COURTESY OF TEEN SAFE OCT 2016
How to Provide Sex Ed in the Digital Age
Generations of parents have cringed with anxiety thinking about the day that their kids reach the age where it is time to have “the talk.” As kids transition from childhood into their teenage years, their bodies change, as do their natural desires and curiosities. Parents who choose to ignore it leave their children alone in the wilderness, uninformed and learning about the dangers they face on their own. Those dangers can be catastrophic. Unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abusive relationships, and more. Uninformed teens who couldn’t talk to their parents always faced a greater threat from these potential consequences. For today’s parents, ‘the talk’ involves much, much more.
Expanding ‘The Talk’ —and Starting Earlier
According to the New York Times, which cited studies by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, 62% of girls and a full 93% of boys had been exposed to pornography before they turned 17, some of them as young as 10. Many were exposed without actively seeking it out, such as through ads on file-sharing sites. “Teens have immediate access to pornography, and it’s serving as their education on human sexuality,” said Heather McPherson, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor, and Sex therapist, who works with parents to provide guidance to their teens. “In the past, it was magazines and other forms of print media like a lingerie catalog. Now they can see porn online, and they have immediate and easy access to it. Porn is intended as adult entertainment, it’s not meant for teens. Parents must educate themselves and learn how to communicate with their children about sex and technology.”
‘That Which We Hide, We Magnify’
Parents should start by trying to accept the simple reality that adult content will, at some point, become virtually unavoidable for their children. “It’s going to happen,” McPherson said. “Kids will have access to porn, whether it’s on their phone or at a friend’s house. Others will talk about it, they’ll be curious and they’ll look.
Accept this. It will happen. How do you handle that fact? Talk to them about it. We don’t want teens to learn about sex from porn. That’s like learning how to drive from watching The Fast and the Furious. We want them to understand that porn is fantasy. We want them to receive comprehensive and accurate sex education.”
The key is to try to set boundaries while making sure the child doesn’t feel abnormal for having natural desires or feelings.
“It’s often scary for parents to talk about sex. It’s difficult for parents to say that it’s okay to masturbate and to tell them that if you do watch porn, please talk about it with us,” McPherson said. “We worry that once teens learn about pleasure and masturbation, they won’t be able to stop. But it’s a very small percentage of individuals in which porn takes over their lives. If that’s the case, there is usually something else like depression or anxiety fueling the desire to escape. For teens that don’t have any other coping skills readily available, then this might become their main coping skill. The issue here is not porn or masturbating, it’s actually learning how to self soothe and cope with difficult feelings.”
In the end, creating a climate of acceptance is not nearly as dangerous as trying to forbid the inevitable.
“If you say it’s okay, will they do it more than they currently are? In the majority of cases, no,” McPherson said.
Taboo, Shame and Porn as a Coping Mechanism
Children are likely to feel confused, embarrassed or guilty after looking at pornography. By reinforcing the idea that porn is dirty, parents can make their children feel immoral for watching it. Instead of helping them avoid inappropriate material in the future, this tactic often has the opposite effect.
“There’s so much shame wrapped up in looking at porn that it can drive more activity,” McPherson said. “If parents talk about it as something shameful or make it a taboo, it creates a shame cycle, which facilitates the child feeling guilty about something that previously felt pleasurable. Depending on your child, they can start touching themselves very early — even as adolescents. When we tell them ‘it’s shameful, you shouldn’t be doing that’, it creates a cycle guilt whenever they touch themselves. These are the teens that end up needing sex therapy as adults because of feelings of guilt associated with sexual pleasure.”
If kids engage in inappropriate activity to cover the feeling of shame they associate with that activity, the best strategy might be to take away the stigma altogether.
“Parents should remove the taboo and not associate sex with shame,” McPherson said.
“Teens are sexual beings. Communicate with them honestly, talk about it with them, without making it a taboo. Tell them that masturbation is healthy, this is an important form of self care.”
Equally important is that if kids feel embarrassed about something that has so much potential for harm, they are likely to hide it from their parents, who then lose the ability to help them.
“If it’s shameful,” McPherson said, “then it’s a secret.”
For McPherson, it’s simple. If there is a vacuum, something will naturally fill it. If children are left to stumble through adolescence on their own — if their schools and parents aren’t answering their questions — the will turn to the easy access of the Internet to satisfy their natural curiosities.
“The number one thing,” McPherson said, “is educating our young people that porn is not real, that it’s a fantasy — that sexuality doesn’t work that way in real life. The set is staged and the lighting is perfect. This is a powerful message that parents can give. Parents aren’t talking to children, schools aren’t talking to children, so they go online for education. If you talk to your children about what healthy sexuality looks like, the positive results could last a lifetime.”
Parents are likely to struggle with the talk, and their children may not be receptive. But the worst case scenario, according to McPherson, is to avoid it altogether.
“It’s mandatory now to have this conversation.” #
Courtesy of TeenSafe, the popular parental smartphone monitoring app