The story behind the story

By now, many of you have heard about the tragedy regarding Amanda Todd, the teen who took her life after severe cyberbulling. Her video, posted on this article about her, gives her own account of what happened, just days before she took her own life. I encourage you to watch it and “listen” to her story unfold.

What I believe may happen is a flurry of stories much like the one I posted above: the stories that talk about all the evils of the internet and how it is a dangerous place. What happened to Todd is horrible, but I want to highlight the two things that I hope are stressed and the ones I hope that are NOT brought to the front:

1. Media people — please see that this young woman was groomed by online chatters. It took her a year before she took off her top. What was shaping her life during that time? Who was (and wasn’t) in her life? Don’t just focus on the fact that she fell prey to an online stranger. Take a deeper look into how her situation was the result of a slow progression.

2. All of us — especially youth — why did you follow her from place to place? It was bad enough to bully her, but she moved several times to get away from it all. What, inside of you, possessed you to keep harassing and stalking her after she had left? This lack of humanity frightens me.

Things I don’t want focused on:

a. People figured out who she was. Yes, somehow, she was identified. But please don’t make this a scare-tactic story about stranger danger.

b. What she did was illegal. While it’s true that she could have been guilty of creating child pornography, I hope that the focus is on all the harm the other people did.

What’s going to happen now? Unclear. But I hope her story can be used to create dialogue about what can happen when harassment goes too far. There needs to be more forgiveness and understanding taught here. The basic lessons of being a good person.

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The desexualization of bullying

I was going to try to come up with a fancier more accessible title, but I can’t right now. But I sure better by May! I’ve been invited to speak at an bullying awareness event in Austin Texas this May. While I jumped at this opportunity to share my work (and support my friend who is organizing the event), I quickly realized that I am no bullying expert. But, for better or for worse, not being a total expert on a topic as not stopped me before…

I am an expert on adolescent sexuality and sexual development. I also have a pretty good handle on youth and technology and how that impacts their development (hence, this blog). So, how to use my strengths in the context of this upcoming event? Tie all of these issues together — sexuality, technology, and bullying. I have found my comfort zone!

What’s odd is that while so much of bullying has a sexual undertone or is blatantly about sex or sexuality or at least gender, most bullying curricula, anti-bullying campaigns, etc., do not acknowledge this important association. Bullying is seen as harassment, teasing, isolation, and assault. But under no circumstances should one put the word “sexual” in front of any of those terms and call it bullying.

Why this separation? Why not discuss sexual harassment while discussing bullying? Where is the conversation about sexual respect and self-worth in curricula that addresses the need to be nice to others? Are (anti) bullying experts afraid to talk about sex? Does it complicate things too much? Does it narrow their message?

Whatever the reason, I think it’s important to accept the fact that a lot of bullying has to do with sexuality. An obvious example is about name-calling due to sexual orientation and/or gender expression (and the “Think Before You Speak” campaign does a good job of calling this out). But what about sexting under pressure? Spreading rumors? Calling someone a ho or slut? These are unfortunately very common ways to bullying another, but where’s the conversation about the sexual components?

I hope to be able to speak more eloquently about this topic in the future. For now, I will continue to explore this rift and see if I can’t begin to bridge the gap between my interests and the important work done to decrease bullying among youth.

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?

 

How cool is "That’s Not Cool?"

There’s a new website — That’s Not Cool — sponsored by The Family Violence Prevention Fun, Ad Council, and the Office on Violence Against Women. It features pretty humorous, but somewhat cheesy, videos about “digital boundaries” — cyberstalking, sending nude pics (sexting), and other issues related to romantic relationships going digital. I really like this term, and hope to see more of it as adults begin to appreciate this issue.

One feature, “Pressure Pic Problem,” features the dilemma an apple (yes, a piece of fruit) faces when his friends pear and banana want him to get his gal orange to send nekked pics of herself. It’s interactive, sort of like a choose your own adventure game, so you can see how different situations play out.

Then there is guest video “What if?” created by YouTube celeb Brandon Hardesty. It discusses the difficult question “who to turn to” when faced with such pressures. And when I checked it out, it already had over 66,000 views!

All the videos I watched were silly more than funny, making me wonder who they will appeal to (get it? Appeal? See Pressure Pic and you will appreciate my lovely pun…). But I guess if they get anyone’s attention it is a good start to the conversation about how to set limits on communication in an era where we expect instantaneous responses and to be able to be up-to-date on EVERYONE’S business at the click of a button.

Gender Role Reversal

I can’t find much on this story from the Shreveport Times (Louisiana), but a 39-year-old female teacher has been arrested on cyberstalking charges for posing as a 14-year-old girl and harassing a 14-year-old boy through MySpace. According to the brief article, there is no evidence that the teacher and boy ever met face-to-face.

I think this is worth noting because we spend so much time worrying about girls as victims that we need reminders that boys can also be subject to such things. Outside of the extremely bizarre case of Mary Kay Letourneau and her former student and now husband, Vili Fualaau, this issue has been a completely non-issue but remains a lingering question: “Is a sexual relationship with a young male and significantly older female harmful?” There is all sorts of research on the negative effects of younger females partnering with older males (higher rates of pregnancy, sexual coercion, drug use…) but there is NOTHING on the opposite. I’ve looked. And wondered as a result. Which means that I am challenged by my own stereotypes and assumptions. I think that this large an age gap at this developmental time cannot be healthy. But is there evidence? That remains to be seen.