Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Big Three: Cyberbullying, Sexting, and Porn with Jo Langford of

Jo's latest book.
Girl version coming May 2016!
Last night I traveled to Vashon Island to hear Jo Langford, MA, a sex educator and Seattle therapist, speak. I've been following Jo's work ever since I heard Amy Lang (of Birds + Bees + Kids) speak at our school two years ago. If you've read our blog before, you know we have spent a fair amount of time discussing issues of gender identity, stereotypes, and roles, particularly as these things play out online. Jo has been my go to resource for information about boys since I bought his book, The Sex EdCyclopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to Healthy Sexuality, For the Modern, Male Teen, at Amy's workshop. He has since written another book, Spare Me the Talk! A Guy's Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Growing Up, that is brilliant, and I am waiting patiently for the girl version to come out in May so I can have one more resource in my home that is practical and helpful for my kids.  In the meantime, I leave his books lying around for my daughters to read, in the hopes their curiosity will prompt them to learn more about the opposite gender, and hopefully something about themselves in the process. In addition to his published work, Jo has a collection of resources available on his website that include detailed and lengthy templates for "contracts" that he recommends for families as they work to establish boundaries, rules, and guidelines for technology use. These range from getting your first smart phone, to managing online gaming, substance abuse, and sexual activity.

Jo's style is direct, engaging, and unflinchingly honest. For example, as we listened to him talk about sexting, he stated quite simply, "It's only sexting when all parties involved are over 18." Otherwise? In the state of Washington it's child pornography. Plain and simple. Furthermore, as he addressed the behavior behind nude selfies and the exchange of images (sometimes just of body parts) he made three points.
1. Sending "dick pics" is a revolting way to flirt.
2. Sexting feeds into an already negative, pornified media cycle.
3. It's a felony.
Can't get much clearer than that. And that's just one example of Jo's straight talk. He's awesome.

When we talk about sexting in my classes,  I address with students not only the legal consequences of such behavior (during Technology and the Law week), but it resurfaces when discussing the impact of technology on our health, both physical and emotional. Sexting is a complicated topic for adolescents, but the simple truth is that, at least where we live, it is illegal, and the penalties are harsh because it falls under the label of child pornography. Some states have written laws specific to sexting to remove it from felony status, particularly if it is consensual (see New Mexico). If you are wondering how to talk about it with your child, you can bring it up in the context of a story from the news, or you can read more in depth the work of Dr. Elizabeth Englander, who has conducted some extensive studies on this growing phenomenon. In terms of harm, Dr. Englander says that what should be of greatest concern to us is coerced sexting. "Overall, about two-thirds of the teens in my research studies report that they were pressured or coerced into sexting at least some of the time," she says. And the consequences for those who did it under pressure were more significant than for those who engaged in the activity willingly.

But back to Jo! The bulk of the presentation was about social media, and a run down of the current popular apps among teens, which I have linked below to their reviews on Common Sense Media. Jo categorizes them as "good, bad, and ugly" based on the following criteria:
GOOD - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. These are good apps for kids to "cut their teeth" in social media, so to speak. Their online persona should look a lot like their real life persona. Likened to a "dinner party," in these apps kids can look around and figure out the rules and how to behave (don't throw food, don't shout at each other, be polite). But as with all apps/services, kids should know that what they post lasts a loooooong time and is not necessarily private. Furthermore, kids should be "social networking" in the real world, too, not just behind a screen all the time.

BAD - Snapchat, Burn Note, Calculator%, Line. These apps are in the bad category because they have the potential to dismantle self-esteem and put kids at risk for humiliation, bullying, and legal issues. Snapchat, which has recently overtaken Twitter as the third most popular app (behind Facebook and Instagram), is widely used among the teen population. While it's fun and entertaining, and to many seemingly harmless, Jo says it perpetuates a false sense of security. Promising that messages "disappear" after a set amount of time, Snapchat lulls kids into thinking there are no consequences to sharing whatever they might choose to Snap. In fact, you lose control over all content once you send it. He told us that 8 of his last 10 clients have ended up in his office in trouble because of Snapchat. How are people supposed to behave in these apps? It's not entirely clear based on your own use of and interaction with the app, and this can prove confusing to kids. You may have recently heard about the Calculator% app, or another called Photo Vault, in conjunction with a "sexting scandal" in Canon City, Colorado. The app allows you to effectively hide explicit photos behind an icon that innocently looks like a calculator. Jo's point about this was, "if you are using this app to hide what you are doing, you aren't using the Internet like a grown up."

UGLY - Kik, Meet Me,, Omegle, Yik Yak, Burn Book, After School. Apps in this category can encourage kids to mask their identity, promote cruel behavior, encourage kids to lie, break the law, or make it easy to be located by people they don't know. We encourage you to read the reviews and dig a bit deeper into these apps so you can determine your own comfort level. One of Jo's comments that particularly resonated with me as a consumer and a parent was this: "Using those apps gives your time, energy, and money to developers who encourage irresponsible behavior, who take take advantage of stupid people, and who support the predators who prey on them." As an educator, I have taken the time to actually install and experiment with a few of them, and I can honestly say, EWWWWW. Definitely a lot of potential for harm and hurt feelings, at the very least. Sometimes, the danger is much greater. Like Calculator% above, Kik has recently been in the headlines after the murder of a 13 year old girl, who was using the app to communicate with her 18 year old "boyfriend," a suspect in her death.
Obviously an app isn't solely to blame for behavior, and anything can be used for good or bad, but for adolescents who do not have their adult brain yet, the dangers and drawbacks of anonymity, location services, and oversharing are not immediately obvious. Connecting with strangers online can feel exhilarating and grown up. Imagine the cool things you may learn--and can then tell your friends. Even for a "good" app like Instagram, teens may be very careful about what they share as part of their digital footprint, but if they choose to follow a variety of accounts that exploit, stereotype, and insult all in the name of humor (no shortage of those), I believe there is a cumulative impact of looking at all that negativity on a constant basis. Certain behaviors get "normalized" to the point where kids stop questioning the morality of the content and perhaps even their own choices.

So here are just a few other tidbits from Jo I jotted in my notes because they were new to me, or new ways of thinking about familiar issues:

CYBERBULLYING. As far as cyberbullying goes, kids need to know that it happens. Somebody is going to be a jerk online...and this can even happen accidentally sometimes. Jokes aren't funny to everyone all the time, and lines are easily crossed. When it happens to you, don't reciprocate, don't stay silent, and block or report the behavior. To prepare for the online jerks of the world, learn how to give constructive criticism and show others how its done. We are capable of real dialog without snarkiness and hurt feelings, but we need to practice. Jo writes on his Facebook page:
In this digital age, kids need to know how to give proper, legitimate constructive criticism by age 12, now...
Concepts like:
  • Only jump in and say something if it really, really, really matters to you.
  • Before you jump in, consider whether or not your opinion is going to change anyone’s mind.
  • When you jump in, keep it simple. Focus on the words and behavior.
  • Keep it about The Thing, not the other person - Start off with “I” (like “I think the thing … ” or “I believe the issue … ”) not “you.”
  • Explain why you disagree (do your homework first).
  • Don’t just complain – contribute something positive to help move the conversation forward; keep it factual, mature, polite…
  • And don’t argue with the stupid or crazy, it never helps.
PORN. The average age of exposure is about 9 or 10 years old. [If you really have no idea how easy it is to come across "inappropriate content" try an image search for "nude" to see how graphic the results are -- this is me talking, not Jo. Trust me, you won't be looking at classic Renaissance paintings.] As a mother of teenage daughters, I have big concerns when it comes to porn and what kids are actually learning about healthy sexuality. In future posts, I plan to cover the pile of books I've been working my way through, including Untangled, by Lisa Damour, American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales, and Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein. Stand by...

As I conclude, my education continues as I look for ways to provide healthy sex education for kids to counter that which they might be learning from pornography or their other online exploits. Jo Langford is one the best resources I have found. If you have the opportunity to hear him in person (or even via webinar), GO. Follow him on Facebook, visit his website, make a point to know his name and his work. It has been my pleasure to work with some amazing educators over the last few years, many that are female. I've been hoping for a male voice, though, not because I think I will learn more or better, but because a different perspective is helpful for me. As I have told my students (and you) many times, I'm female, in a family of females, raising females. Not that there's anything wrong with that...but other points of view help!

UPDATE, April 25: Jo writes...

My new book, Spare Me ‘The Talk’!” THE GIRL VERSION! is coming out next month.
Seattle Children’s Hospital is hosting me (as part of ParentMap’s 2016 Lecture Series) on May 24th from 7-9pm. It will be a talk regarding media trends and safety for parents of t/weens, as well as the book launch for the new book. There will be new/ updated info of topics if you have seen me speak in the past around the most popular social networking apps kids are using, as well as some stats and tips around Sexting, Cyberbullying and Pornography. Please share with anyone you think might benefit/ be interested, and come celebrate with me!
Jo Langford