Parents with teenagers exploring cyberspace for the first time are justifiably concerned with what they might find—or who might find them. The internet can be a digital playground for sexual predators, and an easy venue for cyber bullies and cyberstalkers to engage in insidious behavior.
Of course, most internet users are good people. Nonetheless, like their malevolent counterparts, they too make assumptions about who we are based on the terminology we use to identify ourselves online. Research indicates that apparently, whether we intend to showcase certain personality traits or not, we are judged by the screen names we select.
And when it comes to online dating, users should take extra care in selecting screen names, because they are showcasing not only their personality but also their suitability for an offline relationship. There is a big difference, for example, between sexually provocative names, and names that indicate beauty. This is important because research indicates that screen names prompt contact.
Online Daters Contact Users Based on Their Screen Names
Whitty and Buchannan in “What´s in a Screen Name?” (2010) found that men prefer screen names indicating physical attractiveness, while women are attracted to screen names that are neutral or that signal intelligence.[i] Consequently, they note that more men than women are motivated to contact users with screen names signaling physical attractiveness, while women are more likely to contact users whose screen names are neutral or indicate intellectual characteristics.
This research indicates that men looking to successfully navigate the online dating game are wise to use a screen name touting intellectual ability. Women, however, are put in a tough position. Because although selecting a screen name that highlights positive physical characteristics might attract online daters, it might also attract prospective partners just looking for casual sex, or even sexual predators.
Virtual Voyeurs Screen Victims Through Screen Names
As a career sex crimes prosecutor, I am always concerned to see women using provocative screen names, which are unfortunately attractive not just to good men, but to bad ones too. Some sexual predators believe their overtures will be reciprocated based on a user´s screen name alone. And when users select screen names that indicate or insinuate they are underage, they attract an entirely different category of predators, for all the wrong reasons.
Yet, there are additional reasons young people in particular should want to avoid sexualized screen names. Apparently, when it comes to peer approval, attempts at sex appeal are not appealing.
When A Sexual Screen Name Is Not Sexy
Facebook is a forum where young people, in particular, showcase themselves in a certain way in order to attract positive attention. Research indicates that attempting to do so through portraying a sexualized image can backfire.
In a study entitled “The Price of Sexy,” Daniels et al. (2016) examined the perception young women have of peers who present themselves in a sexualized fashion on Facebook. They found that a peer who maintained a sexualized Facebook profile was viewed as less attractive both physically and socially, as well as less competent.[ii]
And then, there are the trolls.
Screen Names Invite Insult and (Verbal) Injury: Internet Trolls
Some screen names spark conflict. In addition to the obvious politically charged names and affiliations that invite disagreement (sometimes purposefully), any name that identifies a user as affiliated with an unpopular or controversial cause is fair game for users trolling the internet looking for trouble.
Buckels et al., in "Trolls Just Want to Have Fun" (2014) note that social media users frequently encounter internet trolls, defined as users who engage in a “deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the internet with no apparent instrumental purpose.”[iii]
They report that trolls are motivated by sadism, hence the advice: “Don´t Feed the Trolls.” They explain that trolls derive enjoyment from exploiting divisive hot-button issues to make others look foolish, and are aptly compared to the 'Joker' villain character as online agents of chaos.
Being targeted by a troll might be an unintended and unanticipated consequence of having selected a particular screen name. In that case, in addition to avoiding “feeding” the troll by engaging, you might want to reconsider your screen name selection.
Screen Names Matter
Internet users read us through the online names we select. So when selecting a way to title your online identity, choose carefully.
[i] Monica T. Whitty and Tom Buchannan, “What's in a Screen Name? Attractiveness of Different Types of Screen Names Used by Online Daters,” International Journal of Internet Science Vol. 5, No. 1 (2010): 5 -19.
[ii] Elizabeth A. Daniels and Eileen L. Zurbriggen, ”The Price of Sexy: Viewers´ Perceptions of a Sexualized Versus Nonsexualized Facebook Profile Photograph,” Psychology of Popular Media Culture Vol. 5, No. 1 (2016): 2-14.
[iii] Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell, and Delroy Paulhus, "Trolls Just Want to Have Fun," Personality and Individual Differences Vol. 67 (2014): 97-102.