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Strategies and cues adolescents use to assess the age of an online stranger

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A common risk among adolescents is sexual solicitation, in which an adolescent is asked to provide sexual information, engage in sexual talk, or in sexual activities. Although scholars increasingly address this topic from an intrapersonal perspective, there is little attention to factors of language use and message content. In two focus group studies, we investigated whether adolescent girls consider themselves capable of assessing whether an online stranger is an adult or a peer, the extent to which adolescent girls actually succeed in making this assessment, the strategies they apply to do so, and the content- and language-related cues focused on. Our findings suggest that most of the adolescent girls are confident in their ability to assess whether the stranger is a peer or an adult with possible sexual intentions. However, we also found that only 43% were able to correctly make this assessment. Most of the adolescents seem to apply the passive strategy of uncertainty reduction: They scan the profile page of the stranger, check contact information, and the profile picture. They may choose to apply the interactive strategy to find out more about the online stranger. Important content-related cues that alarm adolescent girls are: ignoring personal questions, showing an exaggerated amount of interest, acting as a friend, and being sexually oriented. Language cues mentioned related to word usage, abbreviations, sentence length, and tone.
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Keywords: Grooming; adolescents; language; online; safety; sexual solicitation; uncertainty

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Communication Science, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands

Publication date: August 3, 2018

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