When they were little, my daughters would occasionally have their stuffed animals “do sex”.
“What’s sex?” they’d sometimes ask, and I’d say it was a thing that consenting grown-ups do for fun.
As tweens, the topic of sex hardly ever came up. Now teenagers, my kids have developed a healthy understanding of sexuality. My 18-year-old even works at the Student Sexual Health centre on campus. So, I must have done something right.
Relaying the basics of sex in the tween years is a good start, but conversation needs to be ongoing since as youth get older, interests, emotions and critical abilities change, and technology plays a bigger part.
In 2013, MediaSmarts conducted a national survey of over 5,000 Canadian youth from Grades 4 to 11, about their online experience. Young Canadians in a Wired World Survey examined issues such as sexting, romantic interactions online, and accessing pornography and information about sexuality.
“One of the things we found out in the study is that parents talking to their kids about these things does make a difference,” says Matthew Johnson, Director of Education at MediaSmarts in Ottawa. “We can’t just assume that we can talk to our kids at age 10 or 11 and that’s going to do.”
For Matthew, it comes down to having an understanding with your kids that as a parent, you have a responsibility to sometimes step in, while at the same time not keeping them under constant surveillance. “It can be valuable for them to know that you are there if they need you and that you are not going to freak out if they come to you about concerns.”
The study revealed that in general, if there was a rule in the home regarding different problematic issues, students were less likely to engage in those behaviours, and that was true of pornography. “If there is a rule about what kinds of websites they are able to visit, kids are less likely to look for porn and those that do, do so less often,” Matthew explains. “It is a matter of making clear your expectations of their behaviour.”
With pornography viewing, young people don’t necessarily have control over what kind of porn they are going to see. And there is no question that there is a lot of very troubling, deeply masochistic content, easily available to young people.
The young people who are at risk online are the same ones who are at risk offline:
Of even bigger concern is relationship abuse, which happens frequently. Teens need to learn about healthy relationships as well as healthy sexuality.
“The skills and habits of recognizing an unhealthy relationship are very similar, whether with someone you know, or someone you met online,” Matthew says.
Encouraging ethical discussions is fundamental.
There is a perception that someone who sends a text or sext gives up the right to respect, Matthew says. “It’s not seen as an issue of ethics because having sent the sext, they have given up their right to privacy and of course that is very much a gendered issue.”
But we need not despair. There is lots of evidence that indicates young people of this generation are better behaved than in the past – many are having sex later, fewer are using drugs, youth crime is down, and when we look at a lot of measures of ethical thinking and ethical behaviour this generation of youth scores very well.
“That is the heart of it,” Matthew says. “It’s starting from a position of teaching kids to think ethically and of practising the skills of empathy and treating people with respect.”
Sexting (sending sexy images, messages) is not common behaviour, says Matthew Johnson, but young people tend to think the contrary because of media coverage. De-normalizing this idea will likely reduce the problem.
“Teens need to recognize that nobody has the right to pressure them to send sexts and nobody has the right to share something that they don’t want shared,” emphasizes Johnson.
Here’s where parents, teachers and public awareness efforts can help people understand the damage that can be done just by sharing a sext. In fact, Johnson points to research from the U.S. showing that the outcome from sexting is four times as likely to come to a negative result if the teen was coerced.
8% of students in Grade 7 and 8 who had access to a cell phone had sent a sext.
15% of students in Grade 11 who had access to a cell phone had sent a sext.
Roughly the same number has forwarded a sext that they have received.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Feb/Mar 2015.