Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series about teens, sex, and social media. Read the entire series here


Remember the thrill you felt when you passed a note in junior high math class?

The anticipation of getting a response to that note was almost too much to bear. Would the recipient of your rule-breaking correspondence reply positively? Or… oh no! What if he or she didn’t like you the way you liked him or her?

What if the person you thought you could trust with this most intimate glimpse into your heart’s desires took that carefully crafted note and taped it to the bathroom door – laying bare your soul for all the school to see. That would be the worst!

Yes, in 1989, that would be the worst. In 2016, that note would be a naked photo of you, snapped in a moment that felt brave and daring, and then sent with a light touch of a little circle on a screen.

And if things got really bad, that bathroom wall would be a Facebook wall, viewable by not only your entire school, but any of the three billion people worldwide with access to the internet.

Now that would be the worst.

According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 88% of teenagers in the U.S. have a cell phone, and 90% of them use their phone for texting.

Nearly three-quarters of teens (ages 13-17) visit various social media sites multiple times a day, and 33% use messaging apps like Kik, WhatsApp, or SnapChat.

This is all to say that a lot of your teen’s life happens through his or her phone. It’s very likely that most of what they’re writing, doing, and seeing on their phones is not concerning.

But it’s that relatively small percentage of highly inappropriate or downright scary-as-shit happenings – sexting rings, porn addiction, cyberbullying – that catch our attention and receive hours or pages of media coverage.

I’m generally of the mind that our fear-based mainstream media be taken with a hundred grains of salt or ignored altogether, but in the case of teens, sex, and social media, there’s a lot worth looking into.

Mainly because you – the parent – can help. The key is to approach these topics with an open mind and a little bit of context.

Sexting

A 2014 study out of Drexel University found that 28% of college students had sent a sext containing a nude or semi-nude photo before they were 18.

The same study also revealed that the average age of first sext was just under 16 years old, though some respondents were as young as 12 when they first sexted.

Kids who are busted for sending or receiving sexual or naked photos can face major criminal charges. Case law hasn’t caught up with this relatively new adolescent behavior, and so the criminal justice system does the best it can with the laws already on the books.

Some states rely on child pornography laws to prosecute such cases, which – in extreme examples – can lead to a 12-year-old being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his or her life.

Stephen LaTulippe is the director of the Community Justice Center in Williston, Vermont. He says Vermont tends to be more “forward-thinking” than some states, often referring first offenders to restorative justice programs like his.

But even in a more lenient state, the consensual sharing of nude photos is illegal for people under the age of majority.

If a minor receives a sext “and sends it on, without the sender’s consent, to a third party, it automatically becomes a felony,” explains LaTulippe. Sending that same image across state lines “really ups the ante. It becomes a federal issue: dissemination of pornographic material of an underage person across state lines. It becomes much more problematic,” he says.

teen in legal trouble from sexting
Illustration: Katrina Weigand

It’s easy to see how an unwitting teen could excitedly or nefariously blast a nude photo out to friends in other states or broadcast the prurient material on a social media site.

The potential legal ramifications of their actions are truly terrifying, but the likelihood that your child would face these dire consequences is quite slim.

Social repercussions, like shame and humiliation, are more common, as is a general feeling of regret. There’s also a high percentage chance that your teen will feel none of these things and fail to understand what the “big deal” is. (If this is the case, recall yourself as a teen and remember the things you did and said that your parents found shocking.)

Though it may sound crazy that almost a third of teenagers engage in sexting, psychologist Eileen Kennedy Moore points out in Psychology Today that this means more than 70 percent of teens DO NOT sext.

It’s not exactly the widespread phenomenon that many news outlets would have us believe, but it is absolutely a thing that sometimes happens among young people who may not fully comprehend what they’re doing, may be doing it for the wrong reasons, and have no idea of the potential long-range effects.

Porn

Speaking of long-range effects, Time magazine recently ran a cover story about young men who were teens just a few years ago, when online porn was so readily available to them that it turned out to be harmful.

There is now a (predictably debatable) condition called porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED) afflicting a subset of male 20-somethings who say that, due to the unchecked hours of time they spent watching online porn and then masturbating, they were only able to become aroused by porn. Real girls were not enough.

Researchers say this could be the result of unintentional conditioning. Cognitive neuroscientist Brian Anderson explains in the Time story that the visual nature of porn may make it particularly habit-forming. “There probably comes a point in time where you open up your browser and you just start thinking about porn,” says Anderson. 

The fact that viewers receive this form of stimulus through a computer, and that computers are essentially everywhere, compounds the problem yet again. 

Connect this neuroscience with the simple fact that the brain of a teenager is still deeply involved in the business of developing, and it’s easy to understand why some boys can’t stop watching porn, and then cannot achieve an erection without it.

violence against women in porn
Illustration: Katrina Weigand

Another important factor left out of the science is the fact that porn is overwhelmingly misogynistic. Peggy Orenstein, in her book “Girls and Sex,” refers to a study that found almost 90% of 304 randomly selected porn scenes “contained physical aggression toward women, who nearly always responded neutrally or with pleasure.” Orenstein goes on to say that some scenes also depicted women who beg “their partners to stop, then acquiesce and begin to enjoy the activity, regardless of how painful or debasing.”

While all this porn is doing some measure of damage to the brains of young men, it is simultaneously harming girls by presenting women as tools for male enjoyment versus wholly formed people with thoughts, standards, and desires of their own.

The subversive cruelty of porn is that it tricks both boys and girls (who aren’t legally meant to be viewing it anyway) into thinking that men are supposed to dominate, women are supposed to give in, and both parties should look a certain brand of ridiculous while doing it.

Okay, so, big picture, why is this an issue? Because in the absence of useful, honest, age-appropriate sex education in schools and homes, many teens turn to porn to learn about way more than the birds and the bees.

You cannot wait for institutionalized sex ed to step up and deliver the kind of knowledge your kids are looking for. It’s one of your responsibilities, as a parent, to teach your children about healthy relationships, open communication, and good sex.

Cyberbullying

While researching this story, the idea that struck me as most alarming is that any boy would think it’s okay to harass a girl for nude photos.

The slope from that point to rape seems far too steep. Research by the Urban Institute found that “96% of (dating) teens experiencing digital abuse and harassment also experience other forms of violence or abuse from their partners.”

Janine Zweig, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, explains that these other forms of abuse included psychological and physical abuse, as well as sexual coercion experiences. “The way we defined sexual coercion experience in this study was completed acts. So, not just the pressuring behaviors, but (teens) reporting that they were having sexual experiences that they didn’t want,” says Zwieg.

About one-third of teen victims of digital abuse reported being sexually coerced, a rate that is five times higher than dating teens who are not experiencing digital abuse.

This confirmed my fear that someone who feels okay about pressuring another person to send a nude photo or sharing that photo, without consent, might feel less inhibited when it comes to pressuring offline, too.

Information of this kind – the kind that feels scary and overwhelming at first – often presents a gift when you sit with it for a few minutes. The numbers and faces appearing in your mind’s eye will coalesce into a clear picture of empowerment. You have people to care for! And now you have a little more information to help you do just that!

Because you see, there are red flags, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll spot them. If your teen is on his or her phone late at night, behind a closed bedroom or bathroom door, she or he might be doing something unsafe. If their online behavior seems unsafe to you, there’s good reason for you to ask a few questions about their offline experiences.

While there’s no guarantee that your teen will immediately engage with you on the level you’re hoping for, a compassionate, curious, understanding approach will help make it clear that you’re available to them.

Put down your own phone, close the laptop, and reach out.

Our kids are not lost

The idea of speaking openly with your child about sexuality is scary to a lot of people. That’s okay.

Sex Education lacking in schools
Illustration: Katrina Weigand

There’s a very good chance that nobody covered the topic with you in a blunt and honest manner when you were a kid – especially if you live in the United States.

Our country came out of its great sexual revolution with very little lasting change to show for it. Conversely, the Netherlands experienced a similar renaissance in the 1960s and emerged with vastly different attitudes towards sex and sex ed.

PBS NewsHour reported last year that Dutch teen pregnancy rates are now five times lower than in the U.S., and rates of sexually transmitted infections are markedly lower, too.

Dutch schools utilize a comprehensive sexual education curriculum that begins in kindergarten; a program that’s supported in homes by parents who understand that their children are best served when sexuality is treated as the natural, normal, healthy part of living that it is.

And that’s the thing – your child will become a sexual being. It’s going to happen. It may be happening now. We went through it, as did every single generation of human beings before us. Curiosity led you to sneak a peak at your dad’s stack of Playboys hidden under the bed. Pubescent inklings led me to surreptitiously marvel at the illustrations in “The Joy of Sex.”

What’s different is that our kids have the internet, in all its stakes-raising glory. A whole lot of their life is lived inside the pages of that virtual world, so attempting to ban its use altogether, or to severely restrict their access, would be tone-deaf at best and destructive at worst.

This confluence of online access – to other people, to information and mis-information, to words and images that teen brains are not ready to adequately process – and a naturally budding sexuality creates the conditions under which sexting, youth porn addiction, and cyberbullying can prosper.

But the super important, often overlooked, third contributing factor is the dearth of actual human resources available to kids who genuinely want to talk about this stuff. That’s YOU.

You are the human resource your kid needs.

Compassionate parents provide a counterweight to the inherent pressures of adolescence. Our kids may not always feel the balancing power of our love on a conscious level, but maybe that’s the point. It’s just there – they don’t have to think about it.

By opening up to your children about sex, desire, relationships, and young love, you’re creating the space into which they will move when they need it most.