Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Teens, Cams, Sexual Predators and Digital Culture

This is one of those subjects that burns at my heart, but one that I don't even know where to begin to address it.  Let me start by saying this: I am 100% unqualified in a professional capacity to counsel or otherwise advise anyone on this subject and yet merely by the virtue of being a mom, I believe I am 100% qualified to have an opinion on it, and say *something* about it.  Fair enough?  I think so.

So where do we begin? I guess I'll begin with stating the obvious in that I'm a Christian so I'm going to address this from that worldview.  However, how I see it or how you see it doesn't change what it is. Or, how it affects our kids.  Yes, my kids and YOUR kids - and if you think your kids aren't affected by this, don't talk about it, or haven't known someone personally who was/is affected by it, you've probably got your head in the sand (or they just haven't told you, which is entirely possible).

The other day I had a conversation with my oldest daughter about this, and she shared with me how it breaks her heart as well that this is going on.  Fact is, it has been going on, for a lot longer than most parents have any clue about.  What exactly am I talking about?

- Teen girl gets an email with a nude pic of herself attached and a threat that reads something like "send me a nude video or more pics or I'll post this on your FB". Mr. Sick Pig emailer has hacked her system and she feels pressured to comply with his request.

- Teen (and pre-teen) girls posting nude selfies on so-called anon forums for kicks and grins and (hopefully) positive feedback. The more positive feedback she gets, the more she posts.

- Teen boys and girls partying, drinking, drugs, sexual activity (either consensual or not) taking place and being either recorded or phone pics taken then spread around the school.  As I'm sure you've read or heard of by now, in some cases the humiliation of having those kinds of images out there is more than the girl can bear, and she ends up taking her own life.

Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons are just two of the more well known cases where the disastrous mix of teens, cams, sex, digital culture and humiliation was just too much for these poor girls to handle.   Of all the ones we do hear about in the news, I always wonder how many more there are, that never come forward.  I suspect the number would be shockingly high.

During my conversation about this the other day with my daughter she mentioned that for some of these girls, such as the ones who post nude selfies, it's a matter of exploring their sexuality.  I certainly can't disagree with that.  Being a teenager is like having an alien take over your brain sometimes.  One minute you feel like a little kid and the next thing you know there are things on your chest or hair in places there was never hair before.  It's confusing and complex and weird and awesome and scary and all of the above.  Suddenly you aren't really you anymore, you're a new you and you're almost certain you have no idea who you really are.  It's been a long time since I've been a teenager, but that part of it I remember quite clearly.  I also remember it lasting for at least a couple of years, maybe longer.

Yet, when I was a teenager, the world was different.  Praise God above that we didn't have a digital world to play around in because if we did, we would have done the exact same things teenagers do now in that world.  We just did other dumb things and made other poor choices, in other areas.  For most of us, thankfully, there isn't any digital record of it, being shared over and over and over online, that will almost literally, never go away.

When I think of this and when I have conversations about this with hubby or the kids, the same sort of bullet points come up so here they are, in no particular order:

• We live in a sex-saturated culture and it's getting worse almost every day.  Everyone knows that, everyone sees it, but the affect it's having on this generation of kids is utterly devastating.  They are being desensitized every single day to the overt, graphic sexuality and nudity they see online, in video games, music videos, awards shows (oh, hi Miley, hi Rihanna, hi Lady Gaga, here's some pants and a top, I know you're not used to them but try them on anyway) and movies.  The message it sends to teenage girls is this one: You can get all the attention you desire, if you just take your clothes off and sexually exploit yourself. Do it often, and get more and more graphic and you'll have more and more attention.  The message it sends to teen boys is this one: Girls/Women are just things, objects to be enjoyed, used, and tossed aside when the next pretty one comes along. They're not human beings and they don't deserve any respect at all.  People say we live in a "rape-culture".  The sexual abuse, exploitation, degradation and objectification of women is not only tolerated, it's trivialized and even accepted or celebrated.  I believe a HUGE part of the reason this mindset exists has everything to do with what is being seen by our young men and women in culture.  As the old saying goes: "Garbage in - Garbage out".

• The internet is a great place for a bazillion different reasons and it's not going away.  It's also a dark, deceitful, wicked playground for some of the most depraved minds you could ever imagine.  There are things going on online, right now, right this very minute, that you would not believe even if you saw if for yourself. If you did see it for yourself, you would have nightmares and a broken heart.  There are files being shared, videos and pictures being viewed, and meetings being set up between innocent kids and sexual predators, right this very minute. There are girls being lied to, boys being lied to, boys watching videos, men scrolling through slideshows and much, much more.  There are live-cams up and running right now, being viewed by thousands and thousands of men... fathers, husbands, cops, priests, teachers, coaches, Sunday school teachers and mothers too.  Some of the most unimaginable violence and abuse is taking place online, right now, this very moment.  Most of us adults know this, even though we choose not to think about it and would never in a million years participate in it.  Most kids know it too, sadly.  Most of us will never see it, accidentally click on it, or venture into that world but some DO. Some kids, and some adults.  Some are curious, some don't believe it's real, some can't help but share with friends, and some feel an urge, a lure, and end up getting sucked into this evil and depraved world only to end up yet another victim or abuser.  I only wish I were exaggerating but the truth is, there are a lot more sex abuse victims out there than most of us realize.  One of the best things you can ever do for yourself and your family is find a good web-filter and install it on every desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, ipod and anything else in your house that connects to the internet.  It doesn't stop all the garbage from coming through but it stops most of it, and that matters.

• Talk to your kids about sex, sexuality, nudity, integrity, self-worth, respect, and who and what they want to be known for.  I know, for a lot of parents (and pretty much every teen on the planet) this is a horrifically uncomfortable subject to bring up with your kids but it's also one of the most IMPORTANT topics of conversation you'll ever have with them.  Just as important as talking with them, listen to them.  They've probably already seen things you didn't even know existed, or at the very least heard about them.  They might have questions, and they might have some really uncomfortable questions that make you feel unbelievably awkward but it's better they ask you, than ask some idiot that will give them an equally idiotic answer. Let's just be honest here, the world has no shortage of idiots, and idiotic ideals and worldviews.  If you're the one talking to your kids and listening to your kids and giving them the wisdom and genuine information they need to make the right choices, you're one step ahead of the idiocy out there.  I only wish as a younger mom I was more comfortable with this subject.  I wasn't, and I didn't talk to my older girls or listen to them the way I should have.  I tried, but I know I dropped the ball and I will not make that mistake with the younger ones.  Yes it's still a very awkward and uncomfortable subject but it's critical to be there for them.

I said I would address this from a Christian worldview and that can be easily summed up by my belief that the Bible is true, and declares that every person is created in the image of God.  That first fact alone dictates that people deserve respect. They do not deserve to be used, abused, mistreated as objects or callously disregarded. As for the sex-saturated/obsessed culture, it's rather heartbreaking that our society has taken what was created by God as the ultimate expression of love and commitment between a husband and wife, and made it a marketing tool, and so trivial that even 10 year kids don't even flinch when they see a naked popstar on a wrecking ball in a music video.  The very fact that the human race keeps going is proof enough that we are in fact, sexual beings.  However, that was meant to be a treasured thing, a private thing, a personal thing that you share with your spouse and your spouse alone.  The one thing you and your spouse have that is so personal between you two, that it's like this awesome magic secret that only you two share.  Sex was never supposed to be out there for the world to see, and when it is (and it is, in spades) all it does is cheapen it, trivialize it, and pervert it.

How you as a parent choose to approach this subject with your kids may differ considerably from mine.  At the very least though, I implore you to not ignore this, or think that your kids aren't affected by it.  One way I've read for parents to bring this up with their kids that makes a lot of sense to me is to ask them certain questions.  Such as "Do you know who Amanda Todd is?" (or, there may be, sadly, another girl or a boy in your local area that is more commonly known, or has been in the news, so you might want to ask them if they know who that person is), and go from there.  Most kids (like a lot of adults) have heard things, read things, and seen things that may or may not be accurate and may or may not have all the facts.  Do some research on this yourself and then bring it up with your teens.  Ask them how they feel about it.  Ask them what their friends say and how they feel about that, or what they might do if someone like Amanda was their friend.  Whatever you do, give them the freedom to share their thoughts and the tools to make good choices if and when they're ever in a situation where that wisdom is needed.

Being a good parent has never been easy, and it feels a lot harder now in the current culture but we have to stay on top of these things so our kids never have to suffer through the pain, humiliation and despair that we read about other kids going through. Our kids are precious, and the next generation. Even one victimized kid, is one too many.

If you have thoughts to share on this subject, please feel welcome to leave a comment.