Parental Monitoring

I was struck by the findings of this research presented at the NetSafe Conference in New Zealand this week. According to a survey done by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), 70% of parents monitor their teens texts and 84% monitor their online usage (to what extent, I don’t know). Despite this high level of investigation (prying?), few teens were aware their parents were doing it — 70% of the teens didn’t know their phones were being monitored and only 39% knew that their internet use was being investigated by their parents.

Time for disclosure here: I am not a parent. I work with youth and young adults as a small part of my job, but that’s it. That said, here is what I think of these research findings:

The disconnect between parental “spying” and teen awareness of it, to me, is disconcerting. I remember that my parents would rifle through my backpack to get a sense of “what was going on” when I was in high school (this was B.I. — before internet). I had closed up as several teens do and I believe they were simply desperate for information. But as soon as I caught on to what they were doing, it only sent me further underground. I learned to better hide my secrets — my grades, my crushes, my hopes, fears, and desires. I felt betrayed and vowed not to tell them anything about what was going on with me and how I was feeling.

I am not saying my experience represents that of a typical youth today, but I do believe that there are some out there that are a lot like I was then. And, I admit, I needed help from a trusted adult back then. Finding out I was being spied on did not help that situation. So, I wonder: How would many of these young people react to discovering that their parents are invading their privacy without their knowledge?

I know some parents believe they have a “right” to do what they are doing, and are more often than not monitoring digital behavior out of love and concern for their children. I still don’t think it makes it right. And I do believe that for those young people for which there is something to be concerned, such actions could backfire big time. Research shows that youth who are struggling in the offline world are more likely to engage in risky online behaviors. Making the world seem less safe for them through spying seems that it could make matters even worse.

My hope is that parents and youth can somehow engage in more open dialogue. Easy to say, and an enormous challenge to actually do. Building the trust for this sort of conversation takes a lot of time and effort from all parties, but I believe it is worth it in the end. I know I would have benefited from this approach much more than I would have from backpack snooping. My relationship with my parents would have as well.

Safe navigation still should be the priority

Anne Collier of NetFamilyNews describes why sites like Skout are bad for teens. Yet, overall, we should still encourage our youth to navigate the internet safely and wisely.

Teaching safe navigation is a good point to stress given the fact that this study (condcuted by McAfee, the internet safety company: Bias alert!) states that many teens engage in behaviors that result in them hiding some internet usage from their parents. Overall, the results of this poll are not too surprising to me. I mean, really: young people hide parts of their lives from their parents! No! Do tell…

Of course youth clear their history, close their browser window (note: I do this reactively at work even if I am doing something legit!), and use non-monitored computers. They are (young) people who don’t want their parents to know everything! And you know what? Parents shouldn’t know everything. Parents do need to know the big, important stuff, but not necessarily the day-to-day feelings and situations that come and go fleetingly.  It’s important that young people have some privacy in their lives, too. So for PCMag to say that  young people are “fooling” their parents by using cell phones to go online and high privacy settings (!) — shame on them! That’s just irresponsible fear-inducing.

I also find it disappointing that this article also lumps in searching for “sexual topics online” (36%) along with surfing porn or “nude content” (32%)  and accessing violence online (43%) as “inappropriate.” Really? Getting some sexuality education is not appropriate. Sigh.

 

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.”

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.

Sexting Stats from a Stat Nerd

A new study from the University of Michigan provides us with some interesting information about sexting from the adult point of view. Some things I find a bit surprising:

  • Of the adults surveyed, 44% of adults nationwide believe that sexting is a very serious issue among teens. That’s less than half. So, overall message here is that adults aren’t nearly as concerned about sexting as other issues youth face.
  • Parents feel that they are the ones who should deal with the issue (93%) more than the teens themselves (71%), schools (52%), social networking sites (48%), or law enforcement (45%).

While this makes sense — parents feel they should be the ones their children go to, want to be the ones controlling messages about sexting and be the ones a young person reaches out to when something happens — I wonder how realistic this is. Are young people really going to go to mom or dad or other guardian if an incident around sexting happens? Are parents going to bring up the issue proactively? Research says no.

Although it’s been documented that young people whose parents talk to them about sex are less likely to have sex and when they do have sex it’s more likely to be safer sex, it’s also known that fewer than half of parents have a “sex talk” with their youth until after sexual activities take place (i.e., foreplay and/or oral sex). So, parents say the responsibility falls on them, but are they up for the task?

Parents need resources to tackle this issue. But, like talking about sex, the messages about sexting are equally complex and will depend on the values of the parents offering them. Some really basic tips:

  1. Learn what sexting is, and decide how you feel about it. You can’t have a good conversation about something without thinking about it at least a little bit first. Difficult conversations are made even more difficult without having some base to draw from.
  2. Don’t wait to talk about how you feel about sexting with your youth. Use media stories or this blog post to ask a youth about sexting in the abstract. Their thoughts about it, whether they know people who do it. Then share your own understandings and beliefs in a sincere and relaxing way. Try not to come across as too harsh in case you and your youth do not see eye to eye on the issue. And if the youth brushes you off, or the conversation goes badly the first time, that’s OK. Find a friend who will console you. Talk it out with a partner. Difficult situations don’t always go right the first time, and such “failures” help you get into the mindset that conversations aren’t one-time moments in a lifetime. Meaningful conversations are revisited and have history and longevity. Try again later. And again (after a period of time). Your young person will know it’s important to you.
  3. If they come to you in a time of sexting crisis, thank them for trusting you in this situation. Now is not the time to get angry or have “the talk.” This will be the time to offer support, love, and understanding that something happened and your child went to you for help. Feel honored that you have that relationship. Work out solutions with your youth. It’s probably best not to go behind their back on something. You want to decide together how to resolve the issue — whether to deal directly with peers involved, other adults, or even the police. But if you bring the law into the picture, know that there may be legal repercussions, which vary by state. Be careful you don’t inadvertently subject a minor (or young adult) to a potential sex offense charge when other solutions are available.

These three pointers are only meant to generate ideas of what to think about when it comes to discussing sexting with a youth. As a caring adult with young people in your life, you will need to spend time thinking about sexting and other sexuality issues on your own then determine how you think it’s best to approach them.

How much sexting? It all depends on who you ask

A recent study published in the esteemed journal Pediatrics reports that 9.6% of young people have sent a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves. This percentage is half of the often-reported statistic of 20% that was generated by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. So, what gives? Which number is closer to the truth? CORRECTION: In the Pediatrics study, the number of young people who report having actually sent a picture is only 2.5% — the other 7.1% received an image! Thanks to Larry Magid for pointing out the correction! Additional corrections will appear in bold.

Sampling gives some clue. The Pediatrics figure was generated from a sample of over 1500 10-17 year-old internet users, using random-digit dialing. They tried to get a good proportion of cellphone users only, but instead ended up relying disproportionately on land-line users. The Campaign figure was generated from a sample of 650+ 13-19 year-olds that come from a base of survey takers through an online marketing group. Results from the Campaign were weighted according to US Census numbers. The Pediatrics study did not weight data, though it attempted to create a representative sample. A quick look at the data shows that Hispanic and African-American youth are slightly over-represented. The two studies essentially asked the same question, so I don’t think the methodology is to blame for the difference.

So, an easy spot to see differences is in age. The Pediatrics study surveyed younger participants, so it makes sense that their percentage of sexters is going to be lower. And indeed, looking at the older ages in Pediatrics reveals that 2 of the 10-12 year-olds said they had sent or received a sext (constituting less than 1% of this subgroup), 11% of 13-14 year-olds have, and the number of 15, 16, and 17 year-olds who report sending or receiving sexts — 17%, 28%, and 21%, respectively (Note: The Campaign does not provide a specific breakdown of behavior by age). Now the data are starting to look similar, no?

There are other possibilities for the differences — a closer look at the racial composition of the surveys, for example, but that may lend itself to predicting slightly higher numbers for the Pediatrics study, as it appears Hispanic youth are more likely to sext than the other racial/ethinc groups (I would love to know more about this, but it doesn’t look as though there is enough detail to better understand this finding). The use of a group of teens willing to partake in online surveys may also skew the numbers of The Campaign findings higher — it’s easier to hide responses from parents, get permission to respond to the survey, etc.

But I think the first thing to do is focus on this age issue. Combining the results from these two surveys gives us an important message that we can act on. Going by the numbers from BOTH surveys, it looks like age 13 is when we should start to be concerned about sexting, and serious alarm bells should go off by the time the young person reaches 16. So, from a prevention mindset, we should start talking about sexting two years before it occurs. Health educators and prevention experts state that discussions about behaviors should begin at least two years before the behavior begins in order to get a healthy message across effectively and on time. Therefore, true prevention folks would target 11-year-olds in their anti-sexting messages. More tentative people better start the conversation by age 13 or 14, but even then that approach misses a lot of youth.

Curriculum designers take note! Sexting conversations should start around the 5th grade, and most certainly by 6th (the start of middle school). Parents be mindful! Sexting conversations can be woven into conversations about other sexual matters, or even be the springboard for conversations about healthy and unhealthy relationships. I hope more studies are done, but I love the fact that these two seemingly similar findings (despite media coverage stating the opposite), give us a solid direction and course of action towards better understanding this phenomenon that simply did not exist when I was younger.

Tooting my own horn — and finding it’s limits

I had the pleasure (and I mean it!) to work with Elizabeth Bernstein as she wrote her Wall Street Journal column, Skip the ‘Talk” about Sex, Have an Ongoing Dialogue. Bernstein was genuinely interested in conveying the best information on how parents should talk to their children about sex in the limited space of a newspaper column. And while my last quote is definitely truncated:

“[Parents] should talk more about pornography. ‘Talk to them about why you don’t like it: It’s unnatural and unloving,’ Portland State’s Dr. Gowen says” (What I said in my conversation with Bernstein was that pornography does not portray sex in a realistic manner, features bodies that are often artificially altered, and shows sex outside of the context of a loving relationship).

I think the overall messages about talking to children about everything and doing it on an ongoing basis came through loud and clear.

Then my phone rang.

I picked it up with my usual greeting and there was a parent on the other end of the line. He wanted to know more about how to deal with a sexting issue he was facing with his daughter (I didn’t ask for details). Although no expertise was attributed to me about this particular topic, it was mentioned in the paragraph where my pornography “quote” resided. So, by proxy I suppose, I was the person to call.

He wanted to know about resources for parents of children who have already been involved in a sexting incident. Despite my almost savant-like ability to quote statistics and resources related to youth sexuality (think Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds), I was stumped. I gave him some possible resources — MTV’s A Thin Line and Nancy Willard, and wished him the best.

Not satisfied, I got on Google and tried to uncover what I did not know. And discovered I was really looking for something that did not exist. To date, all I can find are resources (some much better than others) that give parents tips on what to do to prevent sexting, but not what to do once it already has happened. Which, in my opinion, is just as important. But most likely not something columnists and health sites want to think about.

Is this my new mission? Possibly. At least this void will stick with me for a little while.