Same news, different story

A recent presentation at the American Public Health Association Conference reported the differences in sexual behavior between youth that have smart phones versus less sophisticated ones. in a nutshell, of the teens (from LA) surveyed, those with smartphones were more likely to have sex, have sex without a condom, meet others online for sex, and be sexually solicited than teens without Internet access on their phones,

Although most press coverage consisted of the same content, the headlines varied greatly. The US News and World Report simply stated Smartphones linked to sexual activity in teens: Dull, but to the point and accurate. Kudos as well to the New York Daily News (yes, you read that right — they did good here) for having a slightly more sensational headline, but still getting the facts right:

Teens with Smartphones are more likely to be solicited for sex via the internet

Less responsible headlines included

Lead researcher Eric Rice of USC School of Social Work did a great job of representing his work accurately and was lucky enough to be quoted well in the articles at least. I continue to hope for a day when teen sexuality is NOT used to grab attention by being portrayed in a scandalous, irresponsible manner. If we want them to be mature about their sexual decision making, the least us adults could do is set a good example for them.

Isolating Our Youth

I wanted to reflect on danah boyd’s opening paragraph in her commentary on internet safety in the Boston Daily:

…” four generations of parents have slowly eliminated children’s freedom to roam in physical spaces. In turn, children and teens have turned to the Internet to reclaim social opportunities they’ve lost. In interviewing teens, I consistently find that they would prefer to get together in-person, but that parental fears, over-scheduling, and lack of viable transportation often make offline socialization difficult, if not altogether impossible. For many young people, social media fills this gap, and allows them to ‘hang out.'”

This is horrifying to me. As boyd articulates, this idea is nothing new. Joel Best in his book Threatened Children, discusses similar issues in the over-sensationalization of kidnapped children and how that spreads fear among parents. Are we really shutting our youth away from social experiences in the name of their safety? What long-term impact will that have on their relationships, sense of self, and confidence as they venture out into the world?

What I find somewhat ironic is that while we are simultaneously trying to “protect” our children from the big, bad, world, we are also dismayed by the amount of time they spend in front of media — especially television and video games — and how this contributes to an increase in obesity. Adults also bemoan the amount of disclosure and maltreatment that happens in social media (though boyd in her commentary tries to debunk some of that).

We can’t have it both ways. Either we need to trust young people to frequent social spaces in the physical world, or we need to allow them more freedom in the digital world. Or, ideally, both. Learning to trust young people and allow them to make healthy decisions is, in my opinion, the best thing we can do to support them in both the short- and long-term. As USC Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts  Henry Jenkins has stated:

“Kids don’t need us watching over their shoulders; they need us to have their backs.”

Twisted meanings don’t help us understand the reality

This news story I read today is a great example of how the media misuses research findings to increase fear/produce sensationalism. It’s about the association between youth exposure to online pornography and risky sexual behaviors.

The article references some research that finds that young people who see online pornography are also more likely to have higher numbers of sexual partners, to have participated in a wider array of sexual practices, and to drink and take drugs in association with sex. While this may indeed be true, by no means does it mean that viewing online pornography CAUSES a young person to do these other sexual things. It could just as easily be true that a young person with those sexual experiences is more likely to be drawn to online pornography.

While the article does mention that the direction of the association is unclear, it’s tone implies pornography is the cause for the rest of the behaviors. The quote presented from the research editorial is all-telling:

”There are … genuine questions about the potential for exposure to pornography at a young age to bring forward the onset of sexual activity,”

The word “potential” is key here, and I hope that readers understand that we simply do not know what the effects of pornography viewing are in the general population. In the meantime, let’s present things in a balanced way to decrease the chances of jumping to conclusions.

Readin’, Writin’, and…Sex?

Nice article in Salon challenging the “alarmist” findings that over half of young adult novels have sexually explicit content in them — which ranges from Rated G kissing to sexual intercourse. And, according to Salon columnist Tracy Clark-Flory, the study authors seem to find this problematic (note: I was not able to locate the study or even the abstract, so I am commenting on something through hearsay in this post).

I can only scratch my head in wonder over their concerns. Let’s see, what was I reading when I was a young adult? Oh yeah. There was the 1975 classic Forever, by Judy Blume, which told the story of a teen losing her virginity. Tame stuff. Then there were the VC Andrews books that made the rounds in my school — these lovely tales featured sexual exploration among siblings locked in an attic. Finally, there were Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, telling sexual tales of all sorts, including a relationship between two vampires — one of whom was embodied in a 8-year-old girl. While I admittedly have not read many of the young adult novels that are reviewed for this recent study, I cannot imagine the current sexual exploits are more fringe than the ones I read growing up. But correct me if I’m wrong.

And let’s not forget what teens are writing themselves. I wrote this post  sometime back about youth-authored fanfiction. If we shield teens from sexual content, then they are going to just make their own. Or find it somewhere else. So, let’s not be too concerned when a young person buries their nose in a book. At least their vocabulary might increase.

Huge increases in media use reported

A recent article in the New York Times highlights that teens are spending more time with media than ever before — an average of 7.5 hours a day. And, given that they can use several different types of media at once (listen to music while playing a video game or posting on Facebook), teens actually manage to bend time and get in nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours.

Heavy media use (defined as more than 16 hours a day!) was found to be associated with several negatives, including behavior problems and lower grades. So, the increase in media, at least in its extreme, may be cause for concern.

The study was conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has a strong history of researching media use and content. KFF is also known for its thorough analysis of the sexual content on television (the Sex on TV series). Major findings there include that the amount of sexual content on TV continues to increase, and that references to safer sex or sexual risks and responsibilities are rare (about 14% of sexual content alludes to them). The last Sex on TV report I could find was from 2005.

But maybe KFF realizes that those studies are outdated, and it’s time to look more closely at the sexual content of the digital media teens consume instead. I look forward to it!

MTV’s Take on Online Safety

MTV has released its A Thin Line campaign to stop the spread of digital abuse. Interestingly, in the “about us” section, it specifically mentions “forced sexting” as opposed to sexting in general. An interesting distinction considering even voluntary sexting covers its own risks such as unwanted forwarding of the picture (more than a third of teens report getting pictures meant for someone else according to the infamous sexting study by CosmoGirl) and even charges of child pornography.

Meanwhile, MTV has released its own data about digital abuse in youth and young adults through age 24. While I wish they reported the age categories separately, some interesting findings include:

  • 1/4 of respondents state they know about an incident where somone took a picture or video of another doing “embarrassing or private things without that person knowing” and then shared them without permission.
  • 18% received naked images of another on their cell or over email
  • 11% were “pressured” to send a naked pic or video of themselves
  • 3% reported posting naked pictures of themselves

While interesting, I look forward to a more thorough analysis of the data. Stay tuned!

Sexting — get the facts right!

This article from a smaller Minnesota paper highlights the same sexting research that all other news stories cover. However, I am calling this one out because of the inaccuracies of its reporting.

For example, the article quotes the following statistics:

  • One in five teen girls ages 13 to 16 say they have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves online
  • 33 percent of teenage boys ages 13 to 16 and 25 percent of teenage girls have had nude or semi-nude images – that were meant to be private – shared with them

Looking more closely at the survey itself, the numbers in this article are flat-out misreported. According to the actual report, 11% of 13-16 year-old girls have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves online. I can’t find within the report the parallel number for boys, but for all teen boys, the rate is 18% (compared to 22% of all teen girls, not just the younger ones).

The 33% of boys and 25% of girls who are sharing pictures is for all teens, aged 13-19, not for those aged 13-16. I could not find a separate statistic for the younger teens.

So, once again, news trumps accuracy in its attempts to send readers into panics. While I am not saying that the true numbers are to be ignored, I am saying that honest reporting of the issue would be a helpful step towards framing our approach to working constructively with youth to encourage safe and smart technology use.