**By Rebecca Ruiz/Reprinted from Mashable
The internet can be a thrilling place, full of opportunities to discover something — or someone — new. Adolescents and teens know this feeling well, but may be more vulnerable to exploitation than any other online user. Amid the fun of exploring the digital world, there is the small risk of developing emotionally and psychologically damaging relationships with strangers. That became clear earlier this week when the Daily Mail published an account of an anonymous 15-year-old who had an explicit online relationship with former New York congressman Anthony Weiner.
Last month, the New York Post revealed that Weiner had traded sexual messages and photos with an adult woman — the third instance of that behavior since 2011. Huma Abedin, his wife and a key aide to Hillary Clinton, swiftly announced their separation.
Weiner, who reportedly knew the 15-year-old girl was underage, told the Daily Mail: “I have repeatedly demonstrated terrible judgement about the people I have communicated with online and the things I have sent. I am filled with regret and heartbroken for those I have hurt.”
Prosecutors have issued a subpoena for Weiner’s cell phone records and the FBI and New York Police Department have begun investigating the allegations, according to CNN.
The teenager said that she’d contacted Weiner out of curiosity, and wrote a letter explaining that she shared her story with the media because he “needs to learn his lesson.” Her father, who also spoke to the Daily Mail and requested anonymity, said her mental health was in “jeopardy.”
While the case is an extreme example, it demonstrates how online relationships with strangers can become dangerous experiences for young people.
In a study published in 2013 of more than 1,500 adolescents and teenagers, one in 10 youths said they had a close online friendship with someone they met on the internet. Only 3 percent of the respondents reported a romantic relationship that began online; less than 1 percent said their partner was older than 21.
Strangers do indeed reach out to young people online. A Pew Research Center report from 2013 found that 17 percent of those surveyed had been contacted by a stranger in a way that made them feel scared of uncomfortable. Girls were twice as likely as boys to say a stranger messaged them.
If you’ve developed an online relationship with a stranger, here are five warning signs that it is unhealthy:
The person is an adult
As in real life, adults who seek out minors for an emotionally or physically intimate relationship should not be trusted.
“Anytime an adult is interacting with a child [in this fashion], it’s exploitative, it’s abusive,” says Stefanie Carnes, a clinical consultant with Elements Behavioral Health, a company that provides center-based treatment for addiction and mental illness.
While a young person might find it exhilarating to have an adult’s attention online, and not worry about a threat to their physical safety, Carnes says the relationship is still risky. With such a power imbalance, feelings of control are an illusion.
You already feel vulnerable and lonely
For an emotionally stable teen making an online connection with a stranger, it may be easy to identify when that relationship crosses a boundary. But for someone who already feels vulnerable and lonely, the lines can blur, especially when the relationship gives them validation that’s hard to find elsewhere.
It’s worth pausing to consider why you’re pursuing an online relationship with a stranger and how you can meet those needs offline.
The relationship makes you feel really special
If someone you’ve never met in person starts to make you feel special, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The dynamic can be harmful, however, when feeling adored comes at a price, like engaging in sexually explicit conversations.
Similarly, says Carnes, a young person might develop expectations that don’t materialize offline and ultimately feel betrayed or used. As in Weiner’s case, an adult interacting online with a minor may make the relationship seem important, but is in fact pursuing multiple connections at once.
It involves explicit photos
If you can’t trust someone you know to keep a sext private, how can you trust a stranger? When an online friend or romantic interest requests explicit images, Carnes says to turn them down. She likens such photos to a “digital tattoo” that can show up in search results, or worse yet, be used for retaliation or cyberbullying.
And while you might not be concerned about your personal safety, it’s important to remember that photos are often geotagged with your precise location.
You have to keep it a secret
If you become close with a stranger online and they ask you to keep the relationship a secret, something is wrong. Being secretive may seem fun, but that should never be a condition of a healthy relationship. And if trusted friends or family members have expressed worry over your behavior, or you know they wouldn’t condone your online relationship, it’s time to reconsider keeping this person in your life.
If you want to end contact, become unresponsive and filter or block the person’s email and social media accounts. If you believe that person poses a threat to you or someone else, report them to authorities. Losing that relationship may not be easy, which is why Carnes stresses the importance of reaching out to a friend or adult for emotional support and, if needed, seeking counseling.
“Start investing in and becoming emotionally vulnerable in relationships in real life,” she says. “Start developing connections that might decrease [your] loneliness.”
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