Teen Development and the Changing Digital Landscape
Once relegated to back rooms in video stores and adult book shops in seedy neighborhoods, hardcore pornography is now as easily accessible as cookie recipes or the daily weather report. Young children are increasingly exposed to online pornography, which depicts every sexual act imaginable, long before they are capable of understanding the complexities of mutually respectful, intimate relationships. The normalization of pornography to children — combined with the proliferation of smartphones, social media and anonymous messaging apps — puts children at risk of developmental issues and exposes them to online predators seeking to exploit them, convince them to produce pornographic images of themselves — or worse.
Increasingly Early Exposure
According to the Huffington Post, the average child today is first exposed to pornography at 11 years old. In many cases, explicit images and videos become the foundation of their sexual education, and steer their understanding of actual intimate relationships in real life. This can lead to unreasonable sexual expectations for both genders, it can encourage promiscuity without an understanding of associated consequences, and can even promote sexual violence.
“One of the most alarming things we’re seeing is girls and boys who are aware of sexual situations and words without knowing the full context of sexuality,” Yoder said. “We used to see these behaviors in middle school — 14 or 15, where kids are more aware of their sexuality, their bodies changing, etc. Now, younger kids are engaging in this kind of talk more without understanding the full picture of sexuality and the dangers of sexuality at such a young age.”
The Internet: A Marketplace for Predators
The developmental issues associated with early exposure to pornography is not the only — or even the worst — danger facing teens who have unrestricted, unmonitored online access. Online predators are real, they are technologically savvy and they use social media and messaging apps as doorways into the lives of vulnerable or naive teens.
“Predators now have access to our kids,” Yoder said. “In the past, predators only had access through personal contact. Now they have digital access. When a kid is on social media, anyone around the world has access to them — not just the creepy kid around the corner.”
For a window into the warped appetites of online predators, just look at the statistics. Research shows that Google searches containing the words “teen porn” more than tripled between 2005 and 2013. Teen-related porn makes up for one-third of all porn-related searches.
“The statistics of sex trafficking and predatory behavior is very alarming,” Yoder said. “It’s increasing, and it’s in every community. Social media is the No. 1 venue for sex predators to groom kids.”
The New Online Bullying: Sexual Intimidation
Research shows that more than 80 percent of online pornography depicts physical aggression and sexual violence. Nearly 50 percent contains verbal abuse, intimidation and name-calling.
Yoder has seen this translate into a new and dangerous behavioral trend among the teens she counsels.
“We have 5th graders who are sharing nude photos because they are being bullied,” she said. “There’s so much through social media that kids can do to intimidate and threaten each other at such young ages. There’s a sense of fear that’s part of their world. It’s different from other generations. It used to be ‘give me your lunch money or i’ll beat you up.’ Now, it’s ‘if you don’t show me a picture of your private parts, then i’m going to do something you won’t like.'”
For kids who make the mistake of sharing an inappropriate picture, the image they send can be used to bully, extort, shame or harass.
“Classmates can share a photo that’s been shared with them on social channels,” Yoder said. “Right away, that person is targeted because all their friends have seen them in the photo.”
As the criminal justice system struggles to evolve with the changing world of online sexual exploitation, teens who exercise bad judgement can face harsh legal consequences that essentially victimize them a second time.
“A child who shares a sexual photo of themselves can be potentially charged with sharing child pornotgraphy,” Yoder said. “A 12 year old doesn’t think about that when they send a picture of themselves to a boy or girl they like.”
Parenting in the Digital Age
Keeping children safe in the digital age is no easy task for parents who didn’t grow up with the technology that threatens their children. Each parent must walk the line between remaining vigilant and smothering their children. In the end, the parent’s primary responsibility is to protect their kids — whether or not the children understands that it’s for their own good.
“I personally don’t think kids should have unsupervised Internet — or tablets or phones — until they are developmentally able to make some of those boundary decisions themselves,” Yoder said. “Parents should be involved. Parents should be on every social site that their kids are on.”
This is where monitoring apps like Teensafe come in. Monitoring software enables parents to supervise their children while they learn to navigate the online world. When they make a mistake, the parent can step in and guide them before a mistake becomes a catastrophe.
“You wouldn’t send your child out on the streets unsupervised,” Yoder said.
When parents take the step of investing in monitoring software, it is likely that they will receive pushback from teens who feel their privacy is being invaded. Parent’s should tell their kids that are monitoring their digital behavior, explain to them why, and they should discuss the dangers they are trying to mitigate. A frank, two-way conversation may reveal that the child is not naive to the hazards of the digital world.
“Kids do know the dangers that are out there,” Yoder said. “Kids are aware and they know what their friends are doing — they know what comes across social media.”
Parents should tell their children that it’s not them, but the Internet that they don’t trust.
“My own teens know that what we are asking of them is part of a give-and-take relationship,” Yoder said. “I have several friends who have social media contracts with their kids, who have family filters for social media. It’s not about parents being mean and not letting their kids have social media. It’s about fully understanding the amount of danger there is with social media and tech — especially in a generation where we don’t have it figured out because it’s changing so quickly.”
Today’s average child is first exposed not to Playboy, but to explicit, graphic pornography at 11 years old. This can damage their perception of human intimacy for the rest of their lives. More importantly, it can open their worlds to online predators, or even to their own classmates who can trick them into making mistakes that are impossible to unmake. The Internet is anonymous, global and permanent. If parents wouldn’t let their children go out into the world unsupervised, they should exercise the same vigilance in online monitoring to watch, guide and protect their children until they are able to navigate the hazards of the online world by themselves.