New Research Shows Teens Actually Like Each Other For Reals — Not Just Digitally

New research from Common Sense Media outlines some interesting numbers regarding teen media use. Sure, they use it a LOT, but do they prefer it to quality face time? Apparently not (phew!).

Here’s the cool infographic that sums up a lot of the results.

Stephen Balkam CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute writes a great editorial about it and his own observations in the Huff Po.

My favorite quote is this: “Intriguingly, teens do value face time over screen time, which seems wonderfully reassuring with good old-fashioned talking coming out on top with texting next. Teens express frustration with their friends when they pay more attention to their gadgets than themselves. As a parent, I feel your pain. And just over a third wished they could go back to a time before Facebook.”

I have a group of friends with whom I often dine. As a ritual, we stack all our phones in the middle of the table to show that we are here, now, for the present company. Would be neat to see young people do something like that too.

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Teen dating websites: A good idea?

News about Skout.com being used by online predators to lure underage youth has been all over the place lately. Luckily, many experts such as danah boyd, David Finkelor any Larry Magid are chiming in on this issue with their less-panicky perspectives on what is happening concerning youth exploring online, interacting with others, and staying safe. One quote, by Finkelhor, seems to be making the cut in most of the news items I have read:

“If someone wants to help teens do online dating, it needs to be carefully thought out with a lot of education, cautions, abuse detection mechanisms and quality controls.”

Is it just me that’s all excited about this possibility? I mean, really, could we actually develop a SMART teen dating website? One that has the usual online dating stuff, but also includes material about healthy relationships, some educational stuff, and a whole lot of acceptance? I am giddy at the mere thought of it.

I am also realistic, however, and do realize it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen — issues related to age of consent/statutory rape, privacy concerns, bullying, sexting. But I can’t help but imagine a time where such a site could happen, be used responsibly and successfully. How far off into the future is it?

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.”

Teenage insecurities

I am dealing with my own struggles these days, and I find some are exacerbated by social networking. Note how I say that these issues are “exacerbated” not “caused” by social networking. I believe there is a big difference.

A November 2011 article in the Huffington Post brings it home for me. Titled Life is Not a Popularity Contest, it hones in on our desire to have more friends, see and be seen, but at the expense of true connection. Dr. Brene Brown distinguishes this as belonging (what we should aspire towards) vs. fitting in (what we end up doing when we simply collect people into our databases instead of truly getting to know them). Actually, Dr. Brown goes beyond this. She states that it is important to be true to yourself instead of always trying to please others, or at least make them happy. But our fear of being disliked, forgotten, or simply ignored pulls us into this pattern of simply being seen as someone who is nice to be around. Which ultimately harms are own senses of self and authenticity.

Social networking allows us to share and check in with so many people, but not necessarily connect with them. Connecting takes time, vulnerability, and mutuality. “Hoarding” friends, as the HuffPo article discusses, is no way to do that. All it does is fill a void with nothing cleverly disguised as substance. Much in the same way that junk food may fill, but never nourish.

But I don’t think this issue is unique. Back when I was a youth, before social networking, I still felt the need to be a part of something. THE party, the inside joke, the more desirable crowd. This yearning to “fit in” did not surface with Facebook (or even MySpace or Friendster); it’s always been there. Brown argues in her book The Gifts of Imperfection that our need for connection is innate. But social networking makes fitting in easier and easier, which further distances ourselves from real connection.

I remember getting to know people in the true sense of connection when I was in college. The all-night talks in a dorm hallway. Going up to the foothills for the day to just be with others. Those days are long gone for me, but it’s best if I remember them so I do not fall into the trap of collecting rather than connecting. Especially since connection is what I need most right now. So, bring on the walks, the Happy Hours (adults only, please), and silly times. And while I still make “like” your post, I will also try a little harder to realize that doing so does not mean I actually reached out to you that day.

 

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.

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!

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.