September 11, 2013

A camp director’s thoughts on sexting

Sexting is bad. Our kids know – because we’ve told them –  that any image they transmit over the internet will take on an uncontrollable life of its own, may go viral, and could do them irreparable and lasting harm.

This is old news – so old that we need to figure out another way to keep our kids from sexting because the method most of us are using now –  frequent and impassioned parental infomercials – is not working.

it’s impossible – and a waste of our street cred – to try to get a kid to stop doing a bad behaviour unless we can identify the reason why they’re doing the behaviour. Humans always have motivation for what they do; uncovering motivation helps us intervene effectively.

What do teenage girls want? In my experience working with hundreds of adolescent girls every summer, their #1 goal is to be popular with the other girls and have the boys like them.

That’s why they sext. We, as parents, look at our adolescent girls and we think they’re smart and funny and athletic and artistic and great dancers etc. We think she’s a great person. Do they see themselves that way?

Teenage girls are conditioned by popular and peer culture to measure themselves by one pathetically thin and twisted yardstick: Am I hot? Because that’s what gets the boys’ attention, and it also gets girls points in the popularity contest that is their lives.

Thus girls are easily flattered into internet compliance. Or choosing independently to post scantily clad pics of her new bombshell body. Why? Because a teenage girl, struggling to figure out what else she has to offer, has been schooled by media that her body is good currency. A teenage girl, a person who is constantly measuring herself by how sexually attractive she looks, has an opportunity to photo-shop her picture and broadcast it. You’re surprised she runs with it? We know this is dangerous, but the teen’s frontal lobe is not so developped, so she points and clicks before she thinks.

As parents, if we succumb to our urge to prohibit this, we bring out their inner rebel (always in the adolescent wings). They stop listening and begin evasive maneuvers. And teens’ ability to sneak around in virtual space is tenfold their ability to sneak around in real space.

The cure: We need to help teenage girls define themselves more in terms of their personhood and less in terms of their sexual attractiveness. Strengthening their friendships with girls helps teenage girls make choices that are not acting against their better interest. A tight friend group can be protective against sucking up to the boys using their bodies.

The other way to inoculate girls against using their bodies to get boys’ attention is through activities. Girls who have a passionate connection with a sport or activity are safer from the motivation to please boys at any cost.

All teenage girls struggle with issues of self-image. This is their central developmental challenge: Who am I? The vulnerable ones see their lovely young bodies as their only passport to recognition and being valued. This is the motivation that drives sexting. Helping them find value in other aspects of their selves is a way to reduce this sexual publicity-mongering. As with every parental challenge, it won’t work to tell them how great they are. Self esteem comes from within. They have to find it: Our task is to create the opportunities for that journey of personal discovery.

A teen’s most urgent need is to feel grownup. Play to that: “I know you’re smart and mature enough to think this through. Use inquiry to get conversations going. “What do you get that’s positive? What could happen that’s not positive?

If we can help them figure out their motivation, we can ask them what the upsides and downsides are. Asking your teen questions like that will lead – eventually – to growing judgment.

How to teach our children judgment

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