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.

 

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?

When youth make their own sex ed videos…

Just wanted to share this video, written by youth from Teens PACT (Positive Action and Choices for Teens). Some say it sends the wrong message and promotes sex in its tongue-in-cheek humor. Others think the approach makes it more effective. I haven’t decided. Truth is, nothing like this in isolation makes for effective prevention, but I love the fact that these young people are getting creative in the name of safe sex!

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?

 

Do Teens Trust the Internet or Not?

No sooner do I post the results of a study that state most teens are “wary” of the sexual health information they find online, than a new study from north of the border comes out that states 40% of teens find the internet a more useful source than their parents. But beware, parents! Also from Canada is this finding — that 45% of respondents to an online survey consider their parents to be their sexuality role model compare to 32% who looked to their friends and 15% who use celebrities (at least we can take solace in that statistic!).

About 25% of respondents say the internet is a better source of information than their sex ed classes.

These studies may not be that contradictory, however. Both highlight the strong trust youth have in their school-based sex ed programs, and both do ultimately point to skepticism about the helpfulness and trustworthiness of the sexual health information found online. And the commonalities don’t end there — both report on relatively small sample sizes (though one is from the US and one from Canada).

As more evidence appears the picture may become less foggy.

Who can you trust?

A study of 58 teens found that about a third of them look up information about contraception online, and “most”  were “wary” of the accuracy of the information. Incidentally, these teens also said they get a lot of information about contraception from friends, but they are just as unreliable a source.

In contrast, teens said that they felt the information they received at school could be trusted. This is too bad, because many abstinence until marriage sex ed programs contain inaccurate information about condoms. And while parents are often cited as a source teens want to hear from, conversations between parents and their children can be awkward, few, and far-between. Also, it’s not really safe to assume parents have the information — after all, their parents probably did a poor job of talking to them and that ignorance is passed down from generation to generation.

So, where do we turn as parents or youth? Oh yeah, to the internet. It has all the information one needs. Or, you could always ask a friend.

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!