Having “the Talk” gets more complicated — but not impossible

A great article in the New York Times discusses what to do if your child views online pornography — either intentionally or not. At this point, seeing online pornography, as quoted in the article, is practically “inevitable.” No amount of filters, Net Nannies, or other software is going to prevent at least some sexually explicit images from finding their way to the front of a young person’s gaze. And since schools aren’t going to introduce this topic into their sex ed anytime soon, it’s up to parents and other adults to be the educators here.

So, what to do? The first thing (and probably the hardest!) is to act calmly. Freaking out doesn’t help in most circumstances, and rarely in this one. Sexual curiosity is natural. Remember when you were younger and flipped through a Playboy or even a National Geographic in hopes of seeing nude images? What’s very different today is that more “hard core” stuff is more readily available and it’s more likely that a young person — even if he or she is purposefully looking for sexual content — is going to get more than they bargained for when clicking on some links. So, when you learn that your child does see something explicit, take a deep breath, know it was bound to happen, and be grateful that you have the chance to debrief them on what they saw. Really.

Other things to discuss? It’s important to discuss the business and biases of pornography. Porn is not real sex, and the people in it are not real (in that the images have been very altered if not the bodies of the models), and the messages about sex and sexual desire are not real…you get the idea. Porn is fantasy, not reality, and when a young person is exploring sexuality, it is very important to get that message across.

Marty Klein, esteemed sexuality educator, offered the following key points to consider in a blog post on Net Family News:

  • “It’s fiction, not a documentary”
  • Those are “atypical bodies” and “atypical activities”
  • “It’s edited” or “photoshopped”
  • “Adults play sex games”
  • “Different people relate to porn differently – how does it affect you?”

Ideally, you will have a few casual conversations about pornography before being faced with a need to immediately address the issue. But even if you have your first conversation in a “intervention” moment, try to embrace the chance to talk to your child about how healthy sex and sexual expression are not what they just witnessed. They’ll probably be relieved to hear it.

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New Standards for Sex Ed: Where’s the Tech?

On January 9th, 2012 the first national standards for sexuality education in schools were released. These standards were established through a collaboration among the American Association for Health Education, the American School Health Association, the National Education Association Health Information Network, and the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education, in coordination with the Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Initiative.

As a sexuality educator, I am very excited to see these. They give schools a place to start when wondering what to teach and when. It guides people through age and developmentally appropriate, evidence-based, medically accurate, sexuality education guidelines — and manages to do so in a manageable 40 pages or so.

The highlight for me was the fact that by the end of the 8th grade, the Standards suggest that young people are able to recognize, analyze, and negotiate the role that technology plays in relationships (p. 18). They also suggest that young people learn how to negotiate technology  use in their relationships. These lessons are to be repeated (and most likely beefed up) during the high school years (p. 33).  It’s important to bring up topics like cyberstalking and online romances into the classroom — it allows young people to understand what a healthy relationship looks like. The Standards also clearly state that both the “advantages and disadvantages” be discussed, hopefully steering educators away from fear-based messages, which simply will not work.

And while I applaud the Standards for highlighting the need to teach young people the role that technology plays in shaping and influencing relationships, I feel they fell short of integrating technology into the standards. What about using the internet as a resource to access information? Use cell phones as a tool to help them maintain sexual health? Yes, there is a brief mention of technology when discussing how media influences perceptions of sexuality (p. 11), but I don’t think that statement goes far enough. I think it’s about time that the internet get it’s own category, instead of incorporating it under the generic “media influences” where it can easily be over-looked in favor of TV and music.  I also think there needs to be an explicit standard that would have young people learn the proper ways to search for accurate and reliable information online.

So, yes, the standards just came out. But when is the planning for the first revision coming out?

 

A Youth’s Voice Rings True

Thanks to my Google News Alert, I was notified of this wonderful post by Layla Smith, a HS youth in Maryland. Her article, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” is about how technology has changed the way teens live. And, if my interpretation is correct, she seems to believe that her generation is faster, more immediate, and as a result, she feels less in control of her life.

Her opening paragraph sums it up quite well:
“Today, we live in a generation where everything is not what it used to be. Today’s teens want things bigger, better, and faster, with a constant need to be entertained and fascinated. If these criteria aren’t met, it just seems wrong.  With this fast-paced generation out there one question comes to mind:  Do parents really understand what it’s like to be a teenager during these rapid changing times?”

The rest of her article goes on to somewhat blame adults for a youth’s need to have everything right here and right now. To some extent, I can perceive this as “typical” adolescence, where a somewhat developmentally egocentric mind feels that her problems are larger than life, and not her fault. But, then again, Ms. Smith has a point — as she writes, teens did not make all this new technology: adults did. And, most of the marketing and hype that has been generated around all these new gadgets is the product of adult minds whose primary goal is to sell things to teenagers by convincing them that it’s essential to participate and purchase in this new technological world.  And, given that teens are socialized to believe that fitting in and looking good matter …is it their fault that they buy into the madness? Smith states, “As teens, we can’t control everything around us, and sometimes we have no other choice but to follow what is happening around us…This generation, Generation Z, seems to be completely unsheltered; everything is pushed in our faces and the only choice is to accept it.” 

While I am still pondering whether or not teens have a real “choice” as to whether to accept or reject all this technology and its related promotions, I do know that if the thoughts of this teen ring true with many of her peers, then we as adults need to find out how we can best serve these youth by telling them it’s OK to step back, slow down, and ask themselves how this technology can best meet their needs and support their lives.

Reading Between the Lines

I’m currently reading a dissertation as part of a reading committee. While I don’t want to reveal too much (there’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s not my work to release), I will share one point that has me thinking. In the author’s analysis of why the internet is conducive for fostering intimacy, she notes that even in the “lean nature of a brief electronic note,” much can be said. In other words, we can read a lot into what is there, and feel the connection between another.

While I think this can be true, I also believe something else can happen: we can read a “lean” message and OVER-interpret its meaning. After all, sometimes a brief message is just that — and there is no deeper meaning behind the words. I can see youth falling victim to something along these lines when getting a note from a crush or potential friend — maybe because when I was young, I was vulnerable to this. I could dwell on the smallest little interaction, searching for the meaning behind it while the person in question had long since forgotten it: after all, there was no meaning to be had. I have since seen this tendency when I was a sexpert/relationship advice person for teens. One of the most common questions I would get from youth all over the country was simply this: “does (s)he like me?” Of course, there was always a story to accompany the question, that went something along the lines of:

“I like this guy and I want to know if he likes me. Today, at our lockers, I dropped my book and he picked it up for me and smiled. I thanked him and he said he would see me later. Then, in math class, I think I thought him looking at me. I think about him all the time. Just yesterday he even sort of waved at me in the hall! What do you think? Should I ask him out?”

This was in the early stages of the internet (1998-2000) and IM was alive and kicking, but not in full swing. I can’t imagine the context I would have gotten along with these questions if there was extensive IM conversations involved. I simple 🙂 would turn into “he likes me;” a long conversation online might turn into a meaningful time together, when it was simply something to do while working on a homework assignment or talking to nine other people that night. Or, it could indeed be the start of a new love. We simply don’t know. When is lean, lean and when is it packed with inneundo and implication? And can we really ever tell without, well asking and as a result taking away the brevity? I’m not sure if we can, but I do believe it’s another layer we need to better understand if we are to appreciate how online communication shapes love and relationships.