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Why Your Kids Need You in the Age of Sexting, Porn, and Cyberbullying

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series about teens, sex, and social media. Read the entire series here


Remember the thrill you felt when you passed a note in junior high math class?

The anticipation of getting a response to that note was almost too much to bear. Would the recipient of your rule-breaking correspondence reply positively? Or… oh no! What if he or she didn’t like you the way you liked him or her?

What if the person you thought you could trust with this most intimate glimpse into your heart’s desires took that carefully crafted note and taped it to the bathroom door – laying bare your soul for all the school to see. That would be the worst!

Yes, in 1989, that would be the worst. In 2016, that note would be a naked photo of you, snapped in a moment that felt brave and daring, and then sent with a light touch of a little circle on a screen.

And if things got really bad, that bathroom wall would be a Facebook wall, viewable by not only your entire school, but any of the three billion people worldwide with access to the internet.

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Now that would be the worst.

According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 88% of teenagers in the U.S. have a cell phone, and 90% of them use their phone for texting.

Nearly three-quarters of teens (ages 13-17) visit various social media sites multiple times a day, and 33% use messaging apps like Kik, WhatsApp, or SnapChat.

This is all to say that a lot of your teen’s life happens through his or her phone. It’s very likely that most of what they’re writing, doing, and seeing on their phones is not concerning.

But it’s that relatively small percentage of highly inappropriate or downright scary-as-shit happenings – sexting rings, porn addiction, cyberbullying – that catch our attention and receive hours or pages of media coverage.

I’m generally of the mind that our fear-based mainstream media be taken with a hundred grains of salt or ignored altogether, but in the case of teens, sex, and social media, there’s a lot worth looking into.

Mainly because you – the parent – can help. The key is to approach these topics with an open mind and a little bit of context.

Sexting

A 2014 study out of Drexel University found that 28% of college students had sent a sext containing a nude or semi-nude photo before they were 18.

The same study also revealed that the average age of first sext was just under 16 years old, though some respondents were as young as 12 when they first sexted.

Kids who are busted for sending or receiving sexual or naked photos can face major criminal charges. Case law hasn’t caught up with this relatively new adolescent behavior, and so the criminal justice system does the best it can with the laws already on the books.

Some states rely on child pornography laws to prosecute such cases, which – in extreme examples – can lead to a 12-year-old being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his or her life.

Stephen LaTulippe is the director of the Community Justice Center in Williston, Vermont. He says Vermont tends to be more “forward-thinking” than some states, often referring first offenders to restorative justice programs like his.

But even in a more lenient state, the consensual sharing of nude photos is illegal for people under the age of majority.

If a minor receives a sext “and sends it on, without the sender’s consent, to a third party, it automatically becomes a felony,” explains LaTulippe. Sending that same image across state lines “really ups the ante. It becomes a federal issue: dissemination of pornographic material of an underage person across state lines. It becomes much more problematic,” he says.

Illustration: Katrina Weigand

It’s easy to see how an unwitting teen could excitedly or nefariously blast a nude photo out to friends in other states or broadcast the prurient material on a social media site.

The potential legal ramifications of their actions are truly terrifying, but the likelihood that your child would face these dire consequences is quite slim.

Social repercussions, like shame and humiliation, are more common, as is a general feeling of regret. There’s also a high percentage chance that your teen will feel none of these things and fail to understand what the “big deal” is. (If this is the case, recall yourself as a teen and remember the things you did and said that your parents found shocking.)

Though it may sound crazy that almost a third of teenagers engage in sexting, psychologist Eileen Kennedy Moore points out in Psychology Today that this means more than 70 percent of teens DO NOT sext.

It’s not exactly the widespread phenomenon that many news outlets would have us believe, but it is absolutely a thing that sometimes happens among young people who may not fully comprehend what they’re doing, may be doing it for the wrong reasons, and have no idea of the potential long-range effects.

Porn

Speaking of long-range effects, Time magazine recently ran a cover story about young men who were teens just a few years ago, when online porn was so readily available to them that it turned out to be harmful.

There is now a (predictably debatable) condition called porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED) afflicting a subset of male 20-somethings who say that, due to the unchecked hours of time they spent watching online porn and then masturbating, they were only able to become aroused by porn. Real girls were not enough.

Researchers say this could be the result of unintentional conditioning. Cognitive neuroscientist Brian Anderson explains in the Time story that the visual nature of porn may make it particularly habit-forming. “There probably comes a point in time where you open up your browser and you just start thinking about porn,” says Anderson. 

The fact that viewers receive this form of stimulus through a computer, and that computers are essentially everywhere, compounds the problem yet again. 

Connect this neuroscience with the simple fact that the brain of a teenager is still deeply involved in the business of developing, and it’s easy to understand why some boys can’t stop watching porn, and then cannot achieve an erection without it.

Illustration: Katrina Weigand

Another important factor left out of the science is the fact that porn is overwhelmingly misogynistic. Peggy Orenstein, in her book “Girls and Sex,” refers to a study that found almost 90% of 304 randomly selected porn scenes “contained physical aggression toward women, who nearly always responded neutrally or with pleasure.” Orenstein goes on to say that some scenes also depicted women who beg “their partners to stop, then acquiesce and begin to enjoy the activity, regardless of how painful or debasing.”

While all this porn is doing some measure of damage to the brains of young men, it is simultaneously harming girls by presenting women as tools for male enjoyment versus wholly formed people with thoughts, standards, and desires of their own.

The subversive cruelty of porn is that it tricks both boys and girls (who aren’t legally meant to be viewing it anyway) into thinking that men are supposed to dominate, women are supposed to give in, and both parties should look a certain brand of ridiculous while doing it.

Okay, so, big picture, why is this an issue? Because in the absence of useful, honest, age-appropriate sex education in schools and homes, many teens turn to porn to learn about way more than the birds and the bees.

You cannot wait for institutionalized sex ed to step up and deliver the kind of knowledge your kids are looking for. It’s one of your responsibilities, as a parent, to teach your children about healthy relationships, open communication, and good sex.

Cyberbullying

While researching this story, the idea that struck me as most alarming is that any boy would think it’s okay to harass a girl for nude photos.

The slope from that point to rape seems far too steep. Research by the Urban Institute found that “96% of (dating) teens experiencing digital abuse and harassment also experience other forms of violence or abuse from their partners.”

Janine Zweig, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, explains that these other forms of abuse included psychological and physical abuse, as well as sexual coercion experiences. “The way we defined sexual coercion experience in this study was completed acts. So, not just the pressuring behaviors, but (teens) reporting that they were having sexual experiences that they didn’t want,” says Zwieg.

About one-third of teen victims of digital abuse reported being sexually coerced, a rate that is five times higher than dating teens who are not experiencing digital abuse.

This confirmed my fear that someone who feels okay about pressuring another person to send a nude photo or sharing that photo, without consent, might feel less inhibited when it comes to pressuring offline, too.

Information of this kind – the kind that feels scary and overwhelming at first – often presents a gift when you sit with it for a few minutes. The numbers and faces appearing in your mind’s eye will coalesce into a clear picture of empowerment. You have people to care for! And now you have a little more information to help you do just that!

Because you see, there are red flags, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll spot them. If your teen is on his or her phone late at night, behind a closed bedroom or bathroom door, she or he might be doing something unsafe. If their online behavior seems unsafe to you, there’s good reason for you to ask a few questions about their offline experiences.

While there’s no guarantee that your teen will immediately engage with you on the level you’re hoping for, a compassionate, curious, understanding approach will help make it clear that you’re available to them.

Put down your own phone, close the laptop, and reach out.

Our kids are not lost

The idea of speaking openly with your child about sexuality is scary to a lot of people. That’s okay.

Illustration: Katrina Weigand

There’s a very good chance that nobody covered the topic with you in a blunt and honest manner when you were a kid – especially if you live in the United States.

Our country came out of its great sexual revolution with very little lasting change to show for it. Conversely, the Netherlands experienced a similar renaissance in the 1960s and emerged with vastly different attitudes towards sex and sex ed.

PBS NewsHour reported last year that Dutch teen pregnancy rates are now five times lower than in the U.S., and rates of sexually transmitted infections are markedly lower, too.

Dutch schools utilize a comprehensive sexual education curriculum that begins in kindergarten; a program that’s supported in homes by parents who understand that their children are best served when sexuality is treated as the natural, normal, healthy part of living that it is.

And that’s the thing – your child will become a sexual being. It’s going to happen. It may be happening now. We went through it, as did every single generation of human beings before us. Curiosity led you to sneak a peak at your dad’s stack of Playboys hidden under the bed. Pubescent inklings led me to surreptitiously marvel at the illustrations in “The Joy of Sex.”

What’s different is that our kids have the internet, in all its stakes-raising glory. A whole lot of their life is lived inside the pages of that virtual world, so attempting to ban its use altogether, or to severely restrict their access, would be tone-deaf at best and destructive at worst.

This confluence of online access – to other people, to information and mis-information, to words and images that teen brains are not ready to adequately process – and a naturally budding sexuality creates the conditions under which sexting, youth porn addiction, and cyberbullying can prosper.

But the super important, often overlooked, third contributing factor is the dearth of actual human resources available to kids who genuinely want to talk about this stuff. That’s YOU.

You are the human resource your kid needs.

Compassionate parents provide a counterweight to the inherent pressures of adolescence. Our kids may not always feel the balancing power of our love on a conscious level, but maybe that’s the point. It’s just there – they don’t have to think about it.

By opening up to your children about sex, desire, relationships, and young love, you’re creating the space into which they will move when they need it most.

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Student loan debt is a major problem for many mamas and their families―but it doesn't have to be. Refinancing companies like Laurel Road help families every year by offering better rates, making payments more manageable or helping them shorten their loan term.

If you're ready to start taking control of your student loan debt, here are five steps that could help you conquer your student loan debt and get a loan that works for you.

1. Understand your refinancing options.

Like motherhood, managing student loan debt is a journey made much easier by experience. If your eyes start to cross when you hear variable and fixed rates or annual percentage rate, start your process with a little education. Laurel Road offers a user-friendly resource hub with student loan refinancing guides and articles that can help explain your options and get you started on a more informed foot.

2. Potentially improve your credit score.

Your credit score is important because it provides an objective measure of your credit risk to lenders. It also has an impact on many aspects of your finances, so it's a good idea to understand and track your score regularly. To try and improve your score, pay your bills on time—your payment history is one of the most important factors in determining your credit score. Having a long history of on-time payments is best, while missing a payment may hurt your score. Another action to improve your credit score would be to keep the amount you owe low—keeping your balances low on credit cards and other types of revolving debt, such as a home equity lines of credit, may help boost your score. Remember, good credit scores don't just happen overnight, but taking positive financial steps now can lead to more positive outcomes in the future.

3. Get a better understanding of your current loan benefits.

Different loan types have different benefits and you want to make sure you don't lose any valuable benefits by refinancing your current loan. Before you're ready to apply for a better option, you need to know what you have. Determine your loan terms (how long you have to pay off your loan and how much you're required to pay each month) and find out your current interest rate.

When you took out your original loan, especially if it was a federal loan, everyone who applies is given the same rate regardless of their personal credit. When you look to refinance, companies like Laurel Road look at your credit score and other attributes to give you a personalized pricing option―one that's often more competitive than your original terms. However, it is important to know that federal loans offer several benefits and protections, including income based repayment and forgiveness options, that you may lose when refinancing with private lenders (learn more at https://studentloans.gov). Try Laurel Road's Student Loan Calculator to get a bigger picture perspective of what it will take to pay off your loan and the options available to you.

4. Pick the terms that fit your lifestyle.

Your long-term financial goals will determine what refinancing terms are right for you. For example, a 3- or 5-year loan means faster payoff times, but it will mean a higher monthly payment―which might not be possible if you're planning to purchase a home or looking to move your toddler to a more expensive school. A loan with a longer term will have lower payments, but more interest over the duration of the loan.

Want to see what your options are? Check your rates on Laurel Road. They'll perform a "soft credit pull" using some basic information (meaning initially checking your rates won't affect your credit score ) so you can make an informed decision. If you do proceed with the application Laurel Road will ask for your consent on a hard credit pull.

5. Don't miss out on discounts.

With a little research, many people can find opportunities for lower rates or discounts when refinancing their loans. For example, if your credit isn't the best, look into the possibility of adding a cosigner who may help boost your rate. There are also many associations and employers who offer student loan benefits. Laurel Road partners with a number of groups and employers who offer discounts on rates―so check with your professional associations or HR to see if any options are available to you. Finally, talk to your financial institution, especially if you're planning to take out another major loan like a mortgage. In some cases, having another product with an institution can get you a preferred customer rate.

This article is sponsored by Laurel Road. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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It's Father's Day and dads around the world are getting some love from their loved ones, and we are loving all the adorable posts on Instagram today.

Celebrity dads are getting (and dishing out) a lot of love today, and these 10 Instagram posts, in particular, are melting our hearts.


James Van Der Beek 

James Van Der Beek will always be Dawson to many millennial mamas, but to his five kids he's just "Daddy." His wife Kimberly posted the cutest pic of James with their kiddos, Olivia, Emilia, Annabel Leah, Joshua and baby Gwendolyn.

James posted the same photo to his own account, with a caption that may make you cry.

He wrote: "For me, being a father means having that quiet little voice inside of you that says 'Be a better man,' get louder and more consistent... to the point where you can't really remember where that voice ends and where you begin. It means being tired beyond what is probably healthy, and patient beyond what you previously thought possible. And even though you know you're far from perfect... being a father also comes with an unshakable awareness that all your actions have consequences - context that reaches far beyond your own self-interest. It's scary to feel that interconnected with the rest of the world - especially with your heart now walking around outside your body - because it demands more personal responsibility... but it will make you a better man. Of at least that I'm sure. #HappyFathersDay to all the imperfect dads out there, trying their best and learning on the job.👊#fatherhood"

That post gives us more feels than any episode of Dawson's Creek ever did.


Today, our Istagram and Facebook feeds are filled with evidence that today's dads are doing more than any other generation of fathers. Congrats guys, you really deserve a Happy Father's Day!

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The bond between sisters is special, but Jill Noe and Whitney Bliesner have a unique bond that goes beyond just being siblings. As twins, Jill and Whitney shared a lot throughout their lives, and when Jill became Whitney's surrogate they even shared a pregnancy.

As first reported by Today, Whitney has a rare disease called NF2 (Neurofibromatosis type 2). Because of NF2 she lost the vision in her left eye and hearing in her right ear, along with partial hearing loss in her left ear. The condition makes pregnancy risky, and the disease is hereditary.

Whitney and her husband, Pete, wanted to start a family, but adoption and surrogacy fees seemed to be putting parenthood out of their reach. Until Jill stepped in as their surrogate.

"We have always had a strong connection, I do think this experience made our connection stronger, for sure," Whitney tells Motherly, adding that she's sure that when Jill eventuallu has kids of her own the sisters will likely bond over motherhood, too.

Through IVF, Jill carried donor eggs fertilized with Pete's sperm to make her twin sister's family, and on June 7 Jill delivered Whitney and Pete's son and daughter, little Rhett and Rhenley.

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"Going through this with Jill was so easy," Whitney tells Motherly. "We both had no idea what was going to happen or how we would deal with stuff during this journey. We had our ups and downs, but I think that's life, and in any situation you would experience that. But with my sister, there was a sense of everything was going to be ok, like always. We always get over our annoyance and disagreements with each other very fast with no hard feelings. It was just a great experience to have with my best friend, my twin sister."

Rhett and Rhenley are keeping Whitney super busy these days (with twins, someone is always hungry!) but she's making time to share her story because she wants other people who can't physically be pregnant to not give up on their dream of being a mom.

"It's not about blood or biologically carrying a kid that makes you a mom, it's the unconditional love, care, and security you give a child that makes you a mom," she explains.

Whitney continues: "Even though you aren't carrying or blood-related, you still have those feelings of babies being yours!"

Whitney calls Jill her best friend and Jill says the feeling is mutual, telling Today that she knows Whitney would have done the same for her if the roles where reversed.

"She's always wanted to be a mom and her disease has already taken so much from her. I wasn't going to allow (NF2) to take this opportunity from her, too," Jill said. "It just felt like the right thing to do. Our family is so strong and so supportive of one another, especially since Whit's diagnosis in 8th grade."

Thanks to Jill, Whitney is now living her dream, taking care of her two adorable babies.

Jill is an amazing sister, and Whitney is already an amazing mom.

[A version of this post was originally published June 14, 2019. It has been updated.]

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A dad's first Father's Day is always special, and Prince Harry is no exception. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex released a new photo of Baby Archie clutching his father's finger.

😍

It's been just over a month since little Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor came into the world and changed his father's. Shortly after the birth, Prince Harry described new fatherhood as "the most amazing experience I could ever possibly imagine."

This sweet Father's Day Instagram post is the first look at Archie the public has had since the royal family did their post-birth photoshoot in May.

While Archie's mom and dad recently attended the Queen's birthday celebration, Trooping the Colour, little Archie is still a bit too small for such a big party. His older cousin Prince Louis made his first Trooping appearance this year, so we can expect to see Archie at the Queen's birthday parade next year.

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Baby Archie and Prince Louis will likely be together soon for Archie's christening. Reports suggest the event will take place next month at Windsor Castle, the same venue where Archie's mom and dad got married, and where Prince Harry was baptized back in 1984.

We can't wait to see more photos of sweet baby Archie on his big day!

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Do you feel guilty when you don't want to play with your kid? I do.

Do you give in and play with them anyway, all the while checking your phone and wondering exactly how long you have to pretend to be a dinosaur? Or do you say "no" to play time and endure the inevitable whining, coupled with mom-guilt that ensues?

Neither of these options is particularly tempting.

So what's a mom, with a fully developed intellect and adult interests and subsequent lack of interest in playing with toys for 10 to 12 hours a day, to do?

Here are six phrases to try next time your kid wants to play and you need a break.

1. "I will be cleaning the kitchen. You're welcome to join me."

This is my personal favorite and one I use daily. The next time you need to get something done and your child is clinging to you, offer an invitation instead of a dismissal.

Try asking your child to join you instead of saying, "go play." The beauty of this phrase is that it gives your child a choice—they can either be with you and help with what you are doing, or they can go play independently.

Often my toddler will join me for a while and then drift off to play on his own.

2. "I'm not available to play dinosaurs right now. Would you like to read with me?"

While sometimes we simply need to get something done, other times we just honestly do not want to play whatever our child is asking us to. And that is okay.

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There are only so many hours in the day that you can reasonably be expected to play dinosaurs or princesses. If you are available to spend time with your child, but find yourself cringing at the idea of one more game of superheroes, offer an alternate activity.

It's important for children to get the chance to choose the activity sometimes, but it doesn't have to be all of the time. Offer one or two activities that you would genuinely enjoy doing with your child and give them the choice of whether to join you.

3. "I'm going to read for 20 minutes and then I will be able to play Legos with you."

Let your child see your interests too. You don't have to cram your own life and hobbies into nap time and after bed. It's okay, and even valuable, to let them see that you are a whole person with your interests.

Tell them that you want to read or garden or workout for 20 minutes. Invite them to sit nearby, or to play on their own. It helps to start with a very manageable amount of time, like 15 or 20 minutes, and stretch it as your child's ability to play on their own grows.

Your child may sit and whine for the entire 20 minutes. While this can be annoying, it is best not to respond in anger. Try to acknowledge their feelings, but don't give in to their demands. You might say, "I see that you're having a hard time waiting for my attention. Reading is important to me. I'm going to read for 15 more minutes, and then I would love to play with you."

If you do this consistently, your child will get used to the idea that you have needs and interests too.

4. "I don't want to play right now, but I would love to sit and watch you."

Be honest with your child. It's okay if you want to be with them, but don't feel like actively playing. This can be an excellent way to observe how your child plays when left to their own devices. It is also a way for them to share their favorite games with you, without you feeling forced to play something you don't enjoy. Children can tell when we're not having fun, even if we try to fake it.

5. "I would love to play for a few minutes. Then I will need to fold the laundry."

Sometimes children need help getting started. It often works well to play with them for 10 or 15 minutes and then back away to do something else nearby. This allows your child to play independently while also saving your sanity.

6. "Sure, I'll play! You choose the game today, and I'll choose tomorrow."

While we naturally do not share all of our young children's interests, it is important for children to get to choose what we do together some of the time. Create a system where your child chooses sometimes, and you choose other times. Once your child is confident that they will get to decide what you play together sometimes, they will likely let go of the need to always demand that you play certain games.

Bottom line:

The beauty of learning to say "no" to your child's requests to play is that you will enjoy the time you do spend playing together. No one has fun when they feel like they're being forced to do something, even if it's by a 4-year-old.

And the thing is, they can tell. Children know when we want to be there and when we're just phoning it in—we're not fooling anyone.

When I force myself to play, I imagine my toddler feels sort of how I feel when I drag my husband to the farmers market. Yes, we're doing what I wanted to do, but I can tell he's not into it and that kind of takes all the fun out of the experience.

Once you feel the freedom to decide whether or not you want to play, you can choose the times when you do feel like being silly, playing pretend or merely dropping everything to build the tallest tower ever in the whole full world.

And your child? They will know the difference. Their little heart will be so full of playing with you when you want to be there. That's what will stick with them, not all of the times you said no.

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