online that make you nervous, block that person or leave the site. Tell your parent or school counselor what happened, or go to the police. Do the same thing if anyone is harassing or bullying you online. You can also report any incidents on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline.

4. Pick your pictures carefully. Don't post any pictures that you wouldn't want your mother or father to see. That includes pictures of you in a bikini or doing something illegal like drinking or smoking pot. If you do take a picture like that, delete it right away.

5. Keep your cyberfriends in cyberspace. Don't agree to meet anyone you don't know in the real world. If you do set up a meeting, tell your parents about it. Meet in a public place, like a coffee shop or mall. Have a friend or parent come with you.

After her experience, Amanda gave up the Internet for a while. Now she's surfing the net again, but much more cautiously. She warns teens not to make the same mistakes she did. "You've got to be careful," she says. "Don't give out so much information… If the person knows your whole name and where you go to school, they can show up at any time."

"If you want to meet somebody, talk to your parents," Amanda says. Better yet, stay home and hang out with your friends from school.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 07, 2010

Sources

SOURCES:

Janis Wolak, PhD, senior researcher, Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire.

Catalina Toma, PhD, assistant professor, department of communication arts, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Pew Internet. "Teens and Sexting." Dec. 15, 2009. 

LAMBDA: "Teen Safety on the Internet." 

Magid, Larry. "Teen Online Safety Mostly About Behavior." CNET News

Federal Trade Commission. "Facts for Consumers." 

Wolak, J. American Psychologist, 2008; vol 63: pp 111-128. 

News release, Internet Solutions for Kids, Inc. 

Wolak J. Journal of Adolescent Health, December 2007; vol 41: pp S51-S58. 

 

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