Teen Sex Culture and Technology

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Growing Pains

Our teens consider much of what goes on in the social lives private, not for parent consumption. Our youth are typically not voluntarily sharing with us the details of daily life, whether it is what happened in class at school, what happened on the soccer field, or what is going on socially with friendships. Adolescents especially do not let parents "in" on what is happening in the arena of teen sexuality or their personal crushes. While this is natural and necessary part of the individuation process, it often leaves parents wondering and feeling out of touch. Despite this neccessary progression toward independence, parents still need to make concerted efforts to stay connected.The goal of this article is to help parents remain proactive with their teens and to provide reliable information.

How Technology has Changed and Continues to Impact Teens

Technology is launching peer to peer communication in new directions, which has created a new culture of teen sexuality.  Students across the nation, and in our own community, have engaged in a variety of behaviors from sending naked photos and videos to their peers via cell phone, email, and Skype. "It is a 21st century version of  'you show me yours, I'll show you mine,'" according to a 2009 Reason article by Nancy Rommelmann. While the visual sharing of sexual imagery among teens is disturbing for parents, equally upsetting are the graphic written sexual messages. Texting sexualized messages from one teen to another is relatively common. In a December 2008 publication by Information Week (posted Dec. 11, 2008), a study of 1,280 teens and young adults revealed that one in five girls had sent nude or partially nude photos of themselves via cell phone or email. Of this group 11% were 16 or younger. According to the survey, one-third of all photos sent end up being forwarded and shared with other parties. Two-thirds of girls who sent nude photos said they did it to be fun and flirtatious. Another 40% said they did it as a joke. Most of the sexual content was shared with friends and acquaintances. Only 15% of photography was sent to a stranger.

Why Teens Need to be Well Informed

This article is not intended to alarm readers, but to help parents and educators understand possible outcomes related to impulsive teen behavior. The legal implications are far-reaching regarding sexualized content and electronic sharing of such images. Federal and state laws regulate the production, distribution, and possession of sexual images of underage subjects. These laws have been in place for decades to protect our youth from abuse and pornography. Because technology is advancing quickly, the legal system is trying to play catch-up. We have a young tech-savvy society, and in some instances youth unwittingly find themselves in the midst of legal dealings. Youth need to be aware of this. We certainly inform youth about the dangers of underage drinking, and they also need to be aware of online and cell phone communication hazards.

Teens and Impulsivity

The  gap between teens and adults in our culture is widening, especially with the technology available to our youth. Adolescents are eager for independence from adults and acceptance from their peers. When this is combined with developing hormones, and a brain that is not fully matured, impulsivity can lead to poor decision making. Teens cannot accurately anticipate the ramifications of their activity due to cognitive immaturity and lack of experience. In the world of point and click technology, impulsive acts can occur readily. Many adolescents do not grasp the concept that digital technology is permanent. Once a photo or written message has been sent and uploaded it can be shared with other cell phone users and email recipients.  "Once content is out there, it is out there forever," according to the Institute for Resonsible Online and Cell Phone Communications. For this reason parents need to take an active role. The safety issues are critical, from date rape, to STDs, to pregnancy and emotional harm. 

What Parents Can Do to Make a Difference

Parents gaining new information and educating themselves on such critical matters feel a natural sense of uneasiness and  discomfort. But knowledge puts parents in a position of strength and caring, which our adolescents truly want from us. Becoming informed shows that we want our children to be safe, happy, and healthy. It is important to seek ways to support, guide, and protect our children.

For the majority of parents, their sons or daughters have not engaged in such activities, but their teen surely knows a peer who has. The most important role of parents is to become actively supportive and involved in their teenage daughter or son's life.  Parents may find it difficult to begin a conversation, yet it is important to do so. This requires parents to think carefully how they can act as guides and when to initiate a point of entry for conversation. Finding a "natural" moment to discuss such topics is more seamless. It makes more sense to teens when the conversations mirror what is going on in the moment. Great launching moments are when you have just seen a newspaper article or TV news story relating to sex, rape, or pornography. Magazines are full of this content as well. Movies and TV shows provide a bounty of such material. Modern music and today's movies depict sexual behavior as a norm. Talk to your kids when the time is right about sexual pressures, friendships, and the difference between sex and love.

Please do not secretly snoop to find out what is going on. This is a significant breach of trust and will deteriorate opportunities for collaborating. Trying to shield teens from using technology is not realistic either. This is why collaborating with your teen and having a trusting relationship is so vital. Converse with them about what they have on Facebook, MySpace, and their cell phones and email. Let them know that you will listen to them and not pass judgment. One of the biggest fears kids face is that you will judge them harshly. Help your teens decide what is right for them. Many teens who become sexually active too early regret it. It helps for adolescents to know this fact.

Being present and involved in your teen's life is important. Even though our lives are very busy, take the time to be aware of what is happening and talk to your son or daughter.