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By the time they reach adolescence, most children are familiar with the perils of driving a car: they’ve been harnessed into car seats and squeezed into seat belts, witnessed near-collisions, and heard their parents bemoan careless drivers.
And yet when kids log on to the internet for the first time, it is rare that they have received anything close to that level of parental guidance.
“We would never put a child in a driver’s seat and just say, ‘OK, go,’” says adolescent health and sexual health expert Sophie Godley. “We have constant conversations. We model behavior for them.”
Not so with laptops and smartphones, which have become so ubiquitous among tweens and teens that parents and school officials are scrambling to keep up. Studies indicate that close to 80 percent of young people between 13 and 17 have cell phones, and 71 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds report using social networks. A recent study found that about one in five students between 15 and 18 say they have sent a nude or seminude picture or video, or a sexual text message, to another person.
Godley (SPH’15), a School of Public Health clinical assistant professor of community health sciences, has been issuing a call to action to campus, community, and parent groups: if parents and other caregivers don’t guide their children through cyberspace, with its vast trove of sexual content, they may find themselves in confusing—even potentially dangerous—situations.
“If you don’t talk to your children about sex and sexuality and body image and behavior, other people will,” Godley says. “We can’t compete with these messages in one 20-minute health class in ninth grade. It’s not going to happen.”
Bostonia sat down with Godley, who recently received SPH’s 2013 Educational Innovation Award recognizing creative approaches to teaching, to discuss the risks adolescents face and the best practices for social networking.
Godley: Social networking has completely changed the way teens and young adults interact with one another. For one thing, there is a public nature to what used to be private conversations. I don’t think there is evidence that social networking increases bullying, but it makes it very public. The shaming, teasing, tormenting is all public fodder—and there is no space for private anguish. Teens also never get away from it—you don’t go home from school and get away from people who are being hateful. They are still with you—on your computer, on your smartphone.
The other real issue beyond bullying is that teens have a natural inclination to believe they are the stars of the party—always on stage. So, Facebook, formspring, tumblr, and other sites become a natural extension of that drive to overshare and expose themselves. We need to support teens to make wise choices about how much they put online about themselves.
I worry a lot about teens’ and children’s first images of sexuality coming from the billion-dollar porn industry. It’s one thing to encounter porn as an adult, but it’s completely different for a young person to be bombarded with completely unrealistic fantasy, male-view sexuality. There are implications here—boys and men start to have expectations about how women and girls are going to behave and how they are going to look. And young girls internalize those images of what it means to be female and start to think they have to behave and look that way, too.
I always say to adults and parents who work with and support teens that as adults, we know that sometimes sex is messy or awkward or funny, or that our noses bump when we kiss—but in pornography, that is all stylized and vanishes. Only the genitals touch in pornography, in order for the camera to get the best “shot.” Is that really what we want our young people to think sex is like—devoid of loving touches, or hugging, or holding?
I think there is a grave danger in setting up expectations for young people that sex is going to be like what they see in pornography. I think the expectations for gender roles are enormously troubling. And we are not talking about brief, fleeting images. We are talking about relentless, 24-hour-a-day images that are reinforced in TV, music videos, popular music, video games, movies, and other online images. The media is oversexualized, and deeply sexist.
I’m not saying in any way to outright ban online social interactions for young people. Instead, I think we need to think of the internet, and social networking in particular, as a new city.
As a parent or an aunt or an older brother, you would never take your 12-year-old to the edge of a new city, drop them off, and wish them luck. You would go with them, show them around, give them a number to call if they get lost or scared. You’d warn them about the places to stay away from, the areas that might be fun, the areas that are confusing. You might even have rules about how long they can go into this city and where they can visit. You might decide you have to go with them the first few times they venture in.
On the positive side, the internet has provided a safe space for some acutely vulnerable young people to build community. Young people who are coming out sexually and live in rural or isolated places can find other young questioning people to connect to and reach out to. We’ve seen movements such as It Gets Better by Dan Savage that show young people positive role models, to counter negative images they may be getting at home or at school. So there is definitely a positive side, as well.
I would strongly recommend bringing the computer out of the bedroom and back into the kitchen, where parents, other children, other adults are interacting and walking by. The internet use can be monitored, and the expectations can be clear.
I say wait as long as possible on the smartphone. You are essentially putting a new universe in your child’s pocket. They need to show you they can handle that world, and all its temptations, before you give it to them.