Do you know what your daughter’s online avatar looks like? If it’s sexually provocative—more Bratz than American Girl doll—it’s time for a chat. “I’m amazed at the grotesqueness of some of these avatars,” says Jennie Noll, a developmental psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center who asked 173 teenage girls ages 14 to 17 to make avatars, then rated their provocativeness—skimpy clothing, body piercings, exaggerated curves. Girls who created provocative avatars were more likely to get sexual come-ons online, not surprisingly, and also more apt to agree to an in-person encounter with someone they met online. Noll's study is published in the current issue of Pediatrics. The girls who chose provocative avatars were also more likely to be preoccupied with sex—and, Noll speculates, they might be more likely to try on the role.
Parents can use avatars as an early warning system, Noll says. “Parents should be interested and aware of how their children are presenting themselves online,” she says, and prepared to talk with them about "the implications of presenting themselves as a sexual being online.” The next step: Run through scenarios about what could happen if someone wanted to meet up in real life, and role-play how to fend off a come-on that could lead to more than they’re able to handle. Not all offline encounters end in sexual abuse or exploitation, of course. But Noll, who studies the effects of child sexual abuse, cautions that the potential is there. Avatars also give us parents a doorway to discussing online profiles and the fact that what might seem cool to a 14-year-old will seem decidedly uncool to college admissions officers, employers, and her boyfriend’s parents. “It’s the first snapshot people get of you,” Noll says. “Younger adolescents don’t get this, because [social networking] is so much a part of their everyday life.”
For more on the big and troubling issue on how popular culture oversexualizes childhood, check out So Sexy So Soon, a book by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne that came out last year. A parent's best defense, Levin and Kilbourne say, is to talk to your kids early and often about what you don’t like about sexual images in pop culture, while also giving them a chance to tell you what they like, and why. (Here’s my interview with Levin about So Sexy So Soon, along with my distillation of her advice for parents.) Study after study shows that the best predictor of a child safely navigating the risks of the teenage years is having involved parents—something that Noll found in her study, too. Here's more on how parents can manage kids’ use of social media, particularly networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.
So, kid, put a sweater on that avatar!