Defining "Vulnerable" Children

A report from EU Kids Online (a research group which studies the online behaviors of youth from 25 different European countries) finds that about half of 11-16 year olds at least somewhat agree with the idea that it is easier to be oneself online than it is in a face-to-face environment; 12% say the statement is “very true.”

This finding is interesting in and of itself, though in some sense not that surprising. Behind a screen, it can be easier to share feelings, disclose information about oneself — the computer provides somewhat of a protective shield (at least temporarily) from the potentially negative reactions of peers. In a nutshell, this is what the disinhibition effect of social psychology is all about. In the long term, however, with the prevalence of cyberbullying (and online communication in general), this apparent protection can break down quite easily as one’s disclosures in the form of posts, texts, and pictures can more easily and quickly be spread, making a secret public knowledge in no time.

The study’s researchers frame their findings in a somewhat fear-based framework. They state that the 12% who more strongly believe they can be themselves online are:

  • “more likely to have problems with their peers, suggesting that they are seeking online relationships to compensate for offline ones;
  • more likely to look for new friends online, to‘add’ people or send personal information to people that they haven’t met face to face, or to pretend to be a different kind of person.”

What is not known, however, is why those youth have difficulty with their peers in the first place, which I believe is the key to all of this. And the researchers acknowledge their own uncertainties:
“Is it because they have personal or social difficulties in relating to people face-to-face, so the internet compensates in some way? Or is it because they spend a lot of time online and this leads them to feel more at home in an online environment?”

My own hunches lean me towards the former possibility — there is something about their social environments that drives them to seek acceptance online. After all, it isn’t hard to believe that 12% of youth find it difficult to be accepted in the social circles they encounter on a regular basis. In fact, that number might even be low if we are simply looking at feeling included as a youth, possibly demonstrating the resilience of young people.

Yet, this publication makes the assumption that stronger connections online are not to be desired and tries to further examine what is special about the youth who are more comfortable being themselves online than offline. Age and gender aren’t huge factors. But peer problems are — those youth who report more problems with peers are more likely to “find it easier to be myself on the internet.”

Solutions? None that are easy. Promoting acceptance of all youth regardless of their attractiveness, “coolness,” sexual orientation, gender identity, mental and/or physical challenges, would be ideal. But is it possible? As much as I want to say “yes,” I fear the immediate answer is “no.” But that should not stop us from working towards that goal — ever. In the meantime, let’s not assume that youth who find it easier to express their true selves online as opposed to offline are “vulnerable.” Perhaps, given their social environments, they are being resilient and finding communities and persons who welcome them as they are with open arms and monitors.

Note: To access the report, look for the link on “Risky Communication Online” published 2/8/11.

Sexting Laws Abound

The uproar over sexting continues — this time policy makers try to take a stab at curbing the practice of minors sending sexually explicit photos of each other.

1. In Kelso, WA the school board approved a policy that allows for school administrators to confiscate and search a student’s phone if there is “reasonable cause” to suspect that the sexting took place at school. Students can face suspension or expulsion if found guilty. I fear that this sort of policy is a slippery slope that can be used to target certain teens; the ACLU is already fighting this as an invasion of privacy — could these school administrators be charged with the viewing of child pornography (or at the very least, accused of being voyeuristic?) if they keep confiscating phones and having a peek?

2. According to the Huffington Post the New York Department of Education is also trying to ban sexting and students could get in trouble for sending photos from home as well as school.

3. In Texas there is a bill under consideration that would lessen the penalty for youth found guilty of sexting to being found guilty of a Class C misdemeanor for first offenders (currently they might be charged with distribution of child pornography and possibly have to register as a sex offender). While that sounds reasonable, the bill also stipulates that youth and their parents would both have to take educational classes about the “harmful consequences” of sexting. Two things about this seem odd: (1) from a research standpoint, we don’t really know what the harmful consequences of sexting are. So, not sure where they are going to get course content from. (2) And what are the parents going to learn? Is the implication here that parents somehow were supportive of the sexting and also need to be told it isn’t a great idea? I doubt it. But someone over at The Stir already beat me to making fun of this sort of logic.

This is only the beginning, folks. Look for many new sexting laws and policies being proposed and adopted at the school, state, and possibly even federal level.

Give Them Credit, Give Them Support

A recent article in the New York Times appears to uncover how the internet is impacting middle school romances. Through interviews with some young New Yorkers (note the limited representation), it attempts to reveal how sexting and easy access to porn are shaping how these youth relate to each other, their bodies, and their friends.

I always find these articles fascinating, and usually respect their content — the Times often tackles an issue related to youth development more in-depth and responsibly than most other news outlets. And for that I am grateful.

However, this time the article goes a little too far in the alarmist direction for my taste. First, let’s take the illustrations. Though clearly meant to show what girls are doing these days, they do little more than glamorize the very pictures is admonishes. Second, the article quotes the “statistic” that the average age of first exposure to online porn is 11 — and doesn’t cite the source. Probably because that statistic has long ago been criticized as being total bunk by highly reputable sources.

But mostly, this article bothers me because it simply presents problems (scandals, even) without offering any solutions. Yes, it may be true (we don’t have evidence, but it does make sense to believe) that higher access to pornography might create an inaccurate sense of what actual sex is supposed to be like — but what should we do about it? Can we have intelligent conversations with girls AND boys about how pornography depicts unrealistic expectations of sex in a classroom? At an after school program? Among family members? And yes — oftentimes the content of cyberbullying focuses on sexual rumor (just like gossip and bathroom wall graffiti in earlier times) — so why can’t we incorporate lessons on cyberbullying in a sex education classroom? And where is the dialog about healthy relationships? It’s missing from most of our lives.

To the author’s credit, the article does portray girls as having common sense to assess what is right and wrong to do both online and with a boyfriend, and as having a great deal of strength to fight the pressure they feel to sexualize themselves in ways they do not feel comfortable. So, let’s give these savvy youth a chance to educate themselves further and critically analyze today’s influences on their sex lives so that they embody healthy messages about their own sexual expression and relationships, and pass them on to their peers and partners.

CORRECTION: I misattributed this article to the NYT — It’s actually from New York Magazine. Big difference, and I apologize for the error. It does help explain the tone of the article, though!