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.


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.

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.

The research on internet porn and youth: Couldn’t have said it better myself…

…so I won’t :-). This article from the Chicago Tribune pretty much sums up the lack of research regarding whether viewing online porn impacts young people. The quick answer?  We don’t know. Evidence is contradictory, and research is lacking in anything that can lead us to causality (e.g., do sexually “callous” youth look at porn, or does looking at porn make youth more sexually callous?). So, what we’re left with:

  1. Viewing online pornography is very common among young people.
  2. Some studies link viewing online porn to less than desirable characteristics in youth (such as being socially isolated and using substances)
  3. Online pornography is a lot more graphic than the readily-accessible porn of previous generations.
  4. Despite commonality of online porn viewing, young people report being more sexually conservative than in recent years.

In other words, not much and what we do know leaves us confused. But for now, there is no reason to assume that online pornography is harmful to youth overall (could be harmful for some youth, however). Yet there is no evidence that says it’s helpful, either (doubt anyone would ever get funding and permissions to research that concept).

Fandom + internet = new lows

Here’s another example that supports my belief that the internet does not really offer up anything new when it comes to youth expressing their sexuality, instead simply repackages old phenomena — albeit sometimes in an amplified format:

Teens in Mexico are allegedly auctioning off their virginity in order to score Justin Bieber tickets. This horrifies me in many ways. The obvious one: Justin Bieber. Really? The second one: the concept that sex is seen primarily as a commodity. Auctioning off one’s virginity is not a new idea, but what I don’t like is that there are so many messages nowadays that stress sex as a product more than an experience people share with each other. This concept can be seen in both the abstinence-until-marriage movement as well as the “pornification” of youth today. The third one: That the news would choose to cover this idea, which in and of itself glamorizes the situation. I guess I’m to blame now, too, since I am calling attention to it by writing about it. My bad.

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!

Pornography Support to Effect Planned Parenthood Funding

Conservative, pro-life government officials like Steve King* of Iowa and Joseph Pitts* of Pennsylvania are asking for federal funding to be pulled from a Planned Parenthood subsidiary – the website TeenWire – as it recently posted an article which seems to promotes teen use of pornography. According to Planned Parenthood’s 2005-2006 Annual Report, they received approximately $305 million in federal funding, and when there are no federal programs out there which promote comprehensive sexuality education (teaching about abstinence and contraception), representatives are apt to frown upon monies being used for that purpose.

Unfortunately, even for this free-sexuality-expression supporter, the issue isn’t black and white. While I support the encouragement of masturbation and outercourse for teens in relationships looking for sexual gratification, backing underage pornography viewing is dangerous territory. TeenWire’s piece on Birth Control Choices For Teens encourage “safer” sex with by suggesting using fantasy in relationships: “many couples can read or watch sexy stories or pictures together. They can also share or act out sexy fantasies. People do it in person, on the phone, surfing the Internet, or through e-mail or instant messaging.”

Another advice piece, Porn vs. Reality, reminds readers of the site (which is geared to “to provide medically accurate sexual health information for teens on the Internet”) that it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to view pornography. However, TeenWire also acknowledges that not everyone follows the rules and then provides a pseudo-warning; “people have different ideas of what is arousing, and there are many different kinds of porn that appeal to people’s different interests.”

Akin to abstinence-plus sexuality education, this “warning” acknowledges that just because teens are told not to do something doesn’t mean that all of them are going to obey (and that they should be careful looking for porn as they might come across something they don’t want to see). TeenWire offers a disclaimer or sorts for those that are unwilling to follow the rules; but does this promote more underage pornography viewing? Opponents to broad sexuality education argue that teaching teens about sex leads to more sex; but what do you think? Does teaching teens about pornography lead them to use more pornography?

A link to the original article that prompted this entry.
Dr. Karen Rayne helps a teenager at her church buy a vibrator.
Reproductive Health Reality Check addresses the defunding of Planned Parenthood’s preventative health care measures.

*Specific representative names found on this article.