You’re reading with the hopes that this is one of those bait-and-switch sensational articles, right? Oh how I wish that was true. Unfortunately, I have run across a phenomenon that few parents know about, and those that do are too ashamed to tell anybody. The ugly truth is that middle school girls, with their immature frontal lobes and tender insecurities, are trying to attract high school boys by texting them sexy images of their blossoming private parts. It’s like they’ve invented an unregulated child porn matchmaking profile that doesn’t even have privacy settings, terms of agreement, or the option to delete the profile. Just a CLICK and SEND and your daughter’s catastrophically nude profile image is available to everybody everywhere forever, no take-backs. Thirty seconds of bad judgment at twelve years old launches a nightmare digital footprint and sullied online reputation. Ouch!
And what about the boys? They enthusiastically log in to this mess too. Some become expert at grooming the girls to send the sexy photos which they then share with their “boyz” on the wrestling team for quickly growing “<city name> nudes exposed!” collections. And to make things more horrifying, the boldest of the boys proudly share their name lists of the virginity prizes personally collected from girls they intentionally targeted who were too young to know any better. Fifteen minutes and these young women have exposed their vulnerabilities, their reputations, and the essence of their true potential. It’s like these teens lost their minds and logged in for an on- and off-line pimp-prostitute internship program. All that was needed was a mobile phone with texting ability and a misguided sense of adventure.
How do I know this? Because I’m a psychologist and the teens I see tell me the shameful truth, all of it; the truths that trigger pride, shame, sadness, and desperation. They tell me all about how they “released their nude” when they turned 12 years old in order to attract attention from the older boys. Or how they were duped into it by the soothing promises from entrepreneurial Romeos, only to find out later that they were lied to and it had been shared over text to the high school football team. There’s also the confessions from the boys that get their “ah-ha! I was being a dirt bag” moment when their frontal lobes come online later in high school. And believe it or not, both genders are capable of being predatory on the other. I hear what most parents don’t know.
I remember the first session when I realized this was a thing. I was seeing a beautiful eighth grade girl who was starting to get it and was lamenting about her best friend who purposely “put a nude out” when she was 11 year old. At 15 years old, the friend was bizarrely proud of it being re-released via text to “everyone in the county” four years later. My client guessed it was the fourth mass texting of the image. I sat there, horrified and dumbfounded, assessing my ethical requirements to the teens involved and my community in general. As a mother, I began visualizing the creation of a blueprint for Rapunzel’s tower in our backyard for my kids, screen-media-free.
So much of my young client’s disclosure made me deeply upset for everybody involved. I was saddened that children this young had already learned how to use and exploit sexuality as a cheap commodity. I was saddened that these kids broker power through contemptuous attention catamount to social media “likes.” I was saddened that there was an army of teenagers willing to receive these tragic misperceptions of self worth. And I was furious that some actively groomed their victims to build a sick collection of lost innocence with no more thought than they gave to their Pokémon collections six months earlier. Keep in mind that in many cases these releases are consensual, while in others coerced.
I imagine you’re thinking, “What kind of amoral community does this writer live in anyway? My kids would NEVER do that!” Right? I’m sorry to tell you that I live in the same community you do. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Participants come from all types of families, families of all income levels and religions with great parents and slack parents. Short of raising your child in a stone tower, there is no family situation where your parenting supervision cannot be breached.
Of course there are situations where children tend to be the most vulnerable. But the temptation is there for even the most well adjusted kids. And to make things even more concerning, this pimp-prostitute culture does not always end by college age. The media is rampant with stories of fraternity houses that have private Facebook pages littered with nude photos of non-consenting women and blatant drug deals, not to mention social media and hookup dating sites flooded with sexual trolling. Like it or not, the young have their own culture of sexuality that is different from their parents.
What has led us here? Is it the unregulated Wild West atmosphere of the Internet? Perhaps it is the moral decay of the Western culture? Perhaps it is the accumulation of sexualization and objectification of women splashed throughout popular culture over decades? Are permissive parents to blame or the rapid technological developments we simply cannot keep up with? And more importantly, what is going to lead us out?
My university students and I discuss this often, and I think you would be surprised how many advocate for mass regulation and filtering while I wonder about the sincerity of their self-righteousness. Because like them, I am conflicted about what makes up our “rights” for online liberties balanced with personal vulgarity and decency standards. Until our legislators are able to fully secure online child pornography portals, some which apparently begin in our own unsuspecting homes, parents must get serious about becoming informed and taking real action. And believe it or not, waiting until your child reaches the teen years to do this is simply too late.
I created GetKidsInternetSafe (GKIS) to provide sensible support and easy-to-implement guides for parents at all stages of the game. After all, the fantasy of locking your child out of technology is simply not realistic. Whether you have a toddler just starting to clamor for her tablet, an elementary schooler playing his first video game, a middle schooler begging for social media, or a high schooler who’s already technologically fluent, it is imperative that you become fluent in screen media activities.
With the help of GKIS, you can become informed, educate your children and set expectations about digital citizenship and online reputation, create a family dialogue about GKIS screen smarts, stage your home, filter and block online portals, set up sensible GKIS family rules and regulations, and most important of all, become your child’s trusted ally and guide should they stumble into an on or offline tangle. Too busy or overwhelmed by the task? Let GKIS be your guide.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty