‘Sexting’ is typically referred to as sending a nude photo through a phone. There is nothing new about sharing a nude photo with a beloved. You just used to have to go to a seedy photography shop to get your film developed, or use a Polaroid and hand it over. The chances of lots of people seeing the photo were low. Remember needing to spring for double prints? Now, within seconds, thousands of people can see your nude photo depending on which app or website it gets uploaded to. Stats on the prevalence of sexting among teens are unclear, because studies range between 9%-60% (1, 2) of teens reporting that they have ever shared a nude image of themselves. So it’s difficult to tell how common sexting actually is. In order for us to address sexting in a realistic way with teens, we must first understand the sexual culture they live in that normalizes sexting.
(1) Mitchell, K. J., Jones, L., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J. (2014b). Youth involvement in sexting: Findings from the youth internet safety studies. Crimes Against Children Research Center, 1-11.
(2) Crimmins, D. M., & Seigfried-Spellar, K. C. (2014). Peer attachment, sexual experiences, and risky online behaviors as predictors of sexting behaviors among undergraduate students. Computers in Human Behavior, 32, 268-275.
(3) Walrave, M., Ponnet, K., Van Ouytsel, J., Van Gool, E., Heirman, W., & Verbeek, A. (2015). Whether or not to engage in sexting: Explaining adolescent sexting behaviour by applying the prototype willingness model. Telematics and Informatics, (April). doi:10.1016/j.tele.2015.03.008
(4) Vanden Abeele, M., Campbell, S. W., Eggermont, S., & Roe, K. (2014). Sexting, Mobile Porn Use, and Peer Group Dynamics: Boys’ and Girls' Self-Perceived Popularity, Need for Popularity, and Perceived Peer Pressure. Media Psychology, 17(1), 6–33. doi:10.1080/15213269.2013.801725.
(5) Ringrose, J., Harvey, L., Gill, R., & Livingstone, S. (2013). Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange. Feminist Theory, 14, 305-323.
(6) Milhausen, R. R., & Herold, E. S. (1999). Does the sexual double standard still exist? Perceptions of university women. Journal of Sex Research, 36, 361-368.
(7) Calogero, R. M., & Thompson, J. K. (2009). Sexual self-esteem in American and British college women: Relations with self-objectification and eating problems. Sex Roles, 60, 160-173.
(8) Grabe, S., & Hyde, J. S. (2009). Body objectification, MTV, and psychological outcomes among female Adolescents1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39, 2840-2858.
(9) Schick, V. R., Calabrese, S. K., Rima, B. N., & Zucker, A. N. (2010). Genital appearance dissatisfaction: Implications for women’s genital image self-consciousness, sexual esteem, sexual satisfaction, and sexual risk. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34, 394-404.
(10) Muehlenkamp, J. J., & Saris–Baglama, R. N. (2002). Self–objectification and its psychological outcomes for college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 371-379.
(11) Tolman, D. L. (2005). Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Harvard: University Press. American Psychological Association, T. F. O. T. S. O. G. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. APA Talk Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
(12) Sabina, C., Wolak, J., & Finkelhor, D. (2008). The nature and dynamics of Internet pornography exposure for youth CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(6), 691-693.
(13) Albury, K. (2014). Porn and sex education, porn as sex education. Porn Studies, 1, 172-181.
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Over my years talking with parents about sexuality, pornography and their kids, it seems as if everyone just wants to know what button to push, what software to buy, what technique to use, in order to ensure their child never sees porn, talks to strangers about sex online, or sends a “sext”. Let me be the first to say there is nothing a parent can do to guarantee their child will never do anything potentially dangerous online. There are however, steps parents can take that will drastically reduce the probability that a child will develop consistently problematic internet behaviors.
When it comes to porn specifically, I believe protecting and preparing children has less to do with managing internet access and more to do with being an approachable parent and talking about sex early and often in a positive way. Of course talking about porn helps too, which is why you should read part 1 and part 2 of this 3-part series.
When it comes to problematic internet behaviors generally (e.g. cyber-aggression, responding to sexual solicitations from strangers, engaging in sexting or webcam sex, exposure to violent or child pornography), I recommend first focusing on becoming a reduced-tech family. Putting more emphasis on the real world and less emphasis on cyber-reality can help kids and teens put their value and energy into their real lives and simply use the web as a tool to connect with others and learn about the world on an as-needed basis, instead of constantly drudging through the cyber-sphere searching for the next thrill.
Every family is unique, so you need to do whatever tech reduction works for you. The following are just some suggestions to get you thinking about what you can change about the technology environment in your household. Try something out and adjust as needed. For example, you might want to start out more stringent, and then allow more online autonomy as your children get older and demonstrate they can handle the responsibility. Regardless of how you’d like to implement a change, here are some tips to get you started:
1. Limit time. Help reduce problematic internet behaviors by reducing time spent online in a specific way. If you are trying to limit the use of technology in a general way (e.g. a few hours a day) it is easy to forget how much time you’ve been online on any given day. It is much easier to limit time by providing time windows when the use of the internet is allowed and windows where it is not, because it is difficult to forget that from 5-7pm there is no internet action going on in your household. You could also try a tech curfew (no internet after 7 or 8pm). Some families have found that having no tablet/smartphone usage from 5-7pm works, then they have a 30 min window to return emails, messages, and texts, and then off again at 7:30pm. There is also software which tracks time spent on Netflix, Facebook, Games, Word, Excel, etc…..and that is another way to monitor time spent on a computer doing recreational activities vs. homework activities. Whatever you choose, 24-hour unlimited access to the internet doesn’t mean we need to be online 24-hours a day. The internet isn’t going anywhere. We can take a break.
2. Limit space.Determining which areas of your house can be used to access the internet and which areas can’t be used can protect your children from developing problematic internet behaviors. It’s easy to sneak a peek at porn when at friend’s house or even in your own living room. However, it is really hard to masturbate to porn every day or to chat with a pedophile if there is no device to connect to the internet in your bedroom or bathroom. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to keep all devices that can connect to the internet in a public place. No laptops, tablets, or smartphones in bedrooms or bathrooms. They are not private devices, so they do not belong in private rooms. Here’s the catch: you should do this too. This is where I lose parents. You actually have to model this stuff in order for your kids to buy into it. Try to have a “home” for the devices such as a basket or cabinet (some families have a cabinet that locks for kids who sneak their devices at night). This sends the message that devices shouldn’t be attached to our bodies at all times just because they are portable. It also sends the message that these devices don't belong to the child, they belong to the parent who is allowing the child to use the device. You can also have other areas where gadgets aren’t allowed such as a dining room table or kitchen table. Try actually talking to one another while eating or actually concentrating on the food you’re eating. It’s kinda nice.
3. Limit access. You have to install computer monitoring software. I’ve had several parents tell me that they talked to their child about the internet, so they don’t need to install monitoring software. This is wrong. You do need to install it. And re-install it. Or filter the router. You can explain to your child that the monitoring software is not about their behavior, it is about the behavior of others….how others can find them online, or how pop-ups and viruses can occur when visiting certain sites, or how you can accidently end up on violent sites while doing research via google. There is software that can monitor PCs, tablets, and smart phones. There is also software where you can manually allow certain websites (e.g. sexual health sites) that may be automatically blocked. You can find more info here. Of course, there are ways for your child to get around most software, which is why you need to stay on top of passwords, scan for ghosting software, and re-install frequently. However, the more difficult you make it, the less likely he/she can be exposed to content for hours on end. And for younger children, the less likely they will come across bestiality while googling “my little ponies”. If you are concerned that your child is in consistent contact with adult strangers or is consistently visiting sexually explicit sites, you can always have your computer “read” by a professional and no amount of ghosting will be covered up…but I recommend being honest about that. Secretly recording a kid’s internet usage will likely do more harm to the parent-child relationship than good for the development of the child. Explain that they can do what they want on the internet once they’re an adult….but for now, because of the dangers online, it is important that you do what you can to keep them safe and healthy.
4. Teach accountability.When teaching your children about appropriate behavior at school, church, at a friend’s house, at home, or on the basketball court, make sure you also include the web. Cyber behavior should be thought of as an extension of the self…..or representation of the self. If you wouldn’t do it in-person, you probably shouldn’t be doing it online. Little kids understand this better than big kids who can think more abstractly and can rationalize their bad behavior online. One way to get your child to think about his/her online behavior is to have him/her make a contract. Here’s an example:
I won’t post mean comments/send mean texts
I won’t “like” or “favorite” mean comments or posts
I won’t visit websites that I wouldn’t visit with you behind my shoulder
I won’t post my address or phone number online
I will not friend someone I don’t already know in person
I will not distribute nude or sexy photos of other people
I will not send nude or overtly sexual pictures of myself
Now of course, I don’t actually believe that every kid will stick to everything in his or her contract, but at least you will have something in writing, so that everyone is on the same page about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.
5. Show respect for your child as a sexual being. This can include providing privacy (e.g. tell them you will always knock before entering their bedroom or bathroom); providing a diary or voice recorder to record their thoughts and desires; providing access to sexual health websites (have to manually allow if filtering); providing them with books about bodies and sexuality; allowing them to have private conversations with their friends on the phone and/or private time in-person, etc. This step is perhaps the most important one because it sends the message that your computer monitoring efforts aren’t about stifling their privacy or keeping them from figuring out their sexual self, it is about protecting them from all of the %@*! online.
6. Fill in with fun.Now that you’ve carved out some time where everyone won’t be glued to their devices, you can try some the following: paint, read a novel, play a board game, hang out in the backyard, take a walk, learn a musical instrument, grow a garden, get a basket-ball hoop and use it, set up a mini-golf course, visit a mini-golf course, organize a community garden, take dance lessons, meditate, go to sleep, write in a journal, make a collage, take up photography, floss, learn massage, volunteer at an animal shelter, adopt kittens, make your own yogurt, collect Fall leaves, go to a sports event, go to the theater, have a bonfire with s’mores, wash the car, write a poem, go to the zoo, ride a bike, bake cookies and give them to the neighbor, hand write letters and send them to friends, go fishing, make model planes and cars, de-clutter a closet or room, visit an assisted-living facility, make giant bubbles, have a yard sale and let the kids decide what to do with the profits, stargaze, make photo albums, build a snowman, go to the farmer’s market, learn magic tricks, put a puzzle together, take in a concert, do a fire drill, teach your kids about money and entrepreneurship, paint a room, adopt a family for the holidays, adopt a classroom and donate art supplies, learn how to change the oil in a car, go to a trivia night at a local pub/restaurant, fly a kite, research your family heritage and track down your ancestors, find shapes in the clouds, or play in the sprinklers.
I know, changing the tech environment is easier said than done. I have to constantly “get back on the wagon” once I notice that I’ve started bringing my iPad to bed, or we’ve started watching TV every night, etc. Just dust yourself off and try again! I hope you’ve found this 3-part series helpful. Please comment or email me about your experiences trying these techniques out and any experiences you had from initiating conversations in Part 2. Remember, usually kids (and adults) are irritable or even down-right angry with less tech, and then they start to realize how great reality can be. Let’s take the time to be mindful of how we as a culture raise our children and teach them about themselves, their identities, their relationships, and their sexuality. They deserve better! We can raise sex-savvy kids!
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Welcome to part 1 of my 3 part series on assessing and addressing pornography use with kids. It won’t be easy when you do, but you’ll be glad you did. Part 1 is about preparing yourself. It’s important for you to be an approachable parent, if you want your children to really keep you in-the-know about what they are up to in any area of their lives. Preparing to be approachable about porn can be difficult to say the least. You can start here with 5 ways to prepare yourself to talk about porn:
1. Get informed. Do some of your own research first. Porn is not the same as it used to be. I’m sure people have been saying that for decades, but seriously, it's not. There is quite a bit of evidence that porn has changed more in the last 10 years (since the advent of high-speed internet), than it has in the last 100 years (1, 2, 3). And before photography? Forget about it! It was incredibly rare to see erotica as it was mostly for nobility and rarely replicated (4). Once we began photographing and taping nudity and people having sex, it was very rare to see that as well. One had to go to a viewing parlor and later, a sex store...which were only located in large cities. It wasn’t until pornography was distributed via the mail that it became a common part of life for some men. And it wasn't until porn was distributed via the internet, that it became a common part of life for men, women, and kids.
The internet has changed the way people use pornography in 3 ways. The internet makes pornography available, because nearly everyone has internet access; the use of pornography has become anonymous, because one can access pornography without anyone else knowing about it; and the internet makes pornography affordable, because one no longer has to spend upwards of 60 dollars on a VHS or DVD as the majority of internet pornography is free (5). This “triple-A engine” is thought to explain why internet pornography use is more prevalent than pornography use through other media in the last decades.
The internet has created easier access to violent and aggressive pornography. Popular porn is no longer the depiction of people having sex on a blanket in the woods, who are roughly the same age, perhaps in their 30s or 40s, full on pubic hair, some belly rolls, floppy breasts. Now, that is called “vintage porn.” Yep. Porn from the 80's and 90’s is vintage! Content analyses (studies where scientists use coders to track frequencies of behaviors displayed in a sample of videos) have revealed that popular pornography has become increasingly more aggressive and violent in the last 20 years (6, 7). The most popular pornography today can be found on the top 5 most frequented porn sites are called “tube sites”. Appropriately named, because they operate just like YouTube. On these sites, everything is all mixed together, threesomes, BDSM, gang bangs, fake rape, bukkae, double penetration, ATM, etc. When pornography was distributed through VHS and DVD, it was difficult to track down anything beyond oral, vaginal, or anal sex. It was even more difficult to find aggressive material and it was very expensive to purchase (8). Now you have to go out of your way to find non-aggressive material.
Stats on kid’s exposure to pornography vary immensely and many studies are quite vague as to what the content of exposure actually is. A nationally representative study reports 40% of teens reported exposure to sexually-explicit content (9), whereas other reports indicate up to 70% of adolescents have been unintentionally exposed to sexually-explicit content (10, 11). Yet a non peer-reviewed source, the Internet Filter Review (2010), reports 90% of 8-10 year olds have seen pornography online.
2. Acknowledge what your relationship to and experience with porn is. It is likely that your introduction to and experience with porn is very different than what your child has or will experience. How old were you? Were you aroused? Did you get “caught”? Did you feel shame for being aroused? I encourage you to get to a comfortable and emotionally neutral place before talking with your child. Regardless of your own perspective on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of porn, if you are intensely emotional, it can create/increase shame. Shame and sex are a toxic combo that too many know all too well. We aren’t shamed into better behaviors. We just become better at keeping those behaviors a secret. It's important for you to get a handle on your own emotions, and put your own experiences in perspective to your kid's before you start talking with him/her about porn.
3. Acknowledge what your relationship to and experience with sex is. Whether you are aware of it or not, your children listen very closely to the messages you send about sexuality (even if those messages are non-verbal). What do you want those messages to be? Do you yourself enjoy sex? At what age did you
begin to enjoy sex? Were you shamed for your sexuality when you were a kid? What would you have wanted your parents to do or say to make you feel comfortable about your sexuality as a kid? Bottom line, be conscious of what you’ve said to your child or what your child has perceived. Talking about sex and
distinguishing sex from porn is crucial for preparing your child for a sexually satisfying future. Parental messages about sex, matter (12). Your emotional reaction to knowledge of their sexual behavior (masturbation or otherwise) could affect the way your child views him/herself as a sexual person. Here is a resource to learn more about talking with kids about sex from me, and another from Advocates for Youth. It's important to be conscious of what you've already said or done that may have created some sexual shame in your children before you talk with them.
4. Assess the level of a child’s porn use the best you can. Depending on how internet savvy you are, you can see what they’ve been up to online, or you can always hire a professional. You can also just ask, but kids and adults are rarely honest about their porn use. It can be alarming to discover your child has been looking at porn, especially if you know the type or extent of their porn use. Yet, it is important for you to remember that their curiosity is normal and this is not necessarily a sign of ‘problem’. It is a sign that your child has sexual desires and interests and deserves to know how to manage the reality of sexual experiences. It is your responsibility to give the right information and emotional support to your children so they can handle sexual experiences with ease and a sense of self-worth. Here are some general “levels” of porn use:
Curiosity. The majority of children access pornography on the internet out of curiosity (10, 11). When they are younger, they may want to know what boys and girls look like naked, or what sex looks like. After puberty, they might be more aroused sexually and develop exploration of how their body reacts and gets turned on.
Masturbation facilitation. At this level, your child has seen porn more than a few times and is intentionally using it to facilitate masturbation. This usually doesn’t happen in younger children, but I’ve talked with parents who have experienced this level of use with their 8-year old.
Risky Use. At this level, your child is seeking out porn despite negative consequences. They may be looking at porn on their phone in risky settings like school, at home with a sibling, on a parent’s tablet, on a friend’s home computer, etc. Or they might be watching porn when they are supposed to be doing homework or sleeping. At this level, the secrecy builds and the fear of “getting caught” adds to the thrill of the experience.
Problematic Use. At this level, your child is using pornography to regulate emotions or has adapted his/her sexual response cycle to porn (13). Some symptoms of this would be having difficulty reaching orgasm without looking at porn, using porn to fall asleep, feeling worse after using porn, thinking about porn when having sex with a romantic partner, and/or getting irritable without using porn for a period of time.
5. Practice discussing your concerns and perspectives. After you’ve become informed, analyzed your own perspective, and have a sense of what your child has already seen, you should practice discussing porn. If you think it is difficult to discuss where babies come from, it will be down-right painful discussing porn. So, it’s best to practice first.
Talk about what you do know to a partner, friend, or relative. Listen to each other’s perspectives and get some advice from people who know your specific situation. You want to wait until you are comfortable enough that you have a positive and caring tone. When discussing sexuality with your children, tone is often more important than content. Practice having a warm and non-judgmental tone. If you go at him/her guns blazing, you can almost guarantee there will be no future conversations.
If you are lucky, your child will ask you about your experiences with pornography and sex and what your perspective is on these topics, so you need to be prepared to answer those questions.
Stay tuned for part 2, where I will provide you with a whole lot of talking points and pointers, so you can have multiple conversations with your child or a child client if you are a practitioner. After that, part 3 will show you steps parents should take to change the tech environment in a household. If you don’t want to miss out: Sign up for my mailing list, follow me on Twitter, or like me on Facebook.
(1) Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the Internet: Surfing into the new millennium. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1, 187-193.
(2) Hyde, H. M. (1965). A History of Pornography. London, UK: Heinemann.
(3) Reist, M. T., & Bray, A. (Eds.). (2011). Big porn inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
(4) Marcus, S. (1974). The other Victorians: A study of sexuality and pornography in mid-nineteenth-century England. Transaction Publishers.
(5) Cooper, A., Delmonico, D. L., & Burg, R. (2000). Cybersex users, abusers, and compulsives: New findings and implications. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 7, 5-29.
(6) Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update. Violence Against Women, 16, 1065-1085.
(7) Brosius, H., Weaver, J., Staab, J. (1993). Exploring the social and sexual “reality” of contemporary pornography. The Journal of Sex Research, 30, 161-17
(8) Sunstein, C. R. (1986). Pornography and the First Amendment. Duke Law Journal, 589-627.
(9) Ybarra M.L., Finkelhor D., Mitchell K.J., & Wolak J. (2009). Associations between blocking, monitoring, and filtering software on the home computer and youth-reported unwanted expose to sexual material online. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33, 857-869.
(10) Brown J. D., & L'Engle K. L. (2009). X-rated: Sexual attitudes and behaviors associated with US early adolescents' exposure to sexually explicit media. Communication Research, 36, 129-138.
(11) Delmonico D., & Griffin E. (2008). Cybersex and the e-teen: What marriage and family therapists should know. Journal off Marital and Family Therapy, 34, 431-444.
(12) Darling, C. A., & Hicks, M. W. (1982). Parental influence on adolescent sexuality: Implications for parents as educators. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 11, 231-245.
(13) Young, K. S. (2008). Internet sex addiction risk factors, stages of development, and treatment. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 21-37.
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Before one of my workshops, a mom once told me, “I’m not worried about porn, I check under my son’s mattress all the time, and nothing is ever there.” Suffice it to say, she had a lot to learn. Long gone are the days of finding a Playboy in your brother’s closet or a “dirty movie” in mom or dad’s sock drawer, or sneakily changing the channel to “Skinimax” for 5 minutes at a time, hoping no one comes downstairs to see what you’re up to. Now, kids have access to hundreds of thousands of hours of free porn, and not just “regular porn”, but the kind of stuff that would have taken someone months and lots of $$$$$ to track down prior to the internet.
If you are a parent, you not only have to be prepared to explain basic sexual behavior, but now you might also need to explain bestiality if your kids googles “My Little Ponies”, gang rape if your kid googles “The Big Bang”, and same-sex orgies if your kid googles “Dicks” trying to find the website for Dick’s Sporting Goods. In response to this conundrum, it seems that the culture’s reaction to teens using internet porn is that of moral panic or naïve resignation. Neither perspective is contributing to much-needed progress toward preparing our youth for safe and pleasurable sexual experiences across their lifespan.
As a developmental and prevention scientist, I believe in trusting and using evidence-based programs for behavior-change. However, as a sex educator, I know that we cannot wait 5-10 years for a truly evidence-based program that prevents internet-related sexual problems in children. As a result, I cover specific steps parents, counselors, and teachers can take to assess and address pornography use among youth from a positive sexuality perspective, in order to foster sexual and romantic competency in our youth. I’ve put these steps together from evidence-based parent-child sexual health interventions. Over the next 3 blog posts, I will package this information in such a way that is specific enough for you to know exactly what you should do, but variable enough to apply the steps to boys, girls, older kids, younger kids, and kids at different stages of sexual experience. Here is how it will be broken down:
Part 1: Preparing yourself to assess and address pornography use with youth. This blog post will teach how to get ready both intellectually and emotionally to broach the subject, how to assess the extent to which the child is using porn, and practice what you will say and how you will react.
Part 2: What to say and do during (multiple) conversations about pornography and sexuality. I’m not a fan of “the talk”, when it comes to sex or porn. Sexuality and pornography are way too complex for 1 conversation. This blog post will provide multiple talking points with links to supporting information and even kid-friendly resources to explain what porn is, how it is different from sex, and how one should navigate real sexual experiences and keep the porn experiences in perspective.
Part 3: Changing the tech environment. This post will teach you how to change a household dynamic so that everyone isn’t glued to the internet all day long. I will also cover what types of monitoring software you should install, how to get kids to think about their “cyber-self”, and how to draw boundaries around internet use. In this post, you will also learn how parents can give children the respect and privacy they deserve as sexual beings. These steps are meant to help parents demonstrate that the internet is a public place, the majority of internet content is not meant for kids, kids need privacy to figure out their sexual selves, but ultimately adults should monitor online behavior until kids are adults and can choose their own online activities.
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Get ready to foster some sex savvy kids!
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About this Blog:
I'm here to help us discuss sexuality, gender, sexual media, and social media by integrating information from academic and mainstream sources. I do this so you can be informed about what is going on in the sex research world and apply the research to your life. I hope this process produces more sexually competent people who raise sexually competent kids.
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