Most children are exposed to Internet pornography (porn) and partake in “sexting” (sending sexually explicit photos or text messages) before reaching the age of 18 (Strohmaier, Murphy, DeMatteo 2014). While the harmfulness of these behaviors can be (and is) intensely debated, their pervasiveness is evident.
Critics of Internet pornography point out that nearly 90% of porn contains violence against women in some form and using porn has the potential to affect capacity for intimacy. Critics of sexting reference the potential for exposure, embarrassment, bullying, and even legal consequences. Others, however, contend that both behaviors are simply today’s digital version of sexual exploration, a normative part of growing up. They suggest that worry is unnecessary and that imposing legal restrictions are likely to backfire.
So, what to do? The Youth Risk and Opportunity Lab, headed by Janis Whitlock here at Cornell, sought to find an answer. Along with her colleague, Jane Powers, Whitlock launched a study aimed at better understanding the way youth, parents of youth, professionals who work with youth view and respond to the way youth see and explore sexuality in the digital age. A lab member before me, Callie Silver, spent time interviewing youth and documenting their perspectives, while I talked to parents and youth educators about their approaches. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and reviewed; common themes emerged!
Opinions varied widely among parents – some saw Internet pornography as new and dangerous, while others viewed it as simply this era’s version of something that has existed forever. Approaches to parenting differed, as well. Some parents talked to their children about the existence of and potential problems with Internet porn, but were otherwise very hands-off about the way their kids approached Internet exploration. Some didn’t speak to their kids about the topic, worried that they would go looking for the material. Some requested their children leave their phones downstairs at night and kept family computers in public areas of the house. Still others forbade personal phones entirely and read through messages and browser histories on family devices.
Interestingly, youth educators were less divided. While the survey results showed some variation in perspective on this topic, every person I spoke to during the interviews was sure that it was impossible to keep teenagers from accessing Internet porn – whether intentionally or unintentionally. They advocated for conversations between parents and children about the topic. Especially important, they said, were explanations of how sexual interactions depicted in Internet porn were not realistic; many youth educators spoke of young women using pornography as a “how to” and young people of both genders comparing sexual experiences to those that they had seen online.
Overall, the concerns of youth educators centered mainly on sexting – especially any sharing of compromising photos or videos. Many expressed the opinion that sexting is normal and can be pretty harmless, especially when it consists of explicit text messages, instead of photos and argued that it was, like Internet pornography, just this generation’s version of what has been done for centuries. The trouble, many often indicated, begins when young people choose to take and send nude or semi-nude pictures. Youth educators pointed out that youth are often unaware of just how varied and severe the consequences can be. Sexting can result in embarrassment from others via trends such as “make her famous,” which encourage individuals to post compromising pictures of their unfaithful partner. Nude photos are also frequently distributed widely across social media, via text message, or other websites, and stored in secret apps on personal cell phones that appear to be calculators or other benign applications. In addition to embarrassment, criminal consequences were cited as a concern; some youth, once caught, have been convicted with child pornography charges and forced to register as a sex offenders.
Youth educators and parents both often felt that youth did not understand the possible consequences of sexting. Youth frequently believe that the recipient of compromising material loves them and would never expose them – publicly or otherwise. Educators emphasized the importance of the dangers of sexting being added to health curricula. Sex education, they pointed out, would be incomplete without a discussion of the Internet, where so many sexual behaviors take place.
All youth educators agreed that intense parental surveillance backfires. The consensus was that it was impossible to stop youth from participating in sexting, just like exposure to Internet pornography was essentially inevitable. They said that technology and teens will always be ahead of the curve – there will always be a new secret app or new way to access explicit messaging. Intense monitoring, they believed, makes youth more secretive about their activities and less forthcoming if anything were to happen that made them uncomfortable.
Many parents agreed with this perspective, but several did not. Some maintained that their intense restriction and surveillance kept their children from engaging in sexting and finding pornography online – at least while inside their home. Parents with restrictive policies admitted that it was nearly impossible to control what happened outside – at school or a friend’s house, for example.
So what can and should parents do? Many parents and educators agreed on the following best tactics:
1) Age-appropriate education. Sex education books exist for children of all ages. Similar content is now being developed in regards to the Internet. While basic understanding should be built as youth age, explicit conversations about technology, the Internet, and sex should happen in the “tween” years – most educators recommended by age 13 at the latest. Obviously, every child and situation is different, but it is important to remember, educators pointed out, that just because your child does not have access to the Internet in your home does not mean that they cannot access such content elsewhere, or be exposed to it in the media – often much at a much earlier age than a parent might anticipate.
The most important point to emphasize, educators said, was that, while curiosity is natural, such material was not real – that sexual experiences shouldn’t be modeled off of or compared to what is available online, which is often non-intimate and violent (especially toward women). The youth we discussed often indicated that they looked at pornography to teach them what to expect during sex and what techniques might work well in the course of sex. In the absence of explicit sex education, been able to actually watch somebody do something makes a lot of sense, especially in the visual age. However, very few youth understood that what they see and pornography bears little resemblance to real sex or even in some cases, real bodies. Helping them understand the limits of relying on pornography and sex education is important. Other resources such as books and websites can offer age-appropriate education in regards to sex and intimacy.
With sexting, the major focus of the conversation should be the potential consequences of distribution of any sent photos – from personal to legal. Studies show that youth often believe themselves to be the “exception to the rule” – that is, that they will not experience something similar. So, youth educators emphasize, do not expect one conversation to eliminate all sexting behavior. It is really difficult for someone who believes they are in love or that the person they are sending sexts to would ever hurt or compromise them. Lack of experience with people and relationships can really expose naiveté on this front. Helping them understand this and how to best enjoy the present while also anticipate future possibilities is the most important part.
2) Trust and transparency. Youth educators believed that personal devices should be just that – personal. Explicit communication and transparency about parental controls is also beneficial, especially because it fosters dialogue and openness about these complicated topics. For example, if a child is only allowed to use a computer in a public space, explain why. If open communication is fostered and maintained, youth educators say, there is a higher chance that youth will come to their parents when they are uncomfortable or have questions.
Parents seemed, understandably, more concerned about being so “hands-off” when it came to devices. While some parents were comfortable with entirely personal phones or computers, others required their children to use family devices even in their late teens. The common thread, though, was that parents practicing both styles also espoused the value of direct and open communication with their child.
3) Offer other options. Sometimes youth can talk to another trusted adult mode candidly then they can their own parent. Are there other people in your shared social networks that you think your children can talk to about these complicated topics -- a youth educator, or another family member, for example? If so, it may be worth asking them to respectfully initiate a conversation with your child about questions they may have. A trusted resource can be an invaluable source of factual, age-appropriate information (difficult to find online). You can also tell your child that you understand that it can be hard to talk about sensitive subjects like sexuality with a parent and encourage them to seek out reliable information from sources they know they can trust, like a teacher, counselor or family friend. Pointing them to trusted on-line places in which you have confidence can also be helpful.
In general, doing everything you can to keep the doors to communication open helps. Some parents suggest that communicating through exchanged texts;, alternatively, letters or emails with questions or concerns works well. Written communication has the added benefit of providing a more thought-out response than being surprised by a question on the way home from school.
For other information, resources, and support, I encourage you to check out Common Sense Media: