Parent Alert: Teens and Porn | Reader's Digest

Parent Alert: Teens and Porn

Porn has gone interactive--and your kids are at risk. From 'sexting' to video chats, how to fight back.

By Judith Newman from Reader's Digest | May 2009

Living Libido Loca
There is a me-me-ME quality to blogging, Facebooking, Twittering, and the like. And what could be more attention-grabbing to a teenager than taking your clothes off?

“It’s pretty appalling,” says Pamela Paul, the author of Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. “Among girls and boys, porn has become increasingly accepted, even kind of cool.” And with “the American Idol-ization of the culture, where everyone can be a star,” she says, it’s almost inevitable that kids would be tempted to cross the line into interactive porn. “Every form of media has become interactive. Why shouldn’t porn be as well?” she laments.

The biggest technological facilitator of teen porn is the webcam. Making a video and then e-mailing it or uploading it to Facebook is as easy as pressing a button. That’s how one New York mother’s 15-year-old daughter got into trouble.

“Cheryl was upstairs in her bedroom with her laptop,” the mother begins. “A friend was sleeping over. I’d seen her do video chats plenty of times, and apart from language I disapprove of, I hadn’t thought of it as a big risk. So mostly I was alert to her staying up too late chatting with her friends.

“We’d gone to bed when I heard a thump from upstairs like someone jumping out of bed,” the mother continues. “I go up, and she immediately flips the laptop lid down. The girls—in bed, wearing jammies and cami tops—look guilty. I repossess the laptop and go downstairs. There’s a picture of the ‘I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours’ variety, only this is creepier because it’s of the two girls and they’d sent it to some teenage boy. There was even a script right out of a porn movie. Plus, she had screen shots of some naked boy on her desktop.”

The computer was confiscated, but by that point, it was too late. Those photos could turn up anywhere.

Why would kids take this kind of risk? “Teenagers are not exactly known for their great judgment,” notes Lawrence Balter, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. “They are sexual beings, of course, and they want to push the envelope. They’re playacting. And they’re impulsive. Generally, there’s not a lot of thought before hitting the send button.”

But there’s another aspect to sexting that many parents haven’t considered. “Because it’s not exactly face-to-face—it’s visual, but the other person isn’t right there—a kid can be more revealing,” Balter continues. “It’s the distance that makes a kid feel both bolder and safer.”

Perception = Reality
And now for some good news: Not every kid is a budding Jenna Jameson. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, promiscuous behavior is down. In 1991, 54.1 percent of 9th- through 12th-grade students said they’d had sexual intercourse. In 2007, that number was 47.8. Could it be that sexting and Internet porn are substitutes for sexual acting-out in real life? Ralph DiClemente, a professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, is trying to find out. He’s studying how exposure to sex on the Internet affects teens.

The results aren’t in yet, but DiClemente thinks he has relevant information from another study he conducted, on African American teenage girls and their exposure to rap music videos. Many of the videos are violent and misogynistic, he points out. “We wanted to know how this music affected the girls’ perceptions of themselves and women in their community.” He discovered that the girls who watched the most rap videos were more likely to binge drink, smoke pot, and have multiple sex partners. Distressing, too, was the teenagers’ belief that the scantily clad models and dancers in the videos were a lot like women in their community. “So their perception of what was real and what wasn’t was skewed,” says DiClemente.

Extrapolating from those results, DiClemente thinks that 1) kids are likely to believe more of what they see in the media than adults are, 2) they perceive people in porn to look and act just like you and me, 3) many kids see nothing abnormal about creating and/or starring in porn, and 4) their perceptions lead to behavior that is less than desirable.

Jay W., a freshman at Brown University, sees the same nonchalant attitudes toward sexting that DiClemente found in his study. “The first experience I had with sexting was a video my friend sent me when I was in ninth grade. It was of a naked girl, really young,” he says. And though he insists he didn’t do it himself, passing around nude photos of girlfriends was fairly common in Jay’s California school. “What I’ve seen has changed the way I think about sex,” he says. “Even at a younger age, I began to feel jaded and numbed out.”

Although Jay may have become inured to it all, some of the girls who posed found their new fame downright alluring. Notes Monica, the middle school student from Connecticut, “The girl who had her picture sent around the school was at the low end of the popular set. But once she took off her clothes, it upped her visibility. She got a lot more attention, from boys especially.” Just as there is no longer such a thing as bad publicity, apparently there is no such thing as bad attention in junior high school.

What Do We Do Now?
“We live in a precarious society for young people,” says Michael Josephson, president of Character Counts, an organization that runs values-education programs. “There are many ways they can damage themselves, the Internet being the most dangerous of all. Parents have a responsibility to know what children are doing on it.”

Fair enough. So how do we prevent our kids from becoming citizens, wittingly or unwittingly, of the vast pornopolis of American culture?

The most important thing, says Marisa Nightingale, senior adviser to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, is to be proactive, not reactive. In other words, don’t wait until your daughter’s breasts are plastered across her boyfriend’s MySpace page. “You have to raise the issue, even if it’s uncomfortable. Instead of the ‘Don’t do that’ lecture, open up the conversation. Say ‘What do you think about this? Do you know kids who’ve done it? What do you think can happen when you have that photo of yourself out there?’ ” Explain that “when you send a photo of yourself off into the ether, you are making a decision to forgo control over yourself and your image.”

Chances are, Nightingale says, you have no idea what your teen’s definition of privacy is. Chances are, it’s very different from yours. “This is a generation that thinks nothing of updating their Facebook friends on mundane little activities of the day. The concept of having a private life has been muddied.”

Setting limits is key, she says. “Let them know what is appropriate to you and what your values are. You can’t assume they know what you think.”

Michael Josephson wants to go one step further—he wants parents to discuss the ethics of sexting. “When we talk about morality or ethics, we’re also talking about responsibility,” he says. “None of these acts truly occurs in a vacuum; there are stakeholders. If a child puts his picture on the Web, you don’t think that’s a major embarrassment to brothers and sisters, possibly the school? A responsible person thinks about how his or her decisions impact other people.”

At the very least, kids need to know how much trouble they can get into for simply making or possessing these images. “When the legislation for child pornography was enacted, no one was imagining minors taking photos of their own bodies,” says Jeffrey Douglas, a Santa Monica, California, defense attorney. “People don’t realize that prosecutors may not have a lot of leeway in prosecuting these cases, and if kids are convicted, they could be labeled as sex offenders. Kids don’t think about this, because they never believe they’ll be caught. They don’t even know that what they’re doing is a crime.”

Seven seems absurdly young. But the next time an image from one of these sites pops up on my iPhone, Henry and I will have another talk, as age-appropriate as I can make it, about people’s bodies and how his body belongs to him and him alone. Once he takes off his clothes online, even as a joke, he becomes public property. Other people have control over him. Anyone can do with him what they like.

I know my son. He’s a control freak and a tightwad, and the idea that anyone could have something of his that he didn’t consent to give would be horrible. I can’t rely on this impulse forever, but for now and for the foreseeable future, he really doesn’t like to share.

Wanted: Peace of Mind
Your kids are savvy enough to delete the recent history of their Internet use from their computers. Here are other options for the wary parent:

  • Yoursphere.com is a social networking site that restricts membership to kids and teens (“creepers,” adults trawling for teens, are sussed out and barred) and monitors bullying.
  • LMK, for “Let Me Know,” is a Girl Scouts site where girls can talk to one another about Internet safety.
  • Websafety.com sells software that can be downloaded to your kid’s cell phone and computer to alert you if she’s sending inappropriate texts or photos.
  • Safe Eyes, from internetsafety.com, lets you track your child’s instant messaging, monitor social networking sites, and impose limits on his online minutes.
  • Cell Phone Spy Elite, a device from brickhousesecurity.com, retrieves deleted text messages from cell phones.

Parental Guidance Is Key
Walking that fine line between parent and prison guard is tough. Here’s what other parents do when it comes to their teens and social networking sites.

  • “My teenage boys have to ‘friend’ me on Facebook, and if I see something that crosses my line, we talk, and they remove it.”
  • “We limit her contact list to a few trusted friends.”
  • “Since friends do crazy things, they are not allowed to use his computer.”
  • “She has iChat and Google Talk, but she will have neither if she chats with someone she does not know.”
  • “Two rules: The computer stays in the family room, and we don’t buy laptops. They’re too easy to sneak into another room.”
  • “I snoop. She doesn’t want me on her Facebook page, but if the computer’s on, I will check it out.”
  • “I unwittingly reinforced the idea that raunchy paper trails are bad when my teenager discovered my high school yearbook. Reading notes from my friends, she was mortified to learn that I had tried drugs.”
  • “We conduct surprise inspections of her photo cache and iChat histories. We haven’t installed spyware—yet—but if we find anything out of line, we will, and she knows it.”