“What are the risks to online dating for my teen?” “How can I help my teenager navigate digital communication in her new relationship?” “Are teenage dating apps safe?” “How do I start a conversation about the risks of sexting?”

Like many elements of life, dating and relationships are increasingly reliant on digital apps and communication. Digital dating allows opportunities for meeting new people and communicating even from a distance, but also poses many risks, especially to young people. On Wednesday, June 2, 2021, Children and Screens hosted “Modern Love: The Delights and Dangers of Digital Dating,” an Ask the Experts webinar. An interdisciplinary panel of experts discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly of online dating – from finding deep friendship and lasting connection to anxieties, self-esteem blows, and the potential for violence. In addition, the group shared advice for how you can support your teens as they navigate the online world of dating, by encouraging healthy habits while also building them up after devastating blows.

Speakers

  • Elizabeth Englander, PhD

    Executive Director, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center Professor of Psychology Bridgewater State University
    Moderator
  • Sarah Flicker, PhD

    Professor, York Research Chair (Tier2) in Community-Based Participatory Research, Environmental Arts & Justice Coordinator York University
  • Jeff Temple, PhD

    John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Community Health, Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology Director, Center for Violence Prevention, The University of Texas Medical Branch
  • Sarah DeGue, PhD

    Senior Health Scientist Division of Violence Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

From tinder swipes to sexting to ghosting, online dating interactions in 2021 come with high highs and low lows, both of which can be exacerbated by algorithms, public-facing information, immediate gratification, and constant connectivity. On June 2, 2021, Children and Screens hosted “Modern Love: The Delights and Dangers of Digital Dating,” an “Ask the Experts” webinar. Dr. Elizabeth Englander, Executive Director, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, and Professor of Psychology at Bridgewater State University moderated this interdisciplinary panel discussion. Dr. Englander kicked off the conversation by providing context for how digital dating has evolved and how it has become the norm for adolescents and young adults, even prior to the pandemic.

4:27 Expounding upon the evolution of online dating, Dr. Sarah Flicker, Professor and Environmental Arts & Justice Coordinator at York University, shares how the pandemic has changed the dynamics of youth courtship. After engaging with the audience through a series of questions about youth pandemic dating, Dr. Flicker shares her insights from focus groups with adolescent girls. Although teens were engaged in offline and online relationships prior to lockdown, the advent of the pandemic has further complicated the process of dating, an already stressful and complex custom. Dr. Flicker emphasizes that, to teens, dating is important and relationships are real, even if they do not last for very long, and parents should treat them as such. She concludes by encouraging parents to actively and continually engage in conversations with teens about dating and safety, both on and offline.

20:35 To further explore how teens are engaging in online relationships, Dr. Jeff Temple, Director of the Center for Violence Prevention at The University of Texas Medical Branch, offers crucial insight into sexting and its prevalence among adolescents. Dr. Temple explains the implications of sexting and presents his research findings that establish sexting as a marker for future sexual behavior. He makes a distinction between consensual sexting among older adolescents, coercive, problematic sexting, and sexting when it is not age appropriate, noting the negative health consequences for teenage sexting, particularly for younger teens. Dr. Temple also addresses the complicated reasons many teen girls continue to stay in relationships that include cyber abuses, and echoes Dr. Flicker’s recommendations for engaging in ongoing dialogue with teens about their online and offline relationships.

35:07 Adding to the discussion about online sexual violence, Dr. Sarah DeGue, Senior Health Scientist in the Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, delineates the ramifications of cyber dating abuse, and stresses its prevalence among teens. While most sexual violence online occurs in mild forms, Dr. DeGue acknowledges that extreme cases do occur, and that these are often correlated with other forms of violence. After highlighting the consequences of cyberdating abuse for physical and mental health, Dr. DeGue directs her attention to parents, offering tips and resources for cyber dating abuse prevention and amelioration.

55:34 In the final segment of this thought-provoking discussion, the three panelists and Dr. Englander addressed several questions from the audience, including inquiries about how involved parents should be in teens’ online lives, how to respond to unwanted solicitations for sexts, how to start the conversation about dating and cyberdating, and more.

Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra: Hi and welcome! I am Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, President and Founder of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, and host of the popular Ask the Experts Webinar Series. There are many aspects of life today that teens and young adults are experiencing differently than their parents. One of the most prominent being the prevalence of online dating. From Tinder swipes, to sexting, to ghosting, online dating interactions in 2021 come with high highs and low lows, both of which can be exacerbated by algorithms, public facing information, immediate gratification, and constant connection. Today, we have convened an outstanding group of interdisciplinary experts to discuss all the delights and dangers associated with dating in the digital age. They have reviewed the questions you submitted and will answer as many as possible during and after their presentations. If you have additional questions during the workshop, please type them into the Q&A box at the bottom of your screen. When you do, please indicate whether or not you would like to ask your question live on camera if time permits, or if you’d prefer that the moderator read your question. We’re recording today’s workshop and will upload a video to Youtube in the coming days. All registrants will receive a link to our Youtube channel where you’ll find, from our past webinars, 31 videos which we hope you will watch as you wait for this video to be posted. It is now my great pleasure to introduce our moderator. Dr. Elizabeth Englander is a Founder and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, which delivers programs, resources, and research to more than 400 schools every year nationwide. Welcome, Elizabeth! 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Thank you so much, Pam, and welcome everybody! Thank you so much for taking the time to come to this webinar. I think you’re going to find it incredibly useful. My name is Dr. Elizabeth Englander, and as Pam mentioned, I’m the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center and my research and work focuses on kids and their social relationships and their digital behaviors, and we have a really exciting group for you to talk to you today. A few points I just thought I would make to, sort of, frame this discussion before we get started. First point is that I think it’s really important to understand that how we’ve looked at digital dating and problems like sending pictures between dating couples or kids, that has really evolved a lot. At first, I think, it was very alarming and people were sure it was very very harmful for kids and today we are at the point where we take a little bit more of a nuanced approach and we understand that for some kids, these can be risky behaviors but for others, it’s not and I think that’s what one of the things you’re going to hear about from the speakers. The other point I think is really important to make is that most of the times when kids are on social media or on, you know, when they’re dating somebody and they’re communicating with them, most of the time, it really doesn’t result in anything bad happening. Kids make mistakes online, like they do in-person, and these are normal and it’s really very very unusual for anything really bad to happen, which is why you only hear about bad things in the media. Alright, having framed it this way, let’s go ahead and let me introduce our first speaker who is Dr. Sarah Flicker. Dr. Sarah Flicker is a full professor in the faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University in Toronto, Canada, where she holds a Research Chair in community-based participatory research. Her research focuses on adolescent health promotion and engages youth and allied actors in environmental, sexual, and reproductive justice scholarship and activism. So please join me in welcoming Dr. Sarah Flicker. Sarah—

 

Dr. Sarah Flicker: Good afternoon, everyone. It is a treat and a pleasure to be here today and I’m so excited to talk about one of my favorite topics which is teen dating. My research engages young people in thinking about risk and well-being and joyousness and sexuality and thinking about how they want to come of age and become young adults in the world in ways that promote their health and safety and well-being. So today, I’m going to share with you a little bit about my research and I’m really going to focus my talk on this current pandemic moment, where just about everything in adolescent lives has changed and/or have been exacerbated by all the changes in their lives so I want to preface this by saying that so many of our lives have moved online during the pandemic and spend even more time online and a pandemic and what that has done for thinking about adolescent dating is exacerbated or perhaps amplified all the stuff that was there before in terms of how youth related to each other. I’m sharing my screen here are a few slides with you so I live in Canada and I’m from Toronto but I believe that the research that we’ve been collecting the data on the impact of school closures in particular on young people is most certainly relevant in the US and many parts of the country where children have been in and out of school and in and out of lockdown for over the last year, and we seen that these have had impacts on their academic progress on their mental health on their physical well-being and has again exacerbated many of the inequalities that were there before hand, so kids who were having a harder time accessing resources before the pandemic are having an even harder time during the pandemic as a result of all of these closures. So, one of the big things we’ve in this data is a little bit old, about a year old but we have seen this very worrying trend that young people, in particular school-age children but teenagers, have had a worse than impact on our mental health as a result of onset of physical distancing with the pandemic and over the last year, we seen a real second, hidden crisis around mental health as young people have suffered the impact of isolation, of being away from their friends, their family, their peer support network and this is really important too is to remember we can contextualize what is it mean for them to form and sustain relationship online when it’s for many their only opportunity to form and sustain relationships over the last year. We also know that these impacts aren’t distributed evenly that young women in particular and queer identified young people have been disproportionately impacted and we’ve also seen very worrying and spikes in gender-based violence and family violence in the home over the last year and so these are also really important to think about as we think about how youth are able to connect and find other people to connect with online for social support. So I want to invite you to have a little thought experiment in terms of thinking about what’s going on for young people and thinking about their dating and think about pre-COVID if you’d asked if I asked any of you over a year ago ‘how risky do you think teen kissing is?’ for most of you I’d imagine you would have thought that was pretty innocuous activity perhaps the right of passage, perhaps something that most teens will experience at some point in their teenage lives and that is a part of healthy, normal development in terms of figuring out their sexuality. But today as you ask parents of teenagers like ‘how are you feeling about your teens having their first kiss?’ Many of them are very anxious about it in the context of COVID. That means taking off your mask, getting close to someone, and it carries all kinds of layered ideas of risk as we get our teenagers vaccinated. Now considering texting, I mean sexting, excuse me. Sending sexy pictures or messages through your phone and again 2 years ago this would have caused a lot of alarm, a lot of people were very very worried about thinking about what it meant and now today, many people ask ‘is it better than them kissing in person?’ ‘What does it mean to have a romantic relationship that’s totally mediated online?’ ‘How can we support or teens to think about benign sexual with potential partners in ways that feels safe or safer?’ and ‘how can we coach them perhaps about how to imagine having that sexual relationship or practice having sexual relationships online and ways that feel safe and reduce harm but allow them the freedom to have a first relationship?’ So, when we’re thinking about what this all means, things have really changed. And we’ve been doing  research in particular with 13 girls about what does it mean to experience their first relationship during a global pandemic. So what is this looking like and how are young women and teenage girls talking about these issues? And so what we know is pre-pandemic that girls and young people in general were already spending a lot of their time online, so the data is pre-pandemic about 50% of teens girls reported spending most of their free time online already. 8% of teens had reported dating someone that they met online, and over half had been engaged in flirting behaviors pre-pandemic. Over 70% of teens said that they felt closer to their significant other because of these exchanges that they had online, so being able to text your boyfriend or your girlfriend made you feel closer and more special. However, and this is important to consider as well, that teen girls are both more likely to send sexts to their partners and/or receive unwanted, unsolicited sex uninvited. For example, quite commonly, young women told us that they received unsolicited pictures of penises that maybe they didn’t necessarily want to come their way. So, this was again, pre-covid just to set the context of what was already kind of going on and what was a normal part of adolescent dating. So we’ve been doing these focus groups on Zoom where we invite young people to come and chat with us much like today where we will get a group of eight to 10 young women and we will have tons of chats weekly. We invite people pretty much through Instagram and Facebook and they come and we have great chats and we talk about what is going on with your dating life online, and they’ve been really fun, and we have learned a lot. One of the big things we learned and again this is unsurprising is that pre-covid, dating was mostly done in person, sometimes online, in terms of starting your relationship. But during lockdowns, the only option available is obviously online so now more and more young people are telling us that this is the way they’re starting relationships and needing people because they can’t go anywhere so again that’s not surprising but it is a big shift. A lot of young people talk to us about how online flirting has become sort of game to pass the time, they’re home, they’re bored, they’re alone and so flirting or searching for relationships or thinking about relationship is kind of something that is fun to do and feels relatively safe from the context of their own living room to just spend a bunch of time thinking about that and here you see some quotes, ‘Hey, I’m bored and I’m lonely. Let’s talk’ because what else do I have going on right now. But for many young women and teenagers in general, the rules aren’t necessarily clear. Lots of young people talked about having both the rules and terms of the rules with their parents and navigating how much online time they’re allowed to have, and who they’re allowed to talk to, and how they’re allowed to talk. Being unclear as well as the right etiquette for starting and ending and continuing relationships online, the potential partners that they might not have any real in person contact with. So pre-covid, a lot of the times they told us so ‘there’s this guy at school’ or ‘this girl in school that I’m really into’ and we’re talking online but we also are interacting at school and we have peer groups that sort of help us manage our complicated situations, but when you’re dealing with total strangers, it’s even more complicated to start like ‘what are the rules?’ ‘What are the etiquettes?’ ‘How should we be thinking about it?’ ‘How do we even have these conversations?’ Now the interesting thing is with the physical elements removed for most teenagers of relationships, relationships are feeling a little bit more stressful, a little bit more confusing in terms of again navigating the rules and figuring out you know, ‘Do we have a bad Wi-Fi connection or they are just ghosting me?’ ‘Did someone take away their phone or do they just not want to talk to me?’ You know and understanding those kinds of dynamics. So, my take home messages from my little intro today is that young people’s romantic lives are extremely important to them, that technology remains a very important part of mediating that experience and very normal part of adolescent dating and for most young people that we we do research with, the toxicity that they face online is rarely related to extreme examples of sexual exploitation, so I think that’s the fear that many parents have, but it’s not necessarily the reality that most teenagers experience. For more often, the challenges that they face online have much more to do with broader concerns about, authenticity, about truthfulness, about reciprocity, about accountability, and these are challenges that again I’d suggest are exacerbated from normal adolescent kind of relationships whether they’re in person or online and when were helping and coaching and supporting your young people and thinking about how to navigate these circumstances, these are skills only and regardless of whether there are dating online or in person, and so, validating real pain around break up or real pain around rejection or real pain around hard times even if it’s with someone that your teenager has only been like dating or seeing or even texting for like a day is really important because they’re they’re feeling these big feelings, and it’s important to acknowledge them, to support them, and open up those lines communication so that you can support them if they are having real mental health challenges and/or support them as they continue on and relationships or being a person that you can come talk to and real trouble essentially does arise. So as we move into month 18 of our COVID-reality and we begin to rethink or what does risk look like and what does harm reduction look like and how can we be supporting our young people, it’s important to remember that the online element is here to stay and how can we work with our young people to help them navigate all relationships whether are mediated online or in person and whether if they are good and supportive and healthy, and I will end here with this recent communication from Toronto Public Health that was all about safe for sex during COVID and I was just kind of astonished to see far we have come when it coems to from having really frank conversations with the public about does what is harm reduction look like in these times, thinking about conversations about washing your hands, when to take off on mask, how do you think about where does masturbation been in, how do you when you decide to connect in person versus online, these are all questions we’ve been having for a really long time and I think one of the affordances of COVID is that it allows us to air these conversations really publicly because we’re all forced into our own homes in some ways and to think about OK, now that we’re here how do we want to proceed and how do we want to give our teenagers the tools to ask kinds of questions that will help them navigate and practice these skills around navigation and consent that will serve them well long into the future so, I’m really delighted and open for questions, and I just want to take a brief moment to thank my postdoctoral fellow Dr. Alanna Goldstein who was side-by-side with me on this amazing research journey. So I welcome questions. 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Thank you, Sarah! That was so interesting and I know we do have some questions from parents and I’m going to, sort of, put them together and ask you a question that I think, kind of, puts this together. When we talk in our research about sexting, how kids communicate with their parents, one of the things we really emphasize is how important on-going discussion is with kids, just about what’s going on in their lives, and who they’re interested in and what that person is like, and how they’re feeling about things, and I’m just wondering if you could give parents, especially as we come out of a pandemic and we have a situation where kids have been all online and now they can translate into seeing people in  person again, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how parents can start these kinds of conversations with their kids? Do you have any thoughts about that?

 

Dr. Sarah Flicker: I sure do! I think that the conversations need to start even earlier, like ‘Who are you hanging out with? ‘Who are you friends with?’ ‘Who are you thinking about?’ If your kids are kind of using apps like Tinder, what’s it like to sit there and watch them swipe right this way or that way and  ask them questions like ‘why do you find this person attractive?’ ‘Why not that person?’ The more you know the more you can kind of show interest in your adolescent’s life in as a non-judgmental way as possible that invites conversation in them to open up to you the more you build that foundation for when they get you get into a header conversation and so thinking about as well, there’s nothing that will get a teenager to act out like telling them they can’t do something, right? So the idea to say like, ‘you can never sext,’ seems like a really great way of encouraging them to do that behind your back. So you know, again, inviting them into that conversation around, well what’s the point, what are you trying to do? How can you act sexy in a way that maybe doesn’t send a nude picture of your body parts? Can you send them a really cute smile shot? Can you send them something more suggestive about how excited you are to see them that doesn’t necessarily make you vulnerable later and thinking about all the cyber safety issues there. So again rather than shutting down and putting firm rules, I would really encourage parents to open up and have conversations and navigate those boundaries together in ways that invite them to keep talking.

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Absolutely! I think that’s absolutely great advice, Sarah. Thank you so much. It’s really really helpful and we often find that parents feel lost about how to begin this but I think that these conversations are, kind of, on-going and you’re talking with your kids about what they like and trying not to get too distracted by the technology. Try not to get too distracted by the technology—this is about relationships and having those conversations can be really helpful. Let’s move on to our next speaker. Thank you again, Dr. Flicker. Dr. Jeff Temple is our next speaker. He is the John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Community Health at the University of Texas, Medical Branch, as well as a licensed psychologist and a Founding Director of the Center for Violence Prevention. His research focuses on the prevention of interpersonal, community, and structural violence. He recently co-chaired the Texas Task Force on Domestic Violence and served on the Board of Directors of the Texas Psychological Association. So, welcome Dr. Temple, we’re all looking forward to hearing from you. 

 

Dr. Jeff Temple: Thank you so much Dr. Englander and thank you Dr. Flicker for that excellent presentation. I’ll say when when you were presenting, one of the things that I was reminded of was that right at the beginning of the pandemic, and I was being interviewed by the media outlets about how this is affecting kids, and I think one way that they handled it better than we did is that they know the online world and that they are used to initiating and maintaining relationships through the online world. Now that being said, I also know that it has been a pretty terrible year for kids, and you know, I don’t want to minimize that but I will say that they’re better than us and that they handled at least the initial part of the pandemic better than we did. They didn’t skip a beat with their friendships as much as we did. First of all, I love the Toronto PSA. That was fantastic about safe sex but I really also like what you said about talking to your kids about these relationships, that their real relationships and it might be a week or a day but it means at this time, everything to them and so not to diminish or discount that and realize and when you talk to them how important it is for them. More onto my presentation I am a dating violence researcher and kind of just fell into studying sexting. I was at a hotel room in Dallas, Texas in 2010, and I was working on the second year of a which now is a 15-year longitudinal study on looking at the risk of and protective factors of dating violence and I saw something on the news about sexting and you know basically the news reporter was talking about how it was going to be the end of the world as we know it and I wanted to study that as a researcher and a psychologist so I looked it up, saw that there wasn’t really anything out there in the empirical literature. So as I was designing my survey, I made up four questions. The good part about being one of the first to look at a topic is that you don’t have to do a whole lot of research on what’s out there because nothing’s out there, you just make it up. The bad part is sometimes you make up stupid questions and I did that as well, so we asked about whether they sent a naked picture, whether they received a naked picture were they asked or been asked for a naked picture of another teen, and you know I added that the survey and a year later I had my fifteen minutes of fame, was on CNN and every other media outlet talking about sexting. So I became the sext pert for a couple days and in that study we found, someone talked a little bit about how little this is happening, this idea of sexting, and here, we’re talking about sending naked pictures and we define it in our study as without clothing but it has been one of the problems with the research has just been to find a whole bunch of different ways and we turn in our study that an equal number of boys and girls had sent a naked picture to another teen so about 28% of boys 28% of girls and remember this is in 2012 before smartphones were as ubiquitous as they are now, and perhaps not surprising over 75% of the girls were asked to send a naked picture, so I would bet that was repeated today, and it has been actually, and it is a lot higher that pretty much every teen girl or young adult female has been asked to send a naked picture through texting or through the smartphones. So since then, again this was in 2010, there has been quite a few other studies looking at sexting with the rates varying from 1% which is sort of laughably low to 60 to 70% of teens sending naked pictures. So what we did he get a better handle on how much this is happening is we did a meta-analysis and for those that aren’t aware of what that it is basically study of studies so we took all the studies at the time that had taken place and in this case it was 39 studies on sexting that had, if you add all the participants, the subjects up from the 39 studies, it was 110,000 participants and what we found was that 15%, again, this is the 39 studies 110,000 participants, so a pretty nice representative sample, and what we found was that 15% of teens have reported spending a naked picture and 27% had reported receiving a naked picture. What was really interesting about this is and maybe not surprisingly was that the prevalence increased with age, so it was a 12 to 17 year old sample. As it got closer to 16 to 17, the prevalence increase and also year of data collection kind of goes back to what I said, the comment I made earlier, that the more recent the data was collected that coincided with more smart phone use and younger smartphone acquisition, the higher the prevalence of sexting was so now we know how often it happens and one of the questions that I get asked is, ‘do we care?’ And so, I promise that we’ll get to that and I promise with my answer is yes-ish. So when I was on the media in 2012 after the study came out, it was a lot of, understandably, shocked folks saying, ‘Oh my God, it’s that high?’ But then when you ask people like the teachers or people who work with adolescents it was, ‘Oh my God, it’s that low?’ So there was this surprising difference in how people responded to our results But they always were shocked, and understandably so, it was a scary time when this was happening and what does it mean. Does it mean they’re not going to become president of the United States? Not go to college? Get kicked off the football team? And really what Dr. Englander said that that doesn’t really happen. And what I would doing in those media interviews is I would remind people that you know, more teens are having actual, real, live sex than they are sexting so while I’m grateful that you’re interested in my study, in my results and I’m glad to be here, we shouldn’t forget about that and we should continue to talk about safe sex and healthy sexuality and healthy relationships. So you know, Dr. Englander mentioned that earlier that the online world and the offline world is kind of one in the same, that kids who are, you know, sexually active in real life are probably going to be more sexually active online, and that’s certainly what we found in our study and other studies. And so, I think where we should be concerned or where our focus should be on sexting is in a few different areas. One is let’s use it as an opportunity to look at it possibly a marker for future sexual behavior so that if we know that teens are sexting and if we catch the teens sexting let’s use that as an opportunity continue your conversation about sex, safe sex, and healthy relationships as opposed to punishing them. Now that being said, I think our other focus should be on coercive sexting or non consensual sexting. So, this is, you know, someone sends a picture that was not asked or someone says, ‘Hey send me another picture or I’m going to send the one you already sent me to a bunch of other people.’ That’s stuff we still need to focus on, really where our focus needs to be. And lastly is, let me just say, when we look at the health effects of secting, what we really think is happening now and Dr. Englander’s stuff has shown this as well, is that it is probably not the consensual sex scene between a 16 or 17 year old that is related to negative consequences, that it is the early that early sexting, so 13-14 year-old where that is too early to have sex in real life and it’s too early to sext. We also see the negative consequences when it’s coerced, so just like real life when sex is coerced that’s when you see the negative consequences, so you know, that’s really where our focus should be is on the coerced, non-consensual younger sexting as opposed to consensual sexting between a 17 year old. You know, I often and lately have kind of come around and Dr. Englander has been one of the leaders in this thinking, is you know when I first started it was seen as a risky behavior and its going to be associated with other risky behaviors and we got to stop it. And as I’ve come to study it and understand it more, I’ve appreciated the fact that it is just like real life sexual behavior, a normative thing, a new normative courtship behavior that we all would have done if we had smartphones, in the 1400s if they have smartphones they would have done it as well and that we would be worried about a 17 year old who wasn’t interested in sex, so you know it’s hard to talk about that normative behavior without sounding like I’m saying it’s OK or condoning it that’s not what I’m saying; I’m just saying that it’s not surprising. 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Thanks, Jeff, that was really interesting! I love hearing about your research. We had a really great question that came in earlier that I want to pose to you but I’m going to, sort of, put it together with a question of my own, which is that one of the things that we noticed in our lab in looking at sexting was that it seemed to really be very similar to all of the dynamics—the gender dynamics and the sexual dynamics—that we see among kids being sexually active in person, and it really seemed to be a very similar behavior in a lot of ways. So given all we know about why kids stay in relationships that are not healthy, or that are actively abusive, why do you think kids who are in digital dating relationships that are abusive stay together? 

 

Dr. Jeff Temple: Yeah, it’s an excellent question and I love it too because I’ve been talking about this for 25 years and looking at violent relationships and one of the common refrains is why does she stay with him in a violent relationship and you know what we talk about is relationships are hard and they’re hard to get out of and we’re taught on how to get out of them; we’re not given these relationship skills and we don’t get into a relationship with someone because they are abusing us, you know initially it is because we care about them and they care about us and we develop feelings for them, and we start to love them and they love us and we do things for each other and so we develop those relationships and then so when it turns around to abuse whether in person abuse or digital abuse, we still have feelings for that person; we still like that person; we still care for that person, so more difficult to say why doesn’t he or she just leave that person because there are feelings there. There’s also the stress with leaving a relationship. One, it could be the stress of being alone, in reference to our talk today having to go on dating sites or having to figure it out again, having to be nervous about finding someone else and then also and more real, is the worried about increase in abuse when you leave that partner, so we can see this and in-person relationships whether it’s dating relationship or more serious, marital relationships that is one of the most dangerous times for a woman or a man in abusive relationship is when did they decide and when they leave that relationship and we’ll see the same thing with digital abuse is when you leave it that digital abuse has ongoing and by the way if they’re digitally abusive, they’re probably abusive in-person and vice versa. That line separating our online and offline world is blurred or nonexistent. So, when you leave a relationship, that digital abuse is probably going to increase as well and that could mean anything from threatening behaviors digitally or distributing naked pictures of you to the internet.

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: And I think that one of the good points to emphasize, too, is that sometimes how the media treats this, and I’m sure that Jeff would agree with this, sort of gives you the wrong impression about what’s common and what’s rare. So, we hear a lot about things like, you know, pictures being distributed—unauthorized distribution of nude photos—and actually when you look at the data from kids who sext, that’s not a very common problem. It does happen but it’s not like it happens a 100% of the time, and so I think it’s really important. I think that’s basically what Jeff was just saying. We need to keep moving on. Thank you so much, Dr. Temple, I love your work! Okay—

 

Dr. Jeff Temple: Likewise.

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: As speaker number three, we have Dr. Sarah DeGue. She is a Senior Scientist in the Research and Evaluation Branch of the Division of Violence Prevention in the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and Lead for CDC’s Dating Matters: Teen Dating Violence Prevention Initiative where her work has focused on national dissemination of the first comprehensive multi-level teen dating prevention model. This is very important work; we are thrilled to have you, Dr. DeGue, and take it away. 

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Englander and the folks at Children and Screens. It’s really a pleasure to be here today and to talk about this important topic. I will say that the topic I wanted to focus on today, which is part of my work at the Division of Violence Prevention at CDC on, kind of, the dark side of dating and technology, does, I feel like, take a step further into the issues that y’all have been talking about. But I want to, you know, agree first that, absolutely, technology is going to be an important and irreversible part of our dating relationships, our relationships in general going forward in human history. And  while there are a lot of dangers and risky things that can happen online, there is essentially a form of what happens already in our relationships in person, and it’s not the norm. So, I just wanted to kind of agree with that overarching point before I move into some of the details about what it does look like when dating needs technology and there are forms of violence that occur. So that’s kind of what I want to focus on a little bit today, just to give parents also some context of what to look for, how do you know what those additional or unique risks might be for kids when they’re especially younger teens, when they’re starting to date and they’re engaging in relationships online and they aren’t exactly sure where the line is, where the risks are, and how they can protect themselves and how you, as parents, help protect them as well. So, just in terms of background, we define dating violence at CDC and in most of the field as a form essentially of intimate partner violence. So intimate partner violence is what we call, kind of, the overarching area of dating or partner violence, but in adolescence and young adulthood. And like, you know,  partner violence in adulthood, it includes multiple forms. It can be physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, or psychological aggression, and it can be perpetrated by a current or former intimate partner and it can happen in person or, as we’ll talk about more today, electronically. And we know that millions of young people do experience dating violence each year. The most recent data from CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which occurs in our Division of Violence Prevention, found that 1 in 6 girls and 1 in 12 boys in high school have been physically and/or sexually victimized by a dating partner in the last year alone. So it is happening to a lot of kids, but the forms that it takes can vary, of course. We’ll talk more about that. So that, though, is more than 3 million high school students experiencing some form of dating violence each year and we know that dating violence can begin—and does begin—as early as middle school and often occurs in college-age relationships as well, so the total number of young people affected by this is pretty high. So the topic we’re focused on today is cyber dating abuse, which as I said, is essentially just a form of teen dating violence in which new technology or new media is used to harass, control, abuse a dating partner, and it can happen by text, or phone, on email or instant message, on social media or social apps, or interactive video games, and it can take a lot of different forms but there’s two particularly dangerous forms that I want you to be aware of as we’re talking about this today. And again, just to emphasize, these are not all super common things that could happen but I think it’s important because they do happen and that young people and families are aware of these risks and how to reduce the likelihood that your children will experience them. So one of the first ones is cyberstalking, and like in-person stalking, this involves using technology to, can involve using technology to, track or monitor a partner, including logging in or hacking into their social media or their phones or their emails without permission to monitor their communications and use social media check-ins to find out where they are, who they are hanging out with, what are they doing, what are they saying. You can also use other forms of technology or social media activity to track their physical location or who they’re with, it can involve sending repeated or unwanted messages; whether they’re threats, whether they’re anonymous or not, and those are intended to intimidate or threaten the victim, or make them feel surveilled or scared. And kind of a related form of abuse that can overlap a lot with cyberstalking is cyber harassment and abuse, and this is probably the most common form that young people experience, though our data is still, kind of, limited on this. But cyber harassment and abuse are the behaviors that involve sending mean or abusive messages to people; repeated, unwanted messaging, impersonating someone online to embarrass them or get them in trouble, spreading rumors or bullying online, posting harassing or embarrassing content about someone online. It can also be used to control the victim by asking them where they are, who they are with, or demanding an immediate reply to all messages or calls. We all, kind of, sometimes feel tied to our phones and people feel like they can reach us at all times. When it’s your partner who’s trying to track your every move, having a phone, having access to the computer makes that more difficult to escape from. There’s also a lot of behaviors that are similar to the kind of psychological abuse that happens in person but its effects on the victim can actually be amplified by being online because other people can witness it. There can be public embarrassment that’s harder to get over, get away from, and they might feel like, as I said, they can’t really get away from their abuser because they’re always tied to some kind of electronic way that they can be reached and tracked. One study that came out recently highlighted some, kind of, real world examples of what kids have experienced and they said things like one partner hacked into his partner’s Facebook account, read all of the messages that she had ever received or posted and made her explain each one and what she was thinking in that context. Another partner made a ‘hate website’ about their former partner and a lot of other people did post nasty comments to that. So, of course, these kinds of instances are rare, as you all have noted, but they do happen, so we need to, kind of, be aware of those risks. And most of my research is in the area of sexual violence and sexual violence does also occur online and there are technology facilitated forms of sexual violence that are also incredibly dangerous and harmful when they do occur. And they’re not super uncommon, they’re obviously not the norm but they do happen and those can be things like Dr. Temple mentioned; you know, receiving unwanted nude—and actually Dr. Flicker as well—unwanted nude pictures, sexual photos, or demanding or coercing a partner into sending sexual pictures of themselves. They could also force or coerce a partner into engaging in unwanted sex acts on video. And while sexting is a form of, you know, when it’s consensual, might have some risks involved in it and can have some serious consequences. It’s the non-consensual sexting that we consider a form of sexual violence or others refer to as remote sexual assault. There are also two, kind of,  extreme forms of sexual violence that occurs online and those are sextortion and revenged porn, which has also been alluded to. But sextortion is when someone is blackmailed, usually with threats of sharing sexual images of the victim with their friends or family or publicly, and those threats are used to solicit or coerce additional images being sent in most cases. And you know there have been extreme cases where people have, strangers have hacked into those computers and got those images and use them to do blackmail, but much more common is that the victim, say, has consensually sent the original pictures to the partner and then they use them as blackmail to obtain more. When it’s happening after a breakup or a fight or something, we can, we refer to that as revenge porn—the idea that you use those images and share them publicly to humiliate or embarrass the person as a form of revenge, to get them in trouble, or ruin their other relationships. And so, again, not super common but it does happen and the risks of that are there whether those original images are created and shared consensually or not consensually. And if you haven’t seen it, there’s a really excellent but devastating investigative report that Nicholas Kristof did in the New York Times in the last year, where he looked at all these cases where mostly young women, but also some young men had had a pornographic films of themselves or sexual images uploaded to PornHub by a former partner or someone else who got a hold of it and the just terrible consequences of that and how difficult, if not impossible, it is to ever erase those images from the internet. And so I would suggest you to look at that just to, kind of, understand what those extreme—again, not common but extreme—consequence can be of these images being online and where young people may not recognize those kinds of risks. So, how often is this happening? We have a lot less data on cyber dating abuse and other forms of violence but one large study of 7 to 12 graders found about 1 in 4 boys and 1 in 4 girls, who have dated, experienced some form of cyber dating abuse in the last year. This is mostly the psychological, emotional kinds of abuse that are lower level, obviously not revenge porn and some of these more extreme forms of violence, but it’s not uncommon for kids as young as 7th grade to be experiencing this. And that study was actually in 2013, so it’s likely that kids have even more access to the internet and technology now and then those, both the usage and the risks, are increased. And then there’s another study looking at younger kids found that about 15% of sixth-graders reported ever perpetrating some form of cyber dating abuse. So this is happening before the age of 12 and we need to get to kids when they’re very young to help them understand how to have healthy relationships, how to engage safely online, and how to use technology in their dating lives in a way that protects them and other people. Cyber dating abuse does co-occur with other forms of violence and health concerns in teens, including other forms of teen dating violence in person, bullying, sexual perversion, delinquency, sexyal activity, depression, and anger/hostility among other things, of course. All these risk factors, you know, co-occur and are related. And this early violence exposure has harmful effects on young people including poor educational outcomes, and a greater risk for depression/anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse. Exposure to teen dating violence also sets the stage for longer term relationship problems including a greater risk for partner violence, victimization, or perpetration in adulthood. So it’s really critical we reach young people before this violence happens. The good news is that we know parents can help protect their teens from dating violence both online and offline and that there is a lot we can do, both as a society and as parents and educators. So to help prevent teen dating violence, CDC developed the Dating Matters Comprehensive Teen Dating Violence Prevention Model that Dr. Englander mentioned in my introduction and it includes a lot of coordinated violence prevention strategies across contexts to reduce risks for teen dating violence and promote healthy relationships and healthy relationship skills, starting in middle school, for youth and their parents, trainings for teachers and other activities that happen at the community level. It tends to really create community level change rather than just working at the individual level with people, and it’s now available, you know, across the country for free online on our website if you’re interested in talking to your schools about starting some Dating Matters programs. But what I want to share today is just some of the tips that are highlighted in the parenting programs from Dating Matters, which are programs intended for parents of the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. And so they’re really focused on getting to young people as those relationships date, first, you know, as a peer relationship where they’re more separate from their parents, aging on their own, but also as the dating and romantic relationships start to evolve in that age group as well. So the goal of dating those is to help our kids learn how to have healthy, safe relationships and to expect respect from their partners, right? Another main message is that parents are the best relationship and sex educators. The research says that talking to your kids about relationships and sex does not increase the likelihood that they will become sexually active. In fact, talkign to your kids about sex and relationships will decrease the likelihood that they will engage in sexual activity. Open, responsive parent-child discussions can postpone or reduce sexual activity in teens and may reduce the risk for sexual and other parts of dating violence as well. We also know that if they don’t learn from you, they’ll learn somewhere else. Those sources may have less knowledge, resulting in more risk behaviors for your child. They may not share your values, the other sources, and they may not have accurate information. So, you know, there are a lot of great resources online if Dating Matters isn’t available in your community at this point, where you can find helpful information to start these conversations and give your kids that, kind of, accurate information early. And we do need to start early; remember that, you know, 1 in 6 are already engaging in some kind of, or reporting, perpetrating cyber dating abuse and victimization rates are likely higher. So we need to start having these talks early and often. One tip from our parent training that I find very useful is using the facts plus values formula, and that means that when you’re talking about these things with your kids, you start with the facts. Just provide accurate information without any values, judgments, or opinions. For example, you could just explain what are condoms, how are they used, how do they protect against pregnancy and STIs, right, but then you follow it with the statement of your values, and in your own expectations or personal perspective about the issue. So you might say that condoms should be used every time you have sex unless you’re in a long-term exclusive relationship and using other forms of birth control, or whatever your values would be.   

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Dr. DeGue, I don’t want to interrupt you but we’re running over and we do want to have time for questions, so, how are we doing? 

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: Yeah, I can stop there. The only other—these are available online so I’ll just say them really quickly but—we also want to look at some tips for how to teach our kids how to use technology safely and recognize the signs that they might be exposed to dating violence so that you can intervene. And I’ll stop there, thank you!

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Thank you so much, that was incredibly interesting and I think very helpful; very good tips! I do have a question for you that comes from one of the parents and that is that, I think that most people—the vast majority of parents who are watching this—are never going to have any situation where their child does a video that’s put up on PornHub. I mean that’s very unusual, very unusual. So, given the kind of sort of more typical problems that parents might have with dating and with dating violence or digital forms of dating violence, do you have any thoughts about sort of how parents could start those conversations? What kinds of behaviors should they look for that might indicate a problem and what kinds of basic ideas should they cover in those conversations?

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: Yeah, I think, you know, what we try to talk about in our programs is that you need to start really early and talk about things at the right developmental level. So, when they’re young, you can introduce body parts and be kind to your friends and as you get older, you teach them about, you know, sexual behavior in general and how babies are made, right, and what dating might look like. You could also model those behaviors in your own relationships to show wha healthy relationships look like and that can be, and that’s of course really helpful. But as they get older, it becomes a little bit trickier to talk about some of these. The risks that exist, and some of the other things, that are just harder for parents to talk about and I think preparing for those conversations and knowing what your values are, what the information is that you want to share, and preparing and planning and being really thoughtful about what you want to say is really a helpful idea. And sometimes talking to other parents about that can be helpful as well. Obviously, some of these extreme examples are rare but I think letting your kids know that there are real risks, and when these are online, it’s much harder to take  them back than if they’re happening in person in smaller groups or with just one other person. And so I think it’s a real risk that we need to talk to our kids about as they’re, you know, young and they’re just playing video games online with their friends and they start and as they age and are engaged in dating online as well. 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: In that vein, just one more question then I have a couple of questions I think I’d like to open up to the group that would make for an interesting discussion but, in, sort of, best practices in sex education, we talk to kids about what the risks are, we make sure they understand the risks, but we also talk to them about what the relationship is—like what is your  relationship with this person—and sometimes, parents talk about using other kinds of techniques such as taking phones away, or things like that. How do you feel about that as a strategy if you’re concerned about a relationship your child is in? Sarah, I was thinking of this, Sara DeGue, I was thinking about this for you but anybody could answer it. Does anybody else—

 

Dr. Jeff Temple: I would love to, but I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder. My response to this has always been that kids are smarter than us, are like little terrorists, and are going to find a way to get access to phones, whether it’s their friends or an old one that they can use wifi through. I think that policing is probably the wrong way to do it. It depends on the severity and what’s going on. Generally speaking, policing and taking away the phone is probably not the right approach. I definitely prefer, and I assume all the other panelists would as well, is a prevention approach and a promotion of healthy relationship approach, so it never even has to get to that point. So if we can talk about healthy relationships, healthy online relationships, healthy digital citizenship, all of that then we could do a better job of even ever getting to that. Because again, they’re going to figure out smart ways, they have apps on their phone that look like a calculator, that when you do a formula, that’s when you’re gonna see the pictures you’ve been hiding. They’re gonna find ways around our policing so rather than playing whack-a-mole, you have to start beforehand and teach them healthy relationship skills 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: I also think, one of the things we found in research years ago was that taking away the phone could stymie kids but today it doesn’t at all because there’s so many devices out there. They’re everywhere. Every one of their friends has a phone and the idea that you will keep them off online interactions by taking away one device off an ocean of devices is not going to happen. Sarah Flicker, Dr. Flicker, I have a question for you about how you feel. One question that came in from parents is what should my 15 year old do if she’s interested in somebody who asks her for a topless photo? Any thoughts about that?

 

Dr. Sarah Flicker: Yeah, I think that’s a great question and I think it’s a real question because it’s going to get asked. As we heard from Dr. Temple and it will happen, so my advice would be to talk to her about what does she want to do about it, right? So rather than start of suggest like, ‘yeah there’s like one way of doing this,’ kind of flip it back to her like ‘how do you feel about being asked?’ ‘What would you like to do about it?’ ‘How do you want to respond to it?’ ‘What do you think will happen if you do XYZ?’ Like almost play a choose-your-own-adventure with her so that you can have the conversation and brainstorm possibilities. So when I’ve seen this done best with a group of peers because I like to do this with some of my focus groups and some of my research, we’ll put it out to a group of teen girls so ‘How many of you have had this?’ And they’re all like ‘Me, me me.’ I was like what can we do about it and you know so they come up with some really creative examples like you know what about putting on a bikini. So you’re sending something sexy but you’re not sending your boobs if you don’t want to do that or what about you know responding back with a joke or what about you know flipping the conversation, putting on a cute outfit, so they can come up and brainstorm with how they want to respond and and figure out if and when they are ready to send a nude back, and they want to do that how do they want to do that with their face, without their face; really thinking about all the possibilities with them and supporting them in making thoughtful decisions so that they understand the various opportunities and consequences, including saying like just know like ‘I’m not going to do that and if you don’t like me anyway well, too bad so sad for you’ as a very viable option in list of option, so that would be my approach would be to brainstorm it out with your daughter perhaps with a group of her peers so that together you can think it through and really just like follow and then what if he does this or she does this, so then what?

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: So I think that the biggest advantage of that kind of approach too is that you’re really teaching her how to cope with these kinds of things. I mean, you’re not just saying how are we going to deal with this situation, you’re saying this is how you deal with these dilemmas. When somebody asks you for something like this, you parse through all the possibilities, you think about everything you could do and what could happen, and I think that’s incredibly helpful. Thank you so much!

 

Dr. Sarah Flicker: I would just add one more thing, which is that brainstorming these skills together and when they come in online, and you can do it asynchronously, like you can break. The lovely thing about getting that invitation via text versus when you’re with a partner in person and you’re like ‘take off your shirt right now I want to see your boobs’ is with the mediated peace, you have time to pause, to think through, and that process will certainly help you because it will not be the first time I could promise you or the last time I can promise you that someone asks to see a part of your body that you may or may not be ready to share, and so practicing those skills are going to be hugely important not just for this moment but for all future online moments as well as any in-person moments because it’s the same skills around navigating consent that you’ll need again and again and again. So, sorry to interrupt but I just wanted to—

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: No, I think that’s a great point and one of the other questions that came in, that maybe any or all of you could talk to, which I think is a really interesting point is, a parent asks, shouldn’t my daughter, or child, be worried about sexting? Like shouldn’t she be worried about doing this? And I think that that is often something I hear from parents. You know, parents are very worried about it and they’re struck that their kids are not particularly worried about it. And I think that it’s, you know, it shouldn’t, I think that often with parents, the focus—because of that anxiety—is on how do I just stop this. How do I just stop it from happening? And I know that Dr. Temple has talked about this, and I have as well, is the idea that can you actually stop this? Is there something, some magical thing we could all do, that would stop kids from dating online or connecting online or sending a sext, and Jeff I would love to hear your answer to that question!

 

Dr. Jeff Temple: No, I mean the same reason we can’t stop a 35 year old who is dating and it is courting and the same reason that we cannot tell a 17 year old not think about sex; I mean it’s just it’s probably not the best approach. So I really like what Dr. Flicker had to say about navigating this and using this as an opportunity to practice consent. And you may have said this and I missed it, Dr. Flicker, but also not only in how to respond to questions but how to ask for permission, or ask if something is okay whether it’s online or in person, so I think it’s goes on both on the asker and the asked if those are words. 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Yeah, I think it’s a word. You know, another question, I’m not sure who would speak to this but another part of this issue has to do with social skills, and kids who struggle more with social skills—for example, children who are on the spectrum, or one would argue, any child now coming out of a pandemic where they’ve had a year of limited or no social interaction; all of them are sort of rusty when it comes to social skills—so, how do social skills factor into these kinds of judgments about what is my relationship with this person online? You know, should I send this picture? Should I not send this picture? Dr. DeGue, do you have any thoughts about that? 

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: Yeah, I do. I think social skills is a huge part of this—the ability to negotiate a situation, to know what’s okay and not okay when you’re having these kinds of communications. And a lot of the most effective programs for preventing dating violence really incorporate those kinds of key social skills that are relevant to these issues. So communication skills, negotiation skills, conflict resolution skills, just the ability to advocate for yourselves, to negotiate consent, those are all, kind of, kinds of social skills that are really relevant to this and we teach them in program but we can also teach them, and usually do as parents, right. But showing the ones that are relevant to this and reminding the kids of skills that they have and how to apply them in these kinds of situations can be really helpful, so it’s definitely very relevant.  

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Yeah, I think so. And I think I do have another question. I’m not actually sure who to send this to and I’m thinking Sarah Flicker it might be yours. So, like the research almost everybody here including some of the research you talked about, Dr. Flicker, we found that the increase in anxiety and depression dwarfed any increase in digital behaviors; that we have very small increases in cyber bullying or sexting behaviors but huge in anxiety among kids over this past year. So I’m curious how you guys feel that the increase in possibly anxiety and depression and mental health challenges could affect kids dating online or sending nude photos? Does anybody have any thoughts about that? What do you think?

 

Dr. Sarah Flicker: I think that being asked to spend a year away from your friends, your family, your routine, and everything you love to do is very anxiety provoking. We’re seeing mental health challenges for just about everyone, and in many ways, our ability to connect online has been a blessing. It’s been like the only way that many young people have been able to see and connect with their grandparents, with their best friends, with their romantic partners; and so rather than kind of see the technology as the problem or the solution to the problem, I like to frame it as it is one of many ways in which we are mediating our relationships and how can we support young people’s mental health and well-being and ability to connect; and whether they’re connecting through a phone or a computer or in person, like how can we reduce the likelihood of violence — which I think Dr. DeGue really highlighted for us — this is, violence is a common problem or online or in person and how do we support young people to stay safe, to prevent violence, to navigate it when it happens in ways that don’t damage them long-term, because we’re able to intervene really early; and so I almost prefer to flip the thinking and say it’s not about being online; it’s about navigating our interactions with others.

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: And maybe instead of fearing the return to socializing, we should be welcoming it as the antidote, and, you know, something that is really going to help kids in the long term is getting back to some form of interpersonal life. We do have a question that is sort of interesting and I think is very very common. How should I monitor texts or conversations for a 16 year old? Jeff, do you have any thoughts about that?

 

Dr. Jeff Temple: One of the things that I thought was interesting that a company approached me about a — I won’t say what company is but — where there was a computer learning model where that monitors the kid’s phone use, and so, if they sexted that a picture or if they talk about sex or if they talked about more serious things like suicide, then it would ping the parents and say, ‘Hey, you need to check the phone.’ So the parents and the kids were both aware of this, that their phones are being monitored, and despite that the prevalence of kids sexting was still about the same as if the kids that weren’t being monitored in that way, so I think it’s tough to do that. I think that the better approach is — and people can certainly disagree with me — is to have open and ongoing conversations with your sixteen-year-old about what it means to sext, what it means to share naked pictures, what it means the date, to be in healthy relationships as opposed to monitoring. I think that parents want to choose what’s best for their family and their child but that’s sort of how I would approach it. In my own family, I have a 16 and an 18 year-old. One of the things I did early on as a joke was say that if they sexted that I would do a talk at their school about sexting, so that was my method. Basically what we did with our kids, right or wrong, is that we said we’re never going to check your phone unless you give us a reason to. We told them up front that they’re allowed to have secrets, that we don’t need to know everything unless someone was going to be harmed or if you were going to be harmed.

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: And I imagine that parents can take, I mean one thing we often talk about is how parents can take different approaches with different aged children. So, you may want to monitor the texts of an 11 year old but not of a 16 year old, who is presumably the age where they’re beginning to have some judgment. Although I’ve personally had 3 16 year olds and I can’t recall them having any judgment but they must’ve had something. So let’s talk about clocking and how to start the conversations. How do we start conversations? And you know one of the things I do really want to say just quickly is that just approaching the conversation counts too. So even if your kids don’t want to talk, just the fact that you’re interested in what’s going on in their lives, that you’re asking, you want to know, that you want to know how things are going, all of that counts in the big book of parenting points. Just showing interest. Having said that, do all 3 of you have any thoughts or any of you have any thoughts about how to start conversations about sexting or about dating? 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Nobody has any thoughts? I have a thought, or maybe this could help get it going. So what I used to do with my kids is I ask them about other kids and what they had seen and heard about. So I said, “Well, you know, I’ve heard a lot about sexting,” and they knew that I was a researcher and all of course, so I’m sure, similar to Jeff’s kids, they rolled their eyes when I talked about it, but, you know, I asked them, “This is what I’ve heard about, this is what I’ve been thinking about, what do you guys hear about? What do you guys and your friends talk about? What’s going on?” 

 

Dr. Jeff Temple: Yeah, I like that approach. One of the other things that I’ve suggested is that since there’s a sexting story in the news about every few days, I see that as an opportunity to talk about sexting and digital citizenship.

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: And you can ask kids how realistic these stories are. You know you could say, “Do you think that this is realistic? Do you think this is blown out of proportion?” They may think something that you think is a genuine danger is completely blown out of proportion—that would be very typical for adolescents—but the point is, you’re getting them  to talk. You’re getting them to talk at that point. Are there any warning signs online that a relationship could be going astray? Sara DeGue, what do you think? Are there any things like, for example, if your daughter is dating somebody who suddenly starts texting her, you know, constantly. I’m not sure actually that would be a warning sign, but what do you think?

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: You know, it might not be a warning sign if it’s the normal kind of texting regularly that teens would do, or calling on the phone back in the day. But who calls each other anymore, right? But if your child seems anxious or upset or they’re worried that they’re not going to respond to their texts quickly enough or they seem scared of making their partner upset or mad, that can be a warning sign. If they’re hiding their phones or trying to keep you from seeing what they’re doing online or in their conversation, which some of that could also be normative and they don’t want you to get in their business, but if it seems like an unusual kind of change in behavior, that that can be a warning sign. The warning signs for cyber abuse are really no different than the warning signs for dating violence or partner violence or even bullying, in a lot of ways. So, it’s just kind of looking for signs that your child’s changed mood, you know, things that might indicate that something’s off and paying attention to those things and asking a lot of questions. 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: So it might be signs that you might see if they were in an abusive relationship in person. 

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: Exactly, very very similar. And, in fact, like the others have said, you know, there’s almost no relationship now that’s only in person and not online, so every relationship has both of those components at this point.  

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Don’t get distracted by the technology. Don’t get distracted by the technology. One other question I had for everybody is, I asked you before about how the anxiety and the depression during the pandemic might affect sexting or teenage dating relationships, but let’s flip that around a little bit. Dating online involves a lot of things like, you know, carefully taken photographs, or curated sort of datin imagery of yourself, and you know, your uber boyfriend, or whatever, and how do you all feel that that impacts kids psychologically, in turn? What do you think, Sarah Flicker? Any ideas or thoughts about that? 

 

Dr. Sarah Flicker: I’m not a psychologist, but I did have a thought, I want to go back two questions when you were like how to start this conversation. It’s a minor tip but it’s something that I’ll throw out there which is using time in a car because a car is a great opportunity where everyone is strapped in and you don’t have to make eye contact, and you know you have like a chunk of time; and I would invite parents to consider like as they are driving their kids around and picking them up and dropping them off, to use that time to very casually bring up, you know, in the way like, ‘Oh, I saw on the news’ or ‘I heard’ or ‘What are you learning in school?’ Because that can be a lot lower pressure than showing up in your kids bedroom being like ‘we need to talk, let’s have a serious conversation.’ That will drive most teenagers away, so I would invite you to find strategies. Maybe you don’t have a car or maybe you’re like on a walk somewhere but finding somewhere where you don’t have to look face to face, you don’t have to start with ‘this is a serious conversation,’ you can start very light-heartedly and return to it, so that’s the other thing is sometimes the first time you broach a subject, they got nothing for you, but by like the third or fourth time, now it’s like something mom ask and maybe they’ll be more kind of open to it so that wasn’t the question you asked it all but sometimes I think—

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: That’s okay, we have a licensed psychologist with us, luckily. So we can go to him. You know, one other point though just to make about Dr. Flicker’s idea is that it’s not a bad idea to get kids in the habit of not looking at their phones in the front seat of the car. So, kids do learn to drive, and I realize it’s very frightening for those with children under 16, but they do eventually drive. And so, getting them in the habit of saying, “We don’t use cellphones in the front seat of a car,” is a habit that can literally be lifesaving. So saying, “Put your phone down, let’s just talk about something,” even if it’s light-hearted, I think is a great thing. Now, Dr. Temple, our resident clinical psychologist, tell us how social media, sort of, depiction of yourself and your relationships affects kids psychologically?

 

Dr. Jeff Temple: Yeah, I promise to get to that I just want to say one thing about Dr. Flicker’s point about the car. I love that example, and I think Dr. Englander has heard me talk about this in the past. When I was on radio or whatever talking about sexting, invariably, the host would ask, ‘What should parents do with their kids and how should they talk to them about that?’ And I think kids throughout the country hate me because what I would say is ‘Well, if you’re driving in a car, pull over right now and have a conversation about sex and safe space and digital citizenship,’ so I hope that happens at least a few people whose kids are real mad at me. In terms of social media and self-perception, there’s big research, and I have not done this research, but from a psychological standpoint, seeing yourself and being on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week is taxing. When I was in high school, I would have baseball practice and then I go home, and I would put on my jammies and hang out with my mom and watch 21 Jump Street, and that’s real hard to do right now. You know there is this ‘When do I post stuff?’ ‘What do I do in the posting?’ ‘What picture makes me look perfect?’ And so there is this high expectation and this bar that has been set so high, but I will say that is not necessarily anything new, right? That in the 80s, it was magazine covers and in the 90s it was the sitcom stars that have this striving to be something that is impossible to be, and I think social media is just a scary extension of that. So it’s certainly something that we need to be mindful of and talk to our kids about as well.

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: And I think talking to them about it is actually the best weapon we have. One of the things we found in our research is that when kids are aware of how photos affect them emotionally—when they talk about it—they all know that seeing photos over and over that a lot of the photos are, kind of, fake, they’re curated, but when they talk aloud, especially with other peers about how, “Oh yeah, you know how it gets me down if I see it over and over again,” or, “This looks staged,” then it sort of helps them deal with it emotionally. So, I think talking about it is actually the most powerful weapon we have because we cannot turn it off. There is no way to turn it off. One other interesting question; a really interesting question just came in that I thought I’d like to share with you guys. Somebody wrote in that they’re a single parent and that they have been dabbling in the online dating scene themselves and they’re wondering how much of their experience they should share with their kids, because they’re kind of worried about their kids also being out there, and how much of their own experience should they share with their kids? Any thoughts about that? Anybody want to stick up their hand? No thoughts? Come on!

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: I’ll try

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Alright, Dr. DeGue! What do you think?

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: You know, I think this is a tough one. I think it’s what the parent’s comfortable with but if they have that experience that that’s actually really helpful because they can share, you know, not personal details but I would assume in most cases, but what is it like when they’re out there in online dating, what are the risks that they see, how did they approach it to be safe and useful and fun for them, and they can share tips for as, you know, a lot of older parents who haven’t had that experience wouldn’t be able to connect on that kind of level and wouldn’t have useful information. So I think of it as a benefit in a way, as long as that parent, you know, knows how to draw boundaries around what they share from their personal life. 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Maybe focus on practical tips like what is a tip off that a photo is out of date or is inaccurate, you know? Things like that that could actually be helpful for kids in navigating it. Yeah, I think it’s a great idea. 

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: You know, if you receive messages from someone that are rude or mean, how do you respond to that? Do you write back or do you block them? You know, what are the real world, kind of, steps you might take to deal with some of the downsides of online dating. 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Yeah, you could do a Dr. Flicker, right? Walk through all the options and you thought about answering in this way, thought about answering in that way. Went through everything. Any other thoughts about that? Alright, well why don’t we each have you give a few final thoughts because we’re almost out of time. We only have three minutes, so keep your remarks brief, ladies and gentleman, please. But, just a few final thoughts. Why don’t we start with Dr. Temple. 

 

Dr. Jeff Temple: Yeah, thank you. I think my final thoughts are, you know, if you’re a parent out there and you’re worried and you’re worried that your kid is sexting out there, not to freak out, that it doesn’t mean that your kid is a bad person or a delinquent. It means that your teenager is being a teenager and use this as an opportunity to talk about or hopefully continue the conversation about sex, safe sex, healthy sex, healthy relationships and all that, but if you haven’t done that, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, but start now. You know, the more often we can do it, and the more we do it, and the sooner we do it, the better 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Right, right. Dr. DeGue, any thoughts?

 

Dr. Sarah DeGue: Yeah, as Dr. Temple just said, you know, I think the bottom line is that parents play an important role in preventing a lot of harmful things that can happen to our kids and their health, and that includes cyberdating abuse and some of the risks of dating violence in general. But they’re probably not more prevalent online than they are in real life and the same prevention strategies apply, you know, talk to your kids early, and often teach them about relationships and sex, and what healthy relationships look like and their risk is going to be lower and help them navigate the online world. 

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: Great, thank you so much! Dr. Flicker? 

 

Dr. Sarah Flicker: I just want to echo that. I think that’s some great advice and I would also really encourage you to have a good time with these conversations; they don’t all have to be serious, the more you can laugh together, the more you can like have these conversations be fun and interesting and exciting and real, the easier it is to have the harder conversations when you need to have them, so like enjoy!

 

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: That’s right, you’re building capital. You’re building capital. Thank you all so much for coming. This was a wonderful, wonderful event and we all learned so much and now I’m going to turn it back over to Pam to close us out. 

 

Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra: Well thank you, Elizabeth, Jeff, Sarah and Sarah, for taking the time to share your insight, expertise, and excellent advice with us today. And thanks to all of you, our Zoom participants, for joining us as well. To continue learning about this topic, be sure to visit our website at www.childrenandscreens.com and read our tips for parents and other resources. We’ll post a video of today’s webinar on our Youtube channel, to which we encourage all of you to subscribe, and we hope that you’ll share resources to your fellow parents, teachers, clinicians, researchers, and friends. For more from Children and Screens, please follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn at the accounts shown on your screen. Our Ask the Experts Webinar Series is taking a summer hiatus so that you can all enjoy this time together with your families. We’re open all summer and welcome your suggestions for our fall and winter webinars. We wish you all a restful and joyful summer season. Thanks again for joining us today, everyone. Be safe and well!