Author’s note: The purpose of this article to provide psychoeducation and support to parents, teachers, coaches, or any other adult/authority figures who have frequent contact with teens of “Generation Z” or “I-Generation” and want to know more about the unique challenges today’s teens are facing.
As you are already aware, technology and social media play a significant role in the lives of today’s teens. In my clinical work, social media is a frequent topic of conversation. Interpersonal issues (verbal aggression, bullying, threats, physical aggression, etc.) often bleed over to social media platforms and vice versa. Teens can spread rumors on their statuses or may make comments on another friend’s status that occasionally instigate and escalate conflicts.
Even more concerning, is the sharing of sexually explicit photos and videos. I’ve facilitated workshops on cyberbullying and social media etiquette to high school teens, and many teens are not aware of the socio-emotional and legal consequences of these actions. Some feel that recording or sharing videos/pics of their peers is harmless and believe they’re not at fault for the potential negative impact. In addition, they’re often not aware of the legal ramifications of these actions. The Illinois Criminal Code, Section 11-23.5 states that:
intentionally publishing an image of another person: Who is at least 18 years old; Whose identity is discernible from the image itself or from information displayed in connection with the image; and Who is engaged in a sexual act or whose intimate parts are exposed, in whole or in part could result in a Felony, one to three years in prison, and up $25,000 fine. These actions are loosely described as intentional distribution of non-consensual porn or “revenge porn.”
From teens themselves, I have heard several stories where teens have taken pictures of their private areas and sent it to a peer. These pictures occasionally ended up in the hands of other students with very serious social and emotional consequences, especially when body-shamed or labeled sexually promiscuous. In one account, the bullying a female student experienced led to failing grades, absenteeism, feeling ostracized by classmates, lowered self-esteem, and depression. The bullying become so unbearable that the student and her family re-located to a new community and school. Once the teen thought she escaped the video she sent, it resurfaced at her new school. This was devastating for the teen girl who ultimately took her own life.
Coupled with the sharing of sexually explicit images and videos, teens are visiting porn websites. They are doing so for a couple of reasons: 1) Simply for sexual gratification and 2) They are curious . . . Teens may be curious about their bodies, sexual development, and/or the physical act of sex. They have questions regarding sex they don’t always feel comfortable asking their parents or sex ed instructors in a group setting. Additionally, parents are not always comfortable having these conversations, are unaware of how early their children have been sexualized, or wait too long to begin asking questions. Moralistic/wishful messages such as: “You shouldn’t be thinking about that at your age” “You should wait until you’re married” tend to create barriers for communication and trust. As a result, teens rely on friends for information or self-educate. This becomes problematic because they’re not aware that porn videos are for entertainment purposes, that the actors/actresses bodies are surgically enhanced, that these videos often depict overly-aggressive sexual acts, abuse towards women, and can desensitize the emotions connected to sex. As a result, real-life scenarios which involve consent and sexual abuse are not covered which can result in unrealistic expectations of sexual relationships and potential legal consequences. They are being exposed to an unprecedented amount of images and ideas, it can become difficult for them to discern fact from opinion or real from entertainment. This could unfortunately influence a generation of young people to formulate ideas and perspectives that are not based on facts.
So what is our role as adults? Ask questions! Get in-depth and start by asking teens their thoughts and feelings about current event. You will gain insight as to how they process information and develop conclusions.
Have an explicit conversation with your teens about sex. Not sure how to do that? There are plenty of books that help facilitate these conversations. One I personally use is “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie H. Harris. Ask teens what they know, what they’ve heard, and give them space to ask questions. Be prepared that they may ask or say something that may throw you off guard. Be mindful of how you react. If your teen interprets the interaction as negative it will communicate to them that it’s not safe to share. Respect your teen’s opinion and perspective. They are in the stage of development where they are asserting their own independence and developing their own thoughts and ideas. Encourage them to speak for themselves, but also use it as an opportunity to provide your own perspective, experience and insight. This will help your teen develop a well-rounded viewpoint and increased capacity to make well-informed decisions later in life.
Last but not least, respect your child’s privacy. The more you try to pry into their personal lives, the more they will keep from you. One of the things I’ve learned from being a teen and working with teens, is the more their parents try to restrict or control their lives, the better they get at lying, hiding and sneaking around. Instead, continue to provide a safe and open relationship which will encourage open and honest communication.
If you have concerns about your teen’s ability to make safe decisions, or if your attempts at conversations raise more concerns, consider reaching out to a counselor/therapist to help. You may encounter reluctance, but most teens open up when a therapist meets them where they are with respect.
Learn more about the author of this post: Claude King, LCPC