It’s common to feel overwhelmed by the rapidly changing communications technologies that our kids are so comfortable with. Cell phones have been around for decades, but we've now reached the point where it's more common for a 15-year-old to have a cell phone than not.
But the high-tech, social-networking world of today’s teens is still driven by age-old realities — like peer pressure, hormones, and their natural need to assert their own identities. Teens still gossip, flirt, fantasize, and test boundaries. And they still need our guidance. So we need to know how they connect with each other and learn about sex online.
Social Networking — or, as it was once called, “making friends” — still happens in class, in the cafeteria, and at parties. Now, kids can also do it online with sites like Facebook. With social networking sites, anyone can set up a profile — like your own webpage with music, videos, and pictures — then invite others to interact with it. Profiles can be public or private. Information — including one’s age — is self-reported and can be inaccurate.
IM — or “instant messaging” — is like a cross between a phone call and an e-mail. The messages just pop up on a computer screen. IM, also called “chat,” can also be used to communicate with more than one person at a time.
Cell phones are also commonly used to send text messages and pictures, log on to the Internet, play games, and access all kinds of other entertainment.
“Sexting” is using cell phones to send sexy text messages or images — often of oneself. Sexting is quite common — two out of five teens say that they have sent a sexually suggestive message, and two out of 10 have sent nude or partially nude pictures of themselves to others.
The online world gives teens a seemingly limitless library of information, endless opportunities to connect with others, and all sorts of entertainment options. It’s also got plenty of pornography.
Most young people who look at pornography do so out of curiosity about other people’s bodies and about sex. Adolescents want to know what's normal, and they want to know if they are normal. An important thing teens need to know about pornography is that it most often does not depict reality. It may also lead to unrealistic expectations about their bodies and sexuality.
For example, the models’ and actors’ body types usually do not resemble the average person’s. Their bodies are cosmetically, and often surgically or hormonally, enhanced. Their images are also often altered. Another example of pornography’s lack of reality is the lack of communication between actors — verbal or nonverbal — before, during, and after sex. Yet another example is that very often the actors in pornography do not appear to use birth control or safer sex practices, like using condoms.
Like other aspects of sex and sexuality, it can be hard to talk about the impact of all these new technologies with your children. Here are some important tips you might want to share with your child:
• Protect your privacy. There’s no such thing as sharing information only with a select group of friends online. Anyone can forward the information to others outside the group. It’s also easy to track down people through screen names, e-mail addresses, and other online profile information. And because it’s so easy for people to disguise who they are on social networking sites and on e-mail, you don’t always know who you're interacting with. So never post or send anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.
• Be careful with humor. Even if you think it’s obvious that you’re just kidding, not everyone will get the joke. If you want to post or send something that’s meant to be playful — especially something sexy — make that clear in your message.
• Be yourself. Your best friend thinks it would be fun to post naked pictures of yourselves? Your boyfriend wants you to “sext” him? If you don’t feel comfortable with it, don’t do it. Also be aware that in many places, it’s illegal to send nude or semi-nude pictures of minors — even if you are a minor, so sexting can have very serious consequences.
• It’s permanent and easily shared. You had second thoughts about that sexy photo you posted, so you deleted it. But someone else already copied it and posted it to another site. And someone else downloaded it and texted it to a friend. And somehow, it landed in your teacher’s inbox.
It’s a good idea to be aware of children’s online and cell phone habits. We may also consider asking our children to limit the amount of time spent online. And we may want to restrict the types of sites our children are allowed to visit. But we should be sure to explain to our kids that we are setting limits because we're trying to protect them. And we should listen to our children’s feelings about the limits.