When is it best to talk to my child about their sexual identity and orientation? How do I best broach a conversation with my child about pornography? How are portrayals of girls and boys in movies and video games affecting their own identity and sexuality? In what ways are the media that children and adolescents consume affecting their interests and knowledge of sex? Are television shows and movies skewing their expectations of their ability to consent or not?
It is time for parents and educators to step in and reclaim the “sex talk!” Social media, television, and the internet have taken the lead on sex education for children and teens around the world. From pornography, sexualized television shows, movies, and video games to discussions on social media and community message boards, young people today are bombarded with sexual information whether they are looking for it or not. It is natural for children, tweens, and teens to have questions about their developing bodies and to begin exploring their sexual interests – what’s important is knowing how to navigate those conversations. On April 6, 2022, Children and Screens hosted “The Birds and the Bees: Sexuality and Screens,” an #AskTheExperts webinar. A panel of interdisciplinary, distinguished experts discussed how to navigate conversations about media and still-developing sexual interests, identities, and behaviors. Psychologists, therapists, researchers, and other experts shared research and practical strategies for parents, clinicians, and educators seeking answers about the media’s role in shaping youth’s sexuality today.
Michelle Drouin, PhDProfessor; Senior Research ScientistModerator
Shelley Craig, PhD, RSW, LCSWCanada Research Chair; Professor
Jo Robertson MScMed (Sex Therapy)The Light Project Research & Training Lead
Sharon Maxwell, PhDPsychologist, Author, Educator
Cindy Pierce, MEdAuthor, Speaker, Sexuality Educator and Comic Storyteller, self-employed
[Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra]: Welcome, everyone. I am Dr. Pam Hurst-Della Pietra, President of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, and host of the “Ask the Experts” webinar series. Today, we are talking about “the birds and the bees”; screens, and sexuality. It’s an important conversation that’s critical for the health and well-being of all young people – especially in the digital world. I think you’ll agree that we’ve gathered some pretty interesting people to share the latest research and provide practical advice with you about all things sex. Well, maybe not all things. For a special treat, you will hear directly from several youth voices sharing their own experiences with sexualized media content and its impact on their behaviors, feelings, and expectations. Thanks to Jo Robertson and In the Know for sharing some of these videos with us today. Due to the mature nature of the content of today’s webinar, you’ll want to make sure that young children are in another room. Now, I would like to introduce to you today’s moderator, Dr. Michelle Drouin. Michelle is a Behavioral Scientist with a research focus in Technology, Sexuality, and Relationships. Her recent book Out of Touch: How to Survive an Intimacy Famine was released in February with MIT press, and examines how technology affects our development through the life course. We are so pleased to have Michelle with us today to lead this vital discussion. Welcome, Michelle.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Thank you so much, Pam, and I am so excited. We have the greatest panel assembled for you all today. We have experts from around the world who are all going to give you a unique glimpse at technology and screens, and how sexuality is influenced by it. I had the privilege of being able to look over some of the questions that were pre-submitted. There were a lot of common themes, so I think some of your most important questions will definitely be addressed. I’m also really excited because as a parent myself– and I know many of you who are watching are parents and educators– but as a parent myself, I had some of these same questions. So, as panelists we don’t always have all of the answers and we hope with this collection of great minds who are doing research and doing clinical work and advocating in schools and providing education, with this group we’re going to be able to answer some of those questions from multiple perspectives. And so, this is going to be a fantastic panel that we have today. So, just as a brief introduction to the topic, technology and screens has been on my agenda as a developmental psychologist for decades. I’ve often wondered what the impact is of technology in general on human development but this intersection with sexuality is a natural pairing because just at the time when teens and young adults are using their phones the most, they are also entering their phases of budding sexuality, where they are being curious about themselves, their own bodies and the bodies of others. So what you have is this perfect storm of exploration in both a sexual sense and as well, this highly intensified use of technology and social media. What are the effects in the way children develop and in the way that they communicate with others and they forge and maintain social relationships? These are some of the things we’re going to be talking about today. Now as personal research and experience, I bring in a sexting perspective. So I’m going to talk briefly about that before I introduce our first panelist. I’ve been incredibly intrigued about the technological innovations of late. As you may know, sexuality really drives innovation both on the internet and in terms of what we have in robotics, even. So, what we see online and what we see being innovated is largely driven by this supply and demand of the sexuality world and you can see this because of the emergence of things like sex robots and teledildonics, these sex toys that are able to be operated from a distance. The world that our children are entering is entirely different than the world that most of us grew up in, and so, today in our panel we’re going to shed light on some of these issues that our kids might be facing and the children that we teach and counsel might be facing but that we ourselves as digital immigrants never faced. One of the things that my own research has shown is that sexuality in communication among pre-teens, teens, and young adults is incredibly common. By the time a kid graduates high school, they’ve probably already sent a sext message that includes either a naked or nearly naked picture of themselves or a video of themselves, and by the time they reach college-age, which is the time that I’m usually surveying them, you have people who’ve sent hundreds of sex messages to varieties of partners, people who they’ve been in committed relationships with, people who they’ve been in casual relationships with, and so what you have then is this mix of both exposure and potentially vulnerability, regret, worry, around things that they’ve already circulated and that affects both men and women. So, the young women, men and women that I survey have both experienced feelings of regret, worry, and another one is discomfort. Many of them say that they were uncomfortable when they were originally sending those sext messages and if you think of just the volume of images that might be distributed, it really does then make you think of how important this is to perhaps incorporate in your own conversations and educational modules regarding sexuality. Now, most of the tension that sexting has garnered from the media and really from research in general has been quite negative and even my own research has shown that there really are not a lot of positive correlates of sexting. One thing to note is that when I ask people about their positive and negative consequences, about half of them say they had positive consequences of sexting. Maybe they used it as foreplay, maybe it was they saw it as something beneficial in their relationship to increase intimacy, or to help them explore themselves sexually with their partners; that said, at least a quarter of them also experienced negative consequences. Maybe their photo was shared with someone else, maybe it was forwarded without their permission, and those negative consequences can be quite severe. Such that every teenager I talk to, whenever I speak, I really have them both think about what they’re putting out there and also what they’re asking for because when they’re asking for images, some people might feel coerced and they might engage in what I call unwanted but consensual sexting– meaning they consented to it but they didn’t necessarily want to do it. So, we know that that happens with sex and we also know that it happens with sexting but here’s the really important part and a part that I think everyone should know when they think about sexting. Particularly for women, when we ask them to look back on their past and think of the trauma they experienced they had more trauma both at the time and now looking back associated with unwanted but consensual sexting than they did about unwanted but consensual sex and I think this points to a very big part of the whole sexting phenomenon, is the permanence of it. This is not something that you can just erase–once you send it it could be out there forever, and you have to assume that the things you send are out there forever. So that is one of the big negative consequences: there’s not really much of a positive spin on sexting, even for adults. However, I will say that there is a sexual positivity stream that has been running through and there are more researchers who are willing to explore or hoping that there might be, at least for adults, some positive effect of
sexting in relationships but certainly for teens and for young adults the risks seem to outweigh their rewards when you think of how dire those consequences might be. So, we’re running a tight schedule today. I’m happy to have been able to introduce the topic and give you a little bit of insight into what I offer as a researcher, but I’m super excited to now introduce Sharon to the stage. So, Dr. Sharon Maxwell is a practicing Clinical Psychologist. She specializes in
Adolescent and Family Therapy. She’s the author of the award-winning book The Talk: A Breakthrough Guide To Raising Healthy Kids In An Over-Sexualized, Online, In Your Face World, through Maxwell Education. She brings courses and workshops on sexual education and digital health to parents, educators, and students internationally. Please give a warm welcome and welcome to the stage, Dr. Sharon Maxwell.
[Dr. Sharon Maxwell]: Thank you, Michelle. Now, let’s start with the obvious. In our culture today, the media is our children’s primary sex educator. And when I’m talking about sex education, I’m not just referring to what sex is and how babies are made. I’m including all the information that children are receiving about what constitutes sexual relationship and intimacy. So, what media are we talking about: all of social media, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, and of course, there’s gaming, Youtube, television, and porn. As parents and educators, we have to remember that media is there to make money – not to convey a healthy understanding of sex and intimacy. If we want our children to grow into healthy, sexual adults we must be proactive and give them a positive alternative that includes our values. Then we can show them again and again how their understanding of sex is being manipulated by the media. So, let’s start with a positive idea about what is sex. Here we go. Sex is a magnificent part of the human experience and every person has a right to discover what they value in relationship, what constitutes intimacy, what sex and pleasure mean to them– unencumbered by media and social manipulation. So, how does social media affect how we understand– how our kids, particularly– are understanding sex? Listen to this story. A 13-year old girl comes into my office crying. She tells me her boyfriend broke up with her. “What happened?” I asked knowing that this relationship has meant a great deal to her, as her parents are in the middle of a divorce. “He broke our streak,” she cries. On Snapchat, a streak means that they’ve sent messages to each other every 24 hours consistently for a certain number of days. The longer the streak– which everyone in their social circle can see– the more heartfelt emojis that they have next to their names. In the world of Snapchat, she had an epic long streak which is now broken. “Did something happen?” I ask. “He broke our streak,” she screams, irritated that I don’t seem to understand. “Have you talked to him about what happened?” I ask. “No,” she says, “He doesn’t like to talk.” What’s happening here? The manipulative power of social media. You see, it’s profitable because it can grab and hold our attention. It holds our attention– by holding our attention, it actually is valuing quantity of communication over quality, attention-grabbing presentation over authenticity. Social media is teaching our children to value themselves and their relationships in the same way. Children are learning to understand intimacy as a quantity of bits of communication they’ve exchanged
with their partner, rather than face-to-face conversation. They’ve come to understand their own worth as the amount of attention they can gather on social media platforms rather than an authentic understanding of their own self. Quantity rather than quality. Presentation, rather than authenticity. And now, let’s look at porn. Porn doesn’t just deliver destructive misinformation about sex. Porn has a far-reaching impact on an array of cultural issues and biases. You see a list of them here, and I’m going to have time to go through a couple of these and other speakers today will be talking about other ones. When teens begin to see that porn has stolen their ability to decide for themselves what sex means to them, they begin to see how pervasive the impact of porn culture really is. Let’s start with contraception. All these quotes that you’re going to see up are things I’ve heard in my office, verbatim, and/or things that in our curriculum, we’ve heard from students. ‘I know condoms are important but he really doesn’t like it’ and ‘It seems more special without it’. Sex Ed has to include an examination of the psychological barriers to wearing condoms that is promoted by the porn industry. It has to support students to develop scripts that they know so that they will know what to say and are prepared to respond in the moment. Consent. ‘I understand consent but if I say no, won’t I be hurting his feelings?’, ‘She didn’t actually say no, so I was just trying to talk her into it’. Sex Ed must inform teens that the sexual aggression they see in porn, the ‘no means yes’ understanding of how one pursues sex, is wrong and can result in criminal charges. We have to support students to design scripts for how they would ask for consent and how they would reject a sexual advance. Scripts are important; as Michelle was talking about sexting, absolutely. Sending a picture is not just ‘It’s just not a big deal, it’s just what guys expect’ or ‘We were just fooling around, it was three o’clock in the morning and we were bored’. Social media and porn teach kids that any attention is good attention and objectifying one’s body as a means of getting attention and social approval is accepted. Social media is the platform, porn teaches you how to do it. When we teach Sex Ed we have to talk about sexting. We have to teach students how they can be groomed for sexting, we have to invite them to write their own scripts as to how they would respond if someone was requesting a sext, and explain the repercussions of both sending and receiving a sext. Intimacy. ‘Calling it a hookup, it just makes it easier when he doesn’t call back’. Sex Ed has to examine and analyze the technologically driven trend towards sex without intimacy. We have to have discussions with teens: what does sex mean to you? What do you want it to mean? It may mean different things at different times in your life. To be able to make your own decision about what sex means to you, you must understand the social and cultural influences that sway you. And you must be able to communicate your thoughts and feelings with your partner. And finally, pleasure. ‘I wish I knew that women could also enjoy sex and that it wasn’t just something that I needed to trick them into having or ‘I thought my first time would be so great but it was kind of a letdown, I think there might be something wrong with me’. Sex Ed has to talk about porn and how it misrepresents pleasure. Porn is not a manual for how to have sex. Mainstream porn totally misrepresents female pleasure and portrays men at best, as ignorant of female pleasure, and at worst, as rapists. Providing accurate information about pleasure for all kinds of bodies, to encourage students to explore what pleasure is to them and how they would communicate with their partner, and we have to teach that healthy pleasurable sex depends on open respectful communication, where you can both communicate your desires as well as your boundaries. And that I believe is all I have time for today, but the speakers that follow will be giving you much more information.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Thank you so much, Dr. Maxwell. That was very interesting, and I love what you’ve integrated, in terms of the sex education that we need to be providing. Particularly, that idea that we could give students an idea about how they might respond to those messages, because that’s actually teaching them a valuable communication skill – so excellent suggestion and I hope other people out there who are educators, who are doing interventions with teens take those points to note. So, one of the questions that we have actually relates to video games and I know you didn’t get to cover it in your brief talk but I know that you do a lot of education and it’s probably a question you get from a lot of parents. So, obviously a lot of these video games have sexual content – thinking about Grand Theft Auto for one – but many of the others; do you think that these video games have impacts on teens expectations about what real world sexual experiences will be like, and if so what would that be?
[Dr. Sharon Maxwell]: I think we absolutely have to talk to kids about the messages that they’re getting in these video games. My whole career got started because my son, inadvertently when he was seven years old, had heard about a video game where you got rewards. If you– the reward for killing people in this video game was to see naked ladies, and that got me started on all of the messages that kids are receiving. It’s not so much that one video game is going to make somebody feel violent sexually but it’s how, it’s the objectification, number one, of women which is rampant in video games; how you think about sex, how you think about the opposite sex, how you think about you know communication or dominance. Video games – certainly Grand Theft Auto – it’s all about dominance and it’s all about objectifying women. Now, does that mean you’re going to do that if you watch this game, no. But, remember the teenage brain is being trained how to understand the world in general and if you’re not paying attention to this – if they’re, if you’re not paying attention to the constant messages that their brain is receiving about how to see women, you’re not really doing a job as a parent.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: That is such good advice. Thank you so much, Dr. Maxwell. I didn’t even know that your whole trajectory into this world got started because of the video game, so what a perfect question posed by the audience and to you. I’m really grateful for your perspective and as a Developmental Psychologist, I completely endorse everything you’re saying, which is that our view of the world is being shaped as we’re growing up as a child, in sometimes significant ways that shape the models for all future relationships. So what you’re keying in on is a developmental psychology concept that I’m constantly preaching, so thank you for bringing that to the table as well.
[Dr. Sharon Maxwell]: Michelle, I’d just like to add – to parents who would think they can’t have this conversation about sex, it’s okay if you blow it. It’s okay if you’re not good at it. Anything you do is going to be better than the porn that they will eventually see, so get your ideas in there – no matter how uptight you feel about giving them.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Absolutely. I’ll just add that when I ask my college students, “How many of you have ever had a conversation about sex with your parents?”, only about half of them raised their hands–ever. And so I always joke about them. I’m like, “Well maybe you should go home tonight and say ‘My teacher said something about sex, what is that?’, and see how their parents would respond. So, you know, I’m keeping track of how it goes and I completely agree. Well, thank you so much. Now we’re going to have a video segment from In the Know and I hope you all enjoy it so let’s roll over to the video.
[In the Know]: -really what I saw. I definitely agree that porn isn’t the place to learn. Just watching something isn’t gonna automatically make you understand how to do it. Like you wouldn’t watch The Fast And The Furious to learn how to drive and be like ‘Now I know how to drive’. But also, there’s just so much missing from pornography that goes into real sexual experiences like consent. We don’t get to see that process happen on camera. So people watch pornography and think ‘Oh we don’t need to have that conversation, right?’.
I really relate to what you were saying about how, like, you don’t learn to drive from The Fast and The Furious because for me as, like, a gay or queer guy, porn being the blueprint for learning how to have sex, I’d probably put someone in the hospital – put myself in the hospital because it’s all movie magic. So it’s definitely quite scary and it’d be super vulnerable for people who want to learn about sex, like young, queer people and then see that but then don’t learn about all the actual fundamentals that go into it.
Also, they’re actors as well so they’re paid to make it look like they’re enjoying it even if they’re not necessarily that into it as well.
Another problem with porn is that it can desensitize a lot of people and then when they actually get to it, sex is just merely a thing for pleasure not like, love connection. Yeah, true. Very true.
It doesn’t teach us what actually happens beforehand and afterwards and also during, as well. I’ve never seen a porn where they have stopped because one person is uncomfortable.
Like, if something goes wrong, they’re not gonna, like, cut off the scene halfway through.
Porn misses out a lot of that. It makes it look, like, seamless and easy, and like you don’t need lube or like, protection or like need to have that conversation. They just jump into it. Those are the key things that that people would want to know before they have sex.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: So, now I’m going to introduce our next panelist, Jo. So, Jo Robertson has a Masters of Science in Medicine specializing in Sex Therapy and she also has 15 years of experience working in Sexual Health through education and counseling. Jo has a private therapeutic practice and is the research and training lead for something called The Light Project which is a charitable trust researching media influences on sexual culture and how to have positive conversations around it. Please join me in welcoming Jo to the stage.
[Dr. Jo Robertson]: Thank you so much, and I just feel so self-conscious when I’m watching that video that you might not understand all the words that they’re saying in their strong fat Kiwi accent and also mine. So, when we say the word sex often people think it sounds like the number six and so just know that if you hear me say the number six it means that I’m saying sex. Okay! There’s so much that’s already been said that I love and I just want to jump on what Sharon shared around– that, you know, you’re not necessarily going to become a sexual predator based on watching a video game or engaging in one on a one-off time but it’s the cumulative effect of all the different types of media that shape the attitude and belief. So, if you imagine that they’re watching you know objectifying content in games, but then also in porn, and then also into some tv shows, and maybe they’ve got a peer group who also speaks in that way– all of a sudden they’ve got a lot of different influences, a lot of really big influences, shaping the one view. I’m also aware that lots of the, I guess, lots of the stories and quotes and also the research suggests that boys and males are essentially doing some really problematic and unhealthy things. And I am a mother of three boys, so I always feel that at quite a deep level, and I just want to say that they are also the victims of the content. They are also being influenced by what they’re consuming and then performing that out. And something that I think about often is, how are they supposed to know? Like, how are they supposed to know to critique this media but then also to act differently? How are they supposed to know how they should be sexually if we’re not having the conversation? We’re really leaving them kind of in the wilderness if we don’t rise up and talk to them and offer some counter-narratives. So, I’m going to start sharing now. What I’m going to do is take a kind of, a little bit of a step back and answer these three questions. Can I share and can you give me a thumbs up that that’s working? Okay, amazing. Alright. So, porn and young people. We’ve spent a number of years now researching this topic and I’ve spent five years actually on the porn sites themselves, and trying to understand what it is that they’re going to see. How– how is that maybe shaping them, what would their experience be on a home page, what are the advert– ads they’re going to see, and then if I click on that ad what site does that take me to, and then what am I going to see there? So, we try and understand it from an organic perspective, not solely reading the literature but then also adding the literature in as well. So, I’m going to kind of cover a range of those things. So, what is porn like? When we say porn, what are we really talking about? Where can young people find it now? And why is it such a phenomenal teacher like a really really effective teacher of sex education? So, I just want to note before I jump in any deeper that these two websites our organization wrote based on about 15 years of research, multiple surveys, working with clinical professionals. So, thelightproject.co.nz is really focused on adults, so it’s got information for parents, for caregivers, and for professionals. And then intheknow.co.nz which of the videos you’re seeing is totally targeted at young people, really between the ages of 13 and 18. So, it’s got all those videos there about sexting on them, it’s a very honest site and also, it gives lots of tips and tools about how to navigate some of the issues that we’re talking about for young people in very short form. Because what we found out was that they only spend about a minute to 15 seconds on a website at any one time. So, everything that we say online needs to be very fast, quick, and concise. So, what and where do we find porn? This is the latest research and I think that’s super important because when we use old research we’re not actually reflecting what it is that our current generation is seeing. So 2020 and 2021 data. The first 150,000 video descriptions were assessed and 1 in 8 described sexual violence. Most commonly– actually, between immediate family members and this is a really uncomfortable trend that we need to talk about. So, in a different piece of research, 46% of porn content of the most popular videos on Pornhub actually had an incestual theme – so mother-son, daddy-daughter, brother-sister content and over the last five years this has grown. This is not declining. This is an increasing trend. Teen was the most frequent word used– five times more likely in the videos. The majority of sexual violence was male-to-female. This 2020 research looked at over 4,000 scenes across the top four sites. 45% showed physical aggression and you can see the types there, and I really want to highlight the choking piece because Debby, who’s a phenomenal researcher in the choking space, is going to speak to that. 97% of the time, women are the targets of this aggression and the majority of the time they respond with pleasure, so not only does– you know picking up what Sharon said, not only that when they say ‘No’, it really means ‘yes’ in the porn scenes, but also after they’ve said ‘No’, if the behavior happens anyway they often respond enthusiastically saying things like ‘Thanks for not listening to me’, ‘I’m so glad you did that’, ‘I really enjoyed it’. In terms of racism, this is a super important conversation to have and I find that when we talk to young people, the racism and porn kind of topic is the one that they are most passionate about, curious about, the one that is actually the most likely to propel behavior change when it comes to their own porn use. They’re more– they’re kind of less likely to watch porn because of the racism than they are because of the sexism or the objectification, so we really need to get a little bit more clued up on this one. So, people of color are much more likely to be and to experience aggression. If there is an Asian man present, then 50% of the time he will actually be doing something non-consensual– whether he is in real life when they’re kind of acting the scene out or not, we’re not sure. There’s no way of guaranteeing that, but the messaging is that people of color are much more likely to do something unhealthy, problematic, non-consensual, or aggressive– which I’m sure all of us would be deeply concerned about as a form of sex education. We know that porn is available on lots of different types of media. So it’s available on Instagram, Reddit, Twitter, streaming sites, Snapchat Premium. I was on a streaming site which is where somebody would go to watch a tv show or a movie that wasn’t available on a platform that they had a subscription to or wasn’t out on, you know, in the cinemas yet, and there was just so much porn just kind of pouring towards me – so many videos, so much imagery, and what I know from a lot of young people is that they do use these platforms to watch media and as a result– and sometimes on sports streaming sites as well– and as a result, they’re often kind of hooked in. It’s what I call the breadcrumbs that are littered throughout the Internet. So if you imagine that the porn industry is like a loaf of bread, that they pulled some of that off, they scrunched it all up, and they threw it through other platforms. So, on audiobooks, in books that they might get on their kindle, sometimes there’s advertising thrown throughout, on Instagram, on Youtube, there is a lot of porn on Youtube, a lot of porn on Twitter. So, these are just two examples of finding them on Instagram and on Youtube, and you’ll see those little black lines. And they do that intentionally so that it is harder for the technology to pick up the genitalia and then to– and then just to say this is porn. This is some media we’re really concerned about in terms of choking and again, Debby’s going to speak to this but we are seeing a lot of choking content being shown and talked about in mainstream media. So this one of Barry and his partner is just a gif that you send just on your phone and text messaging and there’s lots of those and they all look like they’re having a lovely time. In Sex Life, in Euphoria, those are tv shows that in the first episodes of the first seasons they either talk about how choking was super amazing or they show it during a sex scene. In Sex Life the female character says ‘This has been the best sex of my life’ after she’s had a choking experience. And then we’ve got Tik-Tok which has a number of choking videos. On the left, a guy squashing a drink bottle and then saying this is how girls like to be choked. This girl actually experiencing it and on the right the hashtags underneath that so the descriptive words say things like #couplegoals, #relationshipgoals, #boyfriend, #love. And then this girl here, so ‘Him: Choking me with one hand’, small smile. ‘Him: choking me with two hands’, large smile. And the messaging is really consistent and really problematic across all of the platforms. Why is it such a good teacher?
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Oh, I hate to interrupt.
[Dr. Jo Robertson]: You’re totally fine.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: I know, I actually love this, but I think you’re supposed to introduce Debby who may continue on some of the– I don’t know if she’s going to add a little bit more to what you say– but I know that we only have a couple of minutes with Debby and she’s going to be talking a little bit more about these trends and new sexual behavior. So, I would love for you to transition if you could.
[Jo Robertson]: Great, thanks Michelle, I appreciate that. So, I just want to introduce Debby. Debby Herbenick is an internationally recognized Sexual and Reproductive Health professor, researcher, and educator. I have talked with Debby, I just really respect her work. She’s at the Indiana University School of Public Health. She’s the Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, and she’s going to elaborate on some of the points that I made.
[Dr. Debby Herbenick]: Thank you so much, I’m really happy to be here and be a part of this important conversation. So, my team and I have been studying sex in the United States for many years. For more than a decade, we’ve been launching more than a dozen U.S nationally representative surveys about sexual behavior, and these allow us to track changes in sexual attitudes and also changes in sexual behaviors. And what we’ve seen in about the last five or six years has been very noticeable increases in what we’ve been talking about here, which is rough sex. And specifically choking– which is a form of strangulation, even though nearly everybody who does it calls it choking, it’s technically a form of strangulation because it involves external pressure to the neck. And people often use one, sometimes two, hands to choke the neck, the reason being that people think it will improve pleasure in some way. People are often described just exploring kind of an identity or being sexually adventurous in this way. But choking is part of this larger consolation of rough sex behaviors, including light spanking, heavy spanking, punching, even slapping the face, slapping the torso, and very often because these behaviors have become mainstream, we found that many young people don’t talk about it first. So, we have many young people whose first making out experiences or first intercourse experiences involve being slapped or choked. Sometimes people may ask for that but it ends up being much rougher than they anticipate; so they might anticipate a very light slap or a light spank and having it be extremely hard and rough and that feels scary to them. So we’re paying particular attention to changes related to choking, and we found that most young adults who we survey say that they first learned about choking by the time they were 16 years old. Young men often described first learning about choking from pornography, but also from their friends and partners. Young women; however, have a really different entree into this. They do describe friends, they do describe partners, but just as Jo is sharing, they’re often describing TikTok videos, social media memes, and if you’re not familiar with these you can find them, actually very easily, by searching hashtags like #chokingkink on TikTok or #chokemedaddy on Twitter or just on the Internet more generally and you’ll find hundreds very quickly. It’s really striking and, as Jo shared, sometimes the messages in these memes are that it’s so sweet if somebody actually expresses concern that you could die or that one hand was really not enough and two hands were needed. And again, they’re also as Jo shared, in Netflix shows like Euphoria. So, our most recent data in both U.S nationally representative surveys and also in random sample surveys of thousands of college students, show that one in three women who are 18 to 24 were choked the last time they had sex. That’s pretty prevalent. We didn’t used to see those types of figures. Choking and other forms of rough sex used to be a lot less common. Because these behaviors are usually consensual but not always wanted or pleasurable, they’re really difficult for many of us to make sense of for these changes, and I think they really emphasize the importance of those foundational conversations for parents, even at young ages, about healthy relationships, kindness, body safety, communication, consent, and media literacy as we age. So, thank you so much for having me here and I look forward to answering other questions you may have.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Debby– tell me that statistic again. What percentage had some type of strangulation as part of their last sexual encounter?
[Dr. Debby Herbenick]: One in three 18 to 24 year old women, the last time they had a sexual encounter. And in our college surveys it’s 58% of women were choked– ever. So it’s–
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: What percentage were choked ever?
[Dr. Debby Herbenick]: 58%.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Yeah, I mean – this is great. I love this research. It’s totally fascinating to me. I am actually very interested. To both Jo and Debby– maybe you guys can answer this together, maybe both give your perspective: when we’re talking to children or young adults or teens, what is the best way to explain the differences between real life and the way sex is presented online? And I think that touches a little bit of both of your things, so maybe Jo can go first because you were the first one to speak and then Debby.
[Dr. Jo Robertson]: Yeah, that’s so great. So, the things that we talk about are the pillars of great sex, and we often draw a comparison them to porn sex. The first is consent, as I’m sure we would all agree. The next is communication– you should be able to say what you want before, during, and after, that that’s a comfortable thing to do. The next is comfort, so all sex should be pleasurable for both people, it shouldn’t just be the sacrifice of one person’s pleasure. There needs to also be a contraception or condoms, and ideally care. So all the research suggests that when care is involved in sex, there are much better outcomes. And so those are the five key pillars, the ‘Five C’s’, that we talk about and we draw the comparison to porn, and I think it’s important that we don’t say like all great sex has to be in like, you know, really amazing long-term relationships because that’s not the reality for a lot of young people, so we need to give pillars to them that they can draw on even in hook-up culture.
[Dr. Debby Herbenick]: I agree with all of that, I also often find myself referring back to a term that the sex columnist Dan Savage came up with, which was ‘olympic level sex’, right, and that there are some types of sex that are more often shown in porn that even very experienced, knowledgeable adults might consider ‘olympic level’. That it’s not just– you don’t try it for the first time when you’re very young or inexperienced, you don’t try it for the first time with a new partner, but there are some types of sex that take great deals of communication, a lot of trust that you don’t do when you’re drinking or using other substances, right, and that they really just take so much knowledge and experience and skill and because we are seeing this really rapid change in the mainstreaming of rough sex behaviors, I think many of those, you know, some of which can be lethal, like choking, really fall into the bucket of behaviors that you don’t just spring on people, try randomly with people. And for some people they may even put them in that ‘I just don’t think that’s ever safe for me to do’ bucket.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Both of you have brought to this conversation a couple of points that I think are super important: this idea of trust, having conversations with your partner, communicating what you’re comfortable with– I mean these can be very general conversations, that even parents who don’t want to delve deeply into sexual issues can talk about, in terms of having positive conversations around relationship navigation. Not even just sex. So, I thank you both, what excellent takeaways you guys are providing and making me think that I should have brought a notebook. I only have a little stack of post-its– it’s just not enough, so thank you so much. I’m now really happy that we’re going to be having another little video segment, another ‘In the Know’ segment where we can hear some of these students’ voices, so roll tape.
[In the Know]: You see a lot of just strange content, you know, that’s oversaturated with things, like, a lot of aggression and a lot of non-consensual stuff as well that can be really sort of discomforting to watch and I think definitely creates weird expectations for people who don’t know much about sex.
We see a lot of aggression and I feel like it has slowly taken over most of the content that we see. It floods the stream every single time you open it, it’s just there.
I’m also quite liberal. I think so long as neither party is hurting the other– and that it’s consensual– then it’s chill, like, do whatever, go for it! Go for it, but obviously I can differentiate between fantasy and reality but I definitely– I guess like a younger, like, early teen audience might not have the same critical capability where they can make that distinction, so I guess that’s alarming.
You can kind of make that separation, but like, when I was younger, like, I couldn’t do that at all. I was really just like ‘What’s this?’ or, like, you know? Your mind just kind of wanders on your end and it can become dangerous so quickly because you’re unsure about what you’re seeing.
I feel when people are unexperienced with sexual things and when they first open porn and they’re seeing things that is quite non-consensual, they may feel like that is what they need to do. To go and have sex is to be forceful and coerce people. It’s hard for – like you said before – differentiating fantasy and reality.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Okay, that was a great perspective I think from these young adults on how they’re viewing pornography. Very interesting. So, I’m excited to introduce our next panelist Cindy Pierce. So Cindy Pierce is a social sexuality educator, she’s a storyteller and she’s an author. She’s the author of Sexploitation: Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World and Sex, College, and Social Media: A Commonsense Guide to Navigating the Hookup Culture, so I’m really excited to hear what you have to say, Cindy. Thank you so much.
[Dr. Cindy Pierce]: So, before I just talk about the role of parents and Sex Ed, I want to add that I work with college students and high school students a lot who justify and think rough sex is great, and I just want to add on something that would reinforce ‘The Five C’s’. It’s something we got the affirmative consent standard from the kink community and something called pre-care and aftercare; meaning conversation before and after is something that is moving out of the kink community to the general population and is a great way to keep people from thinking, you know, people who say ‘Well it can be awkward to talk about things’ well that’s your signal that you shouldn’t be doing it, shouldn’t be naked, or partially naked – but getting back to the beginning- for kids. Parents are now the primary sexuality educators because schools cannot get into all these topics so early when it’s needed. When kids can start to be able to read and write, they’re getting online. And as we’ve just heard from the previous presenters that we want to get ahead of it, so we’re talking about healthy sexuality, and I know parents who spent their kids entire elementary school fighting the schools to talk about Sex Ed– all the way up through middle school– and then when their kid sends a nude picture or gets caught doing something, they’re shocked and really that time should be spent doing the education and having the conversations. So Internet porn and media have changed the sex timeline. It needs to be much younger and not depend on the school age of 10-years old, which will linger for some time. So, we all hope that our kids will grow up and have healthy sexual attitudes, comfort in their body and relationships, and the key then is to invest early with accurate names when they’re toddlers, with answering their questions and not avoiding it. We know that kids who receive comprehensive sexuality education tend to wait longer and make healthier choices. So, these conversations– it’s no longer the one and done talk; the talk is many talks over time and should happen because retention is about 20% percent for kids. They don’t– so, you’ve got to repeat and revisit; and so these proactive conversations, also, will help them feel better about themselves because they start to get these weird ideas of what they should be doing. And so it actually– the information onslaught and the image onslaught that they get from their online experiences, it helps them navigate that. So it’s thinking of it as a layering of information over time starting when they’re young. These conversations are awkward. I think of it as tenderizing your kid and when you do start young, when they’re out before puberty, when they’re younger, you know, my pediatrician, our pediatrician gave us that idea when our kids were in kindergarten in 1st grade and I thought ‘Oh. No one else is doing this’ but I decided to try and my kids are now in their 20s and the payoff! By the time they were late in elementary school, they were used to their parents saying all these awkward words and they knew that we were going to bring things up and so there’s a bit of tenderizing them to get them comfortable with that. And it is awkward. Each of my kids dropped me off the cliff. I had a–I felt here ‘This is my thing, this is my job, I got it I’m on the third kid’ and each kid kind of knows your threshold and will ask a question that’ll freak you out, but that’s also good for them to see that you can be thrown off your game and still we want to demonstrate for our kids that we have the courage and we show kids social courage and comfort by admitting what we don’t know and that we are still learning. And so the fumbling and the stumbling and having us reboot, that’s all good for them to see and gives them permission to not know, which kids, at this time in the internet, often feel like if they don’t know they can figure it out with the Internet and those searches of course lead to porn. So, of course when we bring up sex with our kids, there’s sometimes a lot of resistance– you’ve got to remember even though they’re putting their hand out and putting up a stink they’re also like this [gimme motion]. Research is clear that kids want to know and teens want to know what their parents think. So one thing I learned from some experts was using the idea of privileges and responsibilities. It is a privilege to be able to watch anything online, to have a phone, to be given access to a device without adult supervision. That’s a privilege, and the responsibility means having these conversations. And kids who resisted it’s like, ’Look if you want to have this, then this is what goes along with it’. When you hand them a phone some kids are getting phones in 5th grade– you need to get right in there with them. So, one way to do that when they put the big stink on is to say well the answer is ‘Yes, I can give you a ride’, ‘Yes, you can go to the movies’, ‘Yes, you can have those friends over’; ‘–but as soon as we have this conversation, we watch this ted talk, we talk about this article’, so it’s almost like a ticket. Like ‘Yes, I will give you help and support that you need, as long as you engage in these conversations and this learning. I always lean on, and this is from a parent expert I know, is when, you know, some people are like, ‘My kid’s 18, I never had these conversations’ and so you start now. And the way you say it is, ‘Look, I learned some new information and I want to get that to you’ and as we get informed ourselves, we will have more conviction. This– anything you’ve heard today– should give you more conviction, and continue learning. Instead of– a lot of parents just wait, bury their head in the sand, cross their fingers, and hope for the best, but we need to be proactive and have these conversations. And they can’t unhear what you’ve said. Now, obviously we all know you get in the car, the car in the dark– great way to talk to your kids about sex. Another mother gave me a great idea, she said ‘I heard your talk. My kid is 16, I said “Look once a week for five minutes, you set a timer and I’m going to tell you all the things. We’ll sit facing out, you don’t have to look at me, when the timer goes off I zip it.”’ The kid had bolted the first three weeks, and the fourth week, a little bit tenderized, used to his mother saying these things said, ‘Wait, I have a question, something’s inconsistent here’, so the couch, the car, there’s always, but get to it. So, the payoff is great. Now, a lot of resistance. Here’s all the things. Culturally, people cannot get their heads around early and often sex education. It’s something they just freak out about. They’re like ‘Oh, my kid is not interested, they haven’t asked questions’, ‘Oh, he’s late to develop’, ‘Wait till 5th grade’ like they did in the 80s’, protecting the innocence. This is basically saying ‘We’re not going to talk about it, I can look and it can seem to me that my child has maintained their innocence,’ yet those curious kids will get online to get answers. So, if we don’t speak up, the internet and the culture will win or the peers with access to the internet. And it is a myth that if we talk to our kids about sexuality, they’ll want to do it. As we said, research has been clear for a long time that kids who receive comprehensive sexuality education tend to wait longer. And when kids say ‘Oh, I already know all about that’ – never believe them and in fact ask them a few questions to see, and then go from there. Parents who claim their kids are brilliant musicians, brilliant and, you know, focused on education, focused on a sport– so they would never have a problem with porn, or go ‘I just can’t bother them with that’. Fight through that, that is just a myth. And a lot of kids get really mad: remember when they give you this [stop motion], they’re also giving you that [gimme motion].
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Okay, thank you Cindy. I think we’re gonna have to, so sorry. We have a question, though. So first let me say, I give talks around schools and they’re always saying who’s really most vulnerable to this sexting and I’m like ‘Everyone! It’s your valedictorian as much as your kid who doesn’t go to school’. These conversations need to be had with everyone, so thank you for bringing that. I will also say, my kids whenever I come home with a conversation they’re like ‘What article did you read this time,’ so like that, many of the parents are going to be having conversations with their children today that include that question. So, one of the great questions that we had from someone in the audience was, ‘How can we promote healthy images for our children without them feeling like they’re not going to be cool and then they won’t fit in with the kids at school? How can we do that and still let them have a space in the social sphere?’
[Dr. Cindy Pierce]: Well, before we talk about– a lot of parents who are worried about their kids feeling cool and included, actually, are often themselves feeling old, uncool, and sometimes that’s a parent issue. But you want to have your kids engaged and involved socially, and there are going to be times where your kid is left out. If you have them start off looking at phones later– giving them a phone later– I say you make your– oh, thank you. You make yourself the scapegoat, you make yourself that you’re the reason why we put phones away from 7 pm to 9 pm during homework times. But as far as positive images, you know, I think Raising Digital Net Natives, a woman named Devorah Heitner, has a great guideline on how to bring kids onto– how you join with your kid in middle school to teach them how to be responsible digitally, you know, digital citizens. Just keep having the conversations of going through a magazine, going through websites, and talking about the message about people’s bodies and what things are saying. It’s about those ongoing conversations about music, media, youtube, videos, tv shows, anything they’re streaming. Have the conversation.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Thank you so much, Cindy. Yeah, having that conversation is so important. So, now we’re going to have another video where we get to hear some more youth voices weighing in on the topics we’re discussing.
[In The Know]: And in our schools, a lot of young LGBT youth go towards porn as a mechanism to kind of figure out what they’re meant to do, what their expectations and the reality is just so, so inconsistent with what is shown on porn.
When I was, like, really young and I was exposed to porn at a young age, questioning my sexuality and not understanding that, you know, how lesbian porn is presented is really nowhere near realistic. And it’s so fetishized and sexualized just for being who they are and it really caused a lot of issues for me. I feel like it’s not normal or it’s like played out to be, like, something you would think of but doesn’t actually happen in reality.
I feel like that’s really manifested in my sex life particularly when I was younger and as you grow up and you diverge away from the expectations upon sex, then you kind of realize that sometimes it’s going to be awkward, sometimes things might get messy, sometimes things aren’t always going to be sexy as it’s shown. And I think that’s one of the benefits of kind of creating a sex life for yourself that is not revolved purely around porn in these fantasy situations.
It causes a lot of unrealistic expectations, like, I’ve met so many people who are like ‘Oh yeah, I only watch gay porn’ but they see it as a sexual object rather than actual people having sex. And it doesn’t talk about the consent and the communication that goes in having sex. And it makes it so hard when you are a virgin and then you’re like ‘Okay, I’m gonna have sex for the first time’ and then like you just start doing it and you’re like ‘Okay, no. This isn’t right, but how do I say that’.
I feel also, like, the stereotypes in gay porn have also; like, how it bleeds into real life has kind of affected like dating in ways for me. That I don’t fit into these categories that people want and like, fetishize. When it comes to dating, I’m like ‘I’m just a person’ but because people’s lives are taken over by porn in ways – to dating and hookup culture – they put these stereotypes onto everyone.
It’s just the smallest things that even then, you doubt if it’s good enough or the wrong thing or the right thing and it’s like your partner really shouldn’t care if they’re a good partner.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: This video made me think that maybe some of the pornography that anyone consumes needs to have people saying ‘Hey, are you uncomfortable? Do we need to switch positions?’ or a person saying, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel great – can we switch positions?’. I mean to see that in mainstream pornography would help give people real life glimpses about how to have those conversations around sexuality, generally. So, I am so excited to introduce Dr. Shelley Craig as our next panelist. She is the Connect Canada Research Chair in Sexual and Gender Minority Youth, and a Professor of Social Work at the University of Toronto. Dr. Craig’s active program of research with sexual and gender minority youth is focused on exploring their digital mental health, developing affirmative programs, and also clinical interventions to cultivate their resilience and supporting competent clinical practice. Please welcome Shelley. Thank you.
[Dr. Shelley L. Craig]: Thank you so much Michelle, and hi, everybody. Great to be part of this panel. So, I’m gonna just pivot this a little bit. I know we’re over the word ‘pivot’ because of the pandemic but– so, the work that I do is really thinking about the role of technology on the mental health and resilience of LGBT youth. And I will say part of this work came from work that, initially when I started this about 20 years ago, we really looked at LGBT youth, many folks related to LGBT youth, in a way that was only sexualizing them and that’s an important part of folks identity, but it was the assumption that if a young person came out as LGBT, they in fact, were immediately having sex and that is not necessarily the case but it needs to be part of the conversation. So, our focus is really on considering the role of technology on mental health, because from that we’re able to do our work in thinking about cultivating sexual self-efficacy, related because of the relationship between mental health and sexual health. So I’m going to just very briefly talk about the online engagement of LGBT youth, and this presentation comes out of the research that I’m fortunate to be involved in with some amazing young people, and really to talk a little bit about ways to engage with LGBT youth and to help enhance their resilience. So, just very broadly– and we can talk about this for a long period of time, but– increasingly over each generation, the percentage of folks who identify as LGBTQ broadly under the sexual and gender minority umbrella, is doubling. So, now we have about 25% percent of millennials – which is more than the 12% percent of the previous generation– identifies as LGBT. But increasingly, we have in some studies over 12% percent that identify as gender diverse. In other studies, it’s up to 20% percent. And so increasingly, we see this both in our own households with children and in the areas in which we’re providing services. And more than non-LGBT populations, over 90% percent report using a smartphone and again, depending on the study, it can be more than that, but significantly more. Yet, we do have– and this has been consistent, fairly consistent over time– high rates of depression And in different studies ranging from one out of four. Typically, one out of every two LGBT young folks that I work with have significant depression, and it can be higher for trans and gender diverse youth. And they encounter many barriers to mental health care, which is one of the reasons we started to understand the role of social media on their mental health. And we have found, just very briefly, that they’ve been particularly vulnerable related to their technologies but also related to COVID-19, and in many cases being kind of being trapped inside with unsupportive in many cases abusive and hostile families. And they’ve really been cut off from their LGBT identifying supports. So, we did a study that sort of wrapped up actually during the pandemic and we had about 6,500 young people from across the U.S. and Canada, all states and provinces. It was a non-clinically fairly diverse sample and what we found, just in terms of the ways that young people are identifying now because we do feel like that’s important is, and I recognize this as a small little table, but most young people are identifying in ways that are more, are less binary both related to gender so lots of non-binary conforming, gender diverse, genderqueer, fluid young people and related to sexual orientation so there is a little less identification as the first identification of sort of gay and lesbian for example we do seemore fluid identities like bisexual or pansexual, so these are important to think about as parents and as providers. So we think about the ways the things that impact LGBT resilience related to their technology use and related to their offline life, we think about a number of different targets for understanding, including the intersecting identities and particularly focused on this idea of minority stress. So this comes from Elon Meyer’s work and it really shapes some of the work we do in LGBT studies. But really we think about minority stress as there’s an LGBT young person who has a sexual or gender minority identity they experience stigmatization, oppression, and discrimination and from that comes the depression from that comes the anxiety. It’s not related to their identity which we see as something that folks are born with, it is related to the ways that they are treated both explicitly and implicitly related to their identities and that’s where the depression comes from. So what we found in terms of the effects of social media on LGBT youth, we do find that there are differences in age so LGBT youth are significantly involved both as producers and consumers of digital media but younger adolescents are more likely to use social media for emotional support, entertainment, and access to LGBT information. Ollder youth are more likely to use it to access general education and we do find there’s increased use and increased benefit for youth that are particularly isolated but yet the use of technology has social media in particular has helped LGBT youth experience greater self-acceptance. So we understand that that could be a bit of a controversial finding for some folks but that’s really I think about what they’re not getting in many cases offline in addition to what they are receiving online because not all LGBT youth live in affirming homes and community environments. And online spaces is important to remember they don’t create but they reflect the structural discrimination. So in every community both urban and rural being online, and this was a surprise for us, in urban environments was significantly safer, they considered it safer, than being offline so I think we do have to take that into consideration when we’re doing our work. The other thing is the idea of being able to, LGBT young people in particular, but young people are able to manage their online identities and experiences in a way they can’t offline. Offline, young people often tell me how someone will come up to them in a classroom and say something really homophobic to them or maybe hit them. Online, they can shut down their computer, so it’s a really interesting sort of approach that we want to kind of understand it as facilitating their resilience. We do find that online support has really kept our LGBT young people alive and provided them with community and belonging and home. Then the only other thing I want to note here because I see Michelle coming on, two quick things is we do have a new model of digital resilience that is under review and really understanding how LGBT young people are navigating and supporting their own digital resilience through a number of these activities that include regulating their emotions and cultivating relationships. So two quick things what can parents and caregivers do? Begin a conversation with your youth with curiosity. So the conversations around sex which are covered very well I think are quite difficult just like conversations around technology with our young people generally. So start with a curiosity (why are you online, how do you feel after engaging online?) and really thinking about how to be affirmative caregivers, so really understanding what your LGBT young person is going through their specific minority stressors and try to facilitate and support. They’re moving toward and spending time with both offline and online folks who are very affirming and supportive. Then providers, there’s lots of work, there’s lots of work that we’re doing with sort of online interventions, but really thinking about definitely you’re always considering the risk of social media but consider the benefits. Why are your LGBT young people there? And really following the use-lead related, to their self-identification related to identities, and related to their technology use. And really understand, I think, the role of digital mental health interventions and the role of technology in our youths’ lives. So I will kind of wrap it up there but thank you.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Thank you Shelley! This has been great and I know there are a lot of questions on this topic that parents have and some are like I consider kind of basic and biological. I mean, some parents are even wondering you know in the LGBT community is this biological forces that are driving them to identify as LGBTQ? Is it, or are there media influences on these identities? Obviously you’ve talked about some of the ways that they can support and, you know, branch out in terms of finding other groups but I think that’s a really basic question that I’m sure a lot of parents have questions about. Could you address that at all?
[Dr. Shelley L. Craig]: Absolutely! Sure! Yes! The research is pretty clear that there’s, it is biological right. So I think in just like one of the earlier videos that was talking about, I think not we don’t learn how to drive from movies right? Same thing. LGBT young people don’t learn that they are LGBT from what they consume online. What they may find are, and increasingly, there are more positive representations on both social media as well as in more traditional media and we do find that to be very positive, so there’s less the often the representation is less discriminatory and allows them to start to have those conversations with parents and other folks. So there is a searching out I think all of us do that various times if there’s something that we don’t understand about ourselves, we have the internet, we look. LGBT young people do start to search that out but that isn’t what makes them LGBT, it is really they’re “born that way” as Lady Gaga says. It’s really about, it’s really about really trying to understand themselves and spend time online trying to find folks who are similar. So the more representation we have that are positive, I think the better outcomes we will have for LGBT youth. But I think positive representations can also be ways that parents and providers can engage with these conversations with young people who might be afraid that they will be rejected or not fully accepted or affirmed for who they are. So seeing what’s in the media, integrating that into our sessions or our conversations with our young people can be helpful.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]:It’s wonderful, thank you. I, you know a lot of people think about adolescence as this time when children are really rebelling but one thing that most of us probably teach is that it’s not really a time of rebellion, it’s a time of exploration. You know, teens and young adults are trying to figure out who they are, how they fit in this world. So, sometimes what parents actually perceive as a rebellion or them going against them, it’s really just teens trying to figure out who they are. So, thank you very much Shelly this was a really interesting perspective and such a valuable point to add to our overall discussion. Our next guest is Stacey Honowitz, she is, believe it or not, a 33-year veteran of the state’s attorney’s office, specializing in the sex crimes and child abuse unit. Outside of the courtroom, Stacy lectures to schools, organizations, parents groups, and served on several panels addressing sexual abuse with kids and how to navigate the criminal justice system if a child becomes a victim, which I think is such a valuable thing to bring to the conversation. Stacy I’m really excited to hear what you have to tell us today.
[Stacy Honowitz]: Thank you so much. I know I have a very limited amount of time so I’m going to try to talk quickly. The criminal justice system now is what plays the role in after everything you’ve heard from all of the experts. Unfortunately, when kids are not taught early on about sexuality, about body safety, about what can happen, about being online, they end up in my office which is the last place that they want to be. Body safety is so important, I’ve been advocating this for years. And what we have to realize is it’s not the kids that are embarrassed when they’re little and you tell them about private parts you teach them about here’s your eyes, here’s your nose, here’s your mouth, here’s your stomach. Well guess what? Now you say that’s my private part, and they learn as they get older that no one’s allowed to touch them there there except of course for various exceptions. But what we’re learning and what we’re seeing now in my long stance with the state attorney’s office is that the online presence has brought on a whole new slew of crimes and it’s kind of two-fold. We see the online presence of strangers talking to teens, teaching them, you know, trying to gain their trust, that’s what they basically do. And we see these teens who are starving for attention who want to go out and do things to go out and meet a stranger and ultimately what happens, they’re raped. Worse things have happened but what I see in my cases of course is that they’re raped, and then how do we navigate that what do we do? So that’s one scenario. The next scenario is of course the ability to want to fit in. You know, when we were growing up we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have any of those things but you still felt peer pressure, you know your friends were smoking cigarettes should I smoke? Well now we’re seeing my friends are having, sex they’re talking about, it they’re exchanging photographs, they’re talking about it online – should I be doing that? So we see that a lot of kids are almost bullied into that situation, they feel like they have to fit in and that now rides on the coattails of the sexting situation that we have because not only do you have sexting, now you have sextortion. What do I mean by that? That means that if a girl or a boy sends a naked photo to one another, that person might threaten them and say, if you don’t perform, if you don’t have sex with me, if you don’t meet me in the bathroom and do certain things, I’m going to share that photograph with everybody, I’m going to distribute it and then they’re going to see your naked body, so that’s a form of sextortion. So we’re seeing that. The third thing that we see is of course non-consensual sex. We see that with adults and now we’re seeing it with teens. And we are starting to believe that a lot of it is influenced by what they see online and so what happens when they do end up in my office? Who reports it? Well, usually, the parents. The child doesn’t want to get involved, the child doesn’t want to then tell on the person in school because then they’re going to be bullied. So there is so much that goes into having to report to the criminal justice system but in summing it up let me tell you what’s important. You need to constantly have that conversation. It is never a one-on-done, it starts early and it goes every day. I think it’s really important we, when I was growing up, we were scared straight. They took the kids into the jails and they had the convicts talk to them about what was going on. I don’t say go to that limit but if there’s a tv show, if there’s a news article, if there’s news, which every day you see about girls who have left and who have been found later on., they went online, they met somebody, you need to show that. You can’t have a fear factor, you need to show that to your child to tell them here’s what the consequences can be. And if you have to navigate the criminal justice system, then be patient, that’s what I’m telling you it’s not going to happen in a day. You need to take your child’s feelings into consideration because it’s not a 30-day situation. It could be a three-year situation and sometimes, I hate to say it but it’s more detrimental for the child having to re-talk about it, be re-victimized, have to go back into the school situation where everybody says, “oh you told on so and so..”. So while it’s very important and what we do is so important I think that if parents have any questions they need to watch, listen, and talk to their child and let them know. And I think they need to let them know what the possible consequences are because I think if kids see what the consequences are, that they can end up in the courtroom, that they might have to share their story with people that they don’t know, a jury of six people in the community might have to hear about their sexual experience, then they might take a step back and realize that what they’re doing is wrong. Education is key, that’s the bottom line.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Thank you so much Stacy and if I could pick a theme throughout all of our talks it really is education and early conversations and often conversations are key. I’m so happy that despite the fact that we come from all different disciplines we’re able to all give a rather consistent message to all the parents, educators, therapists who are joining us today. So our last speaker, panelist, is Dr. Cora Breuner, she’s a Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine and an adjunct professor of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital at the University of Washington. She’s the current director of the Adolescent Eating Disorder Clinic and also the director of the Adolescent Biofeedback Clinic. She also serves as chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on adolescents and is on the medical executive committee for Seattle Children’s Hospital. Wow! I’m so happy to have you here Cora. Please grace us with some comments.
[Dr. Cora Breuner]: Thank you so much! It’s an honor to be here and I’m immediate past chair of the community of adolescence so I want to make sure that I have a shout out to Dr Alderman, who is the chair now but I’m very involved as a pediatrician in this work and have been for all of my life as a pediatrician and as an adolescent medicine doctor and a mom of three young adults. And I agree with all the panelists this morning, it’s been so amazing to hear validation of what I know is true, and that is to be quite explicit with your kids, teens, and young adults before you have to go to see my esteemed colleague, the lawyer that just spoke because that’s, we don’t want that when we have our babies with their you know, mobiles over their bed and changing their diapers, we do not want to think that we’re going to be sitting in a lawyer office with them someday, dealing with some of the issues because you know this is this beautiful time with baby bottles and breastfeeding, but unfortunately it is, unless we start talking about it. And I know a couple people have talked about this in terms of consent and how the outcomes that you see on the video streams of porn and other avenues for seeing this. You don’t see condoms, right? You don’t actually see that, you see unprotected sex, you see, of course, trauma, you see, you don’t even they don’t even talk about consent they just all of a sudden are going at it. And so what I like to make sure of and I give sex ed talks every year and this is my 15th year of teaching in the middle school not high school. High school horses out of the barn, I start in fifth grade but and actually probably should start even younger. But I start in fifth grade talking about this because it’s extremely important to understand that through video streams, through sexting, through other places where kids are going to get interesting, you know, things happen, there is a lot of omission regarding this behavior. Now the reason I was asked to be on this panel, I believe is because as a pediatrician adolescent medicine, I just want to share with all of you in the audience that a lot of times I get to see this. I get to ask be asked these questions and that’s at the end of a well child visit where we’re spending a ton of time talking about safety, helmets, car seats or hot water heater temperature. And then at the last minute somebody in the one of the parents might say to me as the pediatrician or adolescent doc, “Hey doc, I think I caught my child doing porn stuff is that okay? What should I do?”, and that’s ah at the end of a 20 minute visit where then, oh by the way we’re talking about vaccines too, so it’s jarring for us in the healthcare community to be told that this is the issue. So I like to have handouts and information available to my parents ahead of the well visit just so that we are talking about what their issues are in addition to what my issues are and directing parents to places like what you guys have in terms of resources and availability to keep themselves current. Because if parents actually do have these questions, they’re constantly asking me what’s the block I should put on my kids phone so they’re not doing this, they’re asking me as a pediatrician that I’m trying to get at like other stuff like you know helmets and vaccines and then all of a sudden I’m jarred by this. So I do a lot of educating my peers, medical students, residents and other healthcare professionals because I say even though you don’t think this is going to come up, it’s going to come up at your visits. And, finally, what I’d like to mention is the equity issue, I really want to make sure that people understand that in terms of equity, and cultures and other religions, it’s very very important to be aware and to be sensitive to this because some folks don’t want to talk about this. Some cultures are like nope, do not not mention this, despite the fact that maybe their kids are. So there’s ways we have to ally with those in the faith-based or culture or other races to help us be able to inform their families in a mindful, respectful, appropriate way to allow the kids to live happy and productive lives in the future.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Thank you so much Dr. Bruner. That was incredibly helpful and you actually previewed a lot of the questions that we’re going to pose to the group because now we’re going to actually transition to a group Q&A. So that I have a little bit of order, I know that we panelists actually have a lot of overlapping expertise, so if you would like to answer the question just use the hand raise feature and I’ll call on you, and then maybe keep your answer to about one to two minutes so that we can get some varying perspectives on a lot of these really important issues. So, I’m going to start with actually something that, you know, Dr. Brunner mentioned that she gets at the end of her, you know sessions where she’s talking to them about vaccines and they say, “Oh by the way I caught my child with pornography so what do I do?”. So I’m gonna actually start with that; I know you probably have a perspective as a pediatrician Cora, what you do, but then I’d like to hear some other people weigh in so if you’d like to weigh in on this question please raise your hand but let’s start with Dr. Brunner.
[Dr. Cora Breuner]: Well I really want to hear what everybody else says because it said we are on a time thing just like all the other therapists in this, we don’t we don’t have like all this time to chat about this. So I like to start all of my appointments, and I have done this for like 15 years now, ‘please tell me what is your goal for your meeting with me today? What would you like to get from this appointment with me knowing that we have x amount of minutes?’ and start with that. Because if I start with that then I kind of have a pre-packaged agenda as to what the parents want. Might be different than my agenda but, and probably it is, but I like to start with that but I would be interested in hearing what the other folks say.
[Jo Robertson]: Yeah that’s great. I just have one point to make and I think it’s super important to know that not all young people or children when they’re exposed to porn will have the same reaction. So some will feel actually curious, some will feel aroused, some will feel disgusted, some will say they feel really yak, and some will feel you know triggered back into past sexual assault. So one of the most important questions we can ask is, “how was that for you?”. So actually checking in with them first about their own experience, not making any assumptions, and we need to normalize all the reactions. So we say something like “you know some people feel a bit gross, some people feel really interested, some people start to feel, um, excited in their body and all of that is really normal”. Because young people explain that when they first see porn they often feel really uncomfortable but also really turned on, and it’s hard for them to understand those two feelings together, so we have to normalize the kind of diversity of responses for them.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Excellent, thank you Jo. And then Sharon and then Cindy, what do you think about this topic?
[Dr. Sharon Maxwell]: Yes, one of the things I think is most important as a parent is that inevitably you get triggered by the fact that your child has seen this. Rule of thumb, your most important job as a parent is to keep your child talking to you. You know, and I love what was just said because it asks questions, keep them talking, but any kind of little nuance on your face like oh my god or any of that they won’t come back to you again. You know, what you want to have happen is that they’re consistently seeing you as a resource, you’re the best defense they have. So your response, you know, put on a mask and just ask questions but never ever make them feel ashamed or embarrassed or that this has somehow upset you. This is just another day, another topic, and now we’re going to have a discussion.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Excellent! That’s a great way to keep the conversation going. I love that you describe it as wearing a mask. You’re wearing a mask as a patient, a person gathering information you know, being accepting and trying to make your child comfortable. And also, just, well I’m gonna adjust it after Cindy speaks, but we’re gonna talk about the cultural shifts and how if those don’t align with your own morality, how do you do that? But go ahead Cindy.
[Dr. Cindy Pierce]: I think it’s really, just what Sharon said like keep your pulse down no matter what, but also to say, you know what it’s totally normal to be curious about naked bodies and it’s totally normal to be curious about sex. That’s what it is. And also masturbation, if they’re older, is normal and healthy for all genders. And one thing people don’t realize, no question, biological boys are the biggest consumers of internet porn, but all brains of all genders respond to the novelty of naked people doing anything on a screen. So let’s just let’s treat all genders in these conversations the same even though biological boys are hitting their sexual peak in their teens so they’re going to be more habitually using, but yes, just normal to be curious, normal.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: You know, as a parent now to two biological boys, who are both adolescents, this is obviously a really important question for me. I guess what I struggle with and maybe many parents are also thinking of this, and as well as many educators, so let’s say you have that conversation and they say it made me feel excited and you want to normalize that and you want to make them feel comfortable and most of all which I think everyone touched upon, you want to keep that conversation flowing. How could you also communicate to them the potential perils of pornography? Such as, you might not feel about a regular face-to-face interaction the way you feel about pornography. So how do we introduce that thread while making them feel comfortable? Sharon.
[Dr. Sharon Maxwell]: You know I think, you know there’s a lot to be said for starting to responding in a way, obviously calmly, but also saying, you know, in our family we feel this way about this, you know? Like this is how I understand, this is what I think about pornography and this is why. And educate yourself sufficiently that you have intelligent things to then obviously say and there’s a lot of ways, there’s a lot of resources for parents online that will help you have these conversations, Culture Reframed being one of them. But really what you’re saying is that you’re giving them your values, and that’s your job right? So you’re basically saying in our family we feel this way about porn, you know meaning as they get older they’re going to have their own understanding of this but they will always carry in the back of their brain that this is how you understand this and this is what your values are.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Great, and I mean that that kind of addresses how educators and parents can honor this cultural shift that’s happening but also communicate their own views which may not fully align with that shift. Yeah I saw your hand, Debby please.
[Dr. Debby Herbenick]: Yeah I think these are great suggestions. You know somebody also mentioned earlier being curious right? So asking those questions. I think, you know, by the time kids are sometimes watching pornography or have more questions about those topics and sex, there’s also hopefully been you know many years of the foundation of differences between what we see in the media and what we experience in real life. So there may be something to build upon about what we’ve seen in cartoons and in you know superhero shows versus real life. But also I think a value of sharing with young people is that some of these things they just won’t really know until they are at the stage where they’re trying those things, right? And whatever it is that they end up trying whether it’s kissing or making out or other sexual behaviors how important it is to go slowly, to check in with partners, to stop when somebody wants to stop, to stop when something hurts. But those are, when we when we survey young people about their their early sexual experiences in high school and college, so much of it is about somebody charging forward without paying attention to how they’re feeling or reacting. And we’re not going to, as parents, we can’t be there. We don’t want to be there, you know, when when they start being sexual with other people like we don’t want our kids around us but they will have to figure that out and they will need to be reminded or would be supported to be reminded that it’s a mutual experience. And you’ve got to check in and take your time to do it safely, pleasurably, and in caring ways for one’s partner.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: So I’m going to get to Cora in a second but I’m going to interject with this because I mean that’s one side of it, right? Will our children learn sex is this non-speaking, you know coordination where someone’s always experiencing pleasure I mean it’s unrealistic. But on the other side, mean I think we could all acknowledge and have certainly seen the research that pornography viewing affects the brain. It might affect their sensitivity to these real life experiences, it might make them less sensitive, it might relate to sexual dysfunction because these real life experiences are not living up to the, you know, contrived experiences that they’ve been seeing all through their development. So I would like to see, and I know Stacey and Corey, you guys have your hands raised. I don’t know if you could address either of these questions but I guess as a parent, I want to raise a child who has a very healthy and productive sex life. So knowing what I know about pornography and how it could potentially be affecting their brain, what about that? Not only communicating consent. So I don’t know, Cora? Stacey? Could either of you, I knew you have your hands raised.
[Stacey Honowitz]: I think well, I think that what’s very important for us is to tell these kids that what they’re seeing is fully staged. I know we can say it’s unrealistic but we have to kind of spell it out. Do you realize there’s a director standing in front of them, this is all scripted, he is forcing her to do something, she is a part, she is an actor, and that’s not how reality is. Reality is you talking to your partner, asking them questions, letting them know and not being filmed and that’s what I think it’s really all about. I think that they are so caught up in watching it all day long with Tik-Toks, the constant screening, they don’t realize that in pornography that is on a set and they are being directed and told what to do. So that could be one way of kind of explaining to them how unrealistic and how this does not translate into the real world.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Great, great advice. and I’m going to point out that she and he are both being forced to do something. Yeah I wanted to. Yeah, so sensitivity to that. Sharon and well Cora first you had your hand raised.
[Dr. Cora Breuner]: So you guys remember the movie Love Actually, right? Wasn’t that that was pretty much like and that’s like one of the all-time best holiday movies and it’s like right there they’re actors in that particular movie which is quite interesting. But I want to mention two things, one is that I want to be careful also because this is what I also see in pediatrics and adolescent medicine, is that is that kids that have medically complex illnesses get in you know regret are like asexual right. So kids on dialysi or kids with with diabetes, they are not really felt to have that kind of feeling or even kids with intellectual or cognitive or physical disabilities are not supposed to have sex. So we don’t talk about this to them, but they do. I’ve done a number of research projects with kids on dialysis or in our diabetes clinics or even in our cerebral palsy clinics. So there is this myth that these are you know children and they’re just not going to grow up. It’s like, yes they are. Yes they are and so, and they have lots of questions and if we don’t talk to them as parents and our doctors don’t talk to them either they’re going to go online. So I just want to be sure because I’ve given this lecture multiple times to folks that do take care of kids with developmental cognitive intellectual or other chronic illnesses. Like you have to talk about this with these kids. I know that you don’t think they’re thinking about it but they are so that’s that was the plug I wanted to make. And then I agree with you on all counts about like impotence and erectile dysfunction is alive and well in adolescent medicine, alive and well in adolescent medicine. I see it all the time but if we don’t ask about it it’s not going to happen. So I have to teach my young doctors, you have to ask these questions about porn and then you have to ask about erectile dysfunction, impotence, premature ejaculation, all of this. Even though you’re uncomfortable, you have to ask these questions without a parent in the room because that’s what you have to. So I just want to push a big plug for parents. You need to let your kid talk to the provider alone. They’re not talking to me about this with you in the room.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: That’s a great suggestion, Cora. I’m so happy that you said that because I guess a lot of parents might not realize that their children might have things they’d want to discuss with the doctor and what a wonderful way to empower them about their own personal health. Generally, not even related to sexuality that they can have conversations with medical providers. Thank you for that reminder. I want to say really briefly you know we’ve talked about having these early conversations often and I like the idea of Sharon, you know saying that we could wear a mask and kind of take off our own moral feelings and just really be listeners to our children. I know Sharon, you have your hand raised but we’re getting a lot of questions about developmentally appropriate topics, what age do you know, have these conversations and where to find resources. So how to know when you talk about a certain topic, when to talk about it, actually that makes me feel like we should get together and create this resource, this group of experts. So if anyone has any suggestions about where parents can go, we do have a suggestion from Debby, websites like amaze.org, Sex Positive Families have helpful resources, they have books, videos, tip sheets, but if anyone has anything else that they’d like to recommend I know Sharon you have your mic unmuted so maybe you could jump in.
[Dr. Sharon Maxwell]: Well I mean if you’re wanting to talk to your kid about porn, I already mentioned Culture Reframed is a great great resource to do that. I also want to add on to what you were just saying, it’s important to talk about masturbation and porn as well. You know because I’ve seen plenty of young, and this is going back to what you’re saying Michelle about wanting to raise healthy sexual, you know young men or healthy sexual young women, you know I’ve seen plenty of young men in my private practice where they’ve literally wired their brain to orgasm to a certain kind of physical stimulation and a very specific visual stimulation often violent or whatever. And then they have their first actual experience which they’ve been waiting for their whole life you know and it doesn’t work right because they have it because they’ve been pretty much hardwired to experience sexual pleasure in a very particular way. And that doesn’t mean that everybody that masturbates to porn is going to end up having this problem but it’s a problem and it’s a problem that I see again and again in my private practice. They have to get off of porn for a while to reset their bodies so they can actually experience pleasure from actual sex with another human being.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: I’m going to add to what Sharon said, we as panelists have confronted these issues from various directions at different age groups but we are going to stay away from making specific recommendations regarding the age at which you should have these conversations, but rather talk a little bit more generally about what you could talk about. Because we know that your individual feelings about the age that that’s appropriate may differ from our own so I’m just going to say that. But thank you Sharon! That’s such a great piece of clinical insight that you’re giving us. Shelley and then Jo.
[Dr. Shelley Craig]: Yeah just a couple of quick points and I certainly agree with all my panelists. In thinking about these conversations there was a point that was made earlier in trying to either build on an already existing foundation of communication that you have with your child or you know your client, again I know there’s lots of providers that are attending. I think that’s really important to think about that and if that is not in existence, then to figure out how to start to build that. And I just want to just remind folks because often these conversations particularly when we’re talking about sex are are still conversations that are very gendered, understandably. But I think as we’re working with young people who are more and more aware and in touch with and open to, sometimes not with us, but discussing their gender identities as they’re understanding them or their sexual orientations, these are not conversations that are really necessarily boy girl in the same way I think that they were maybe 15/20 years ago. So just really thinking about using language that is, you know, that’s very open, who is it that you know, who is it that you’re sort of interested in, right and again these are low level curious questions, I think they are really important. And the other piece is there is so much shame around being LGBT, even though there are more young people that are identifying in these ways there’s so much shame around being LGBT or even having those discussions, particularly with parents right, even with open and affirming parents those are hard conversations for kids to have or initiate. So and then layering on top of that conversations about sexual activity you just want to think about that maybe the sequencing of that or how you can continue to kind of build that foundation to reduce the shame that I think is probably coming at them from all sides and that we also might feel kind of as parents from them but also from society in general. What does it mean to be a parent of a kid who’s LGBT? What does it mean to be a parent of a kid who’s sexually active? So I think on trying to decouple our identities from those conversations that we’re having with young people but also really think about their identities and their experiences as really being in many ways sort of on a continuum to use sort of like old school language. But just thinking about that a little bit more broadly because I think even having the conversation in ways that is more gendered and your young person you may not know may be in some way identifying as LGBT in some ways if you’re starting to have these great conversations about sex and gendered ways, you could actually communicate inadvertently that you’re not open to these other types of identities or identifications that you’re having. So I know it’s a bit long-winded but I think those are just a few things to try to attend to I think both as providers and as parents.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Absolutely and considering the statistics you presented earlier about how many people are identifying as LGBTQ, it would be very important for parents to enter those conversations you know with this kind of unbiased language. So thank you so much for bringing us back to that. Jo I know you had unmuted.
[Jo Robertson]: Great, thanks. I think without jumping into the age specific you should have this talk then. There are some things to be aware of, like some young people are more vulnerable to being exposed to porn than others and that means that you might need to have the conversation a bit earlier. So somebody’s mentioned that boys are more vulnerable to being exposed to porn but also kids who are in multiple homes. So whether that’s having lots of play dates, having lots of sleepovers or you’re co-parenting or maybe they spend a lot of time at a grandparent’s house you know they spend lots of time with cousins, all of those things mean that they’re more likely to have more device exposure and more likely to be talking about multiple kinds of topics. So I know with my youngest son for example he is much more likely to see porn earlier than my oldest son and so I need to be talking to him earlier than I would potentially with the older one. The second point I want to make is that when we’re talking to young teens or if we’re thinking like ten plus about porn, they often aren’t experiencing any harm initially and so they actually tend to not believe us when we talk about harm. So they’re not hearing from friends that they’ve got erectile dysfunction, other types of sexual dysfunction, they’re not hearing that people are invaded by their mental health or that there’s addiction or whatever it is and they tend to think we’re kind of just making it up. Also there’s a lot of promotional material now from the porn sites and I’ve watched a ton of it where the performers are saying things like, “I was 100% into that and I loved it and I consented to everything” and they just proliferate that message through social media. So we have found that the harms based conversation, whilst there’s a place for it, isn’t as effective as the ethics based conversation and you’re actually more likely to have a values alignment with your young person when you talk about LGBTQ representation in porn, when you talk about sexism, and when you talk about racism. You don’t actually need to share so much of your own opinions but to say you know, “how do you think, you know, different people of color are represented in the porn that you’ve seen?”. And they are actually much more likely to agree with you than if you say, “We’ve heard people get erectile dysfunction”, they’re like no they don’t. So just widening the conversation in those early years when they’re not necessarily experiencing or witnessing any harm.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Well thank you, that’s a great suggestion as well. I really like the suggestion you’ve given and gives us such a good takeaway in terms of how to ask the questions, right, that could be difficult as conversation topics. One, I know we only have a couple more minutes of this Q&A and then we’re going to get some final thoughts. But I guess I’m going to combine two questions here, so I’m seeing films like 13 Reasons Why and Euphoria that are bringing to the mainstream media some very deep topics that then we might see our kids talking about later. So I guess I have a couple of questions and I’m more concerned with the latter. The first is you know, what role does the media have in bringing these things to our youth and the second really is what do we do when our kids start talking about things that they’ve seen that might be sexually explicit, explicit in other ways that we weren’t prepared to talk with them about yet. So how can we handle it when our kids say, “hey I saw the girl taking fentanyl on Euphoria” and they’re 10. You know, how do we start those conversations?
[Stacey Honowitz]: We have these conversations all the time because parents always come into my office and they say I couldn’t talk to them about sex, I didn’t know what to say now they’re talking about drugs. I think open and honest conversation is just…when I say that there are things in the news, the media is a double-edged sword. It’s horrible for certain things but it’s good, it’s a good teaching tool also. If you see something like that, it’s an open opportunity for you to then start that discussion. Don’t shoo away, don’t say, oh you’re too young. “Let me tell you what’s going on, fentanyl is a drug and fentanyl, if taken, can kill you”. I mean you have to be honest if you sugarcoat things, later on they’re gonna figure it out and they’re gonna want to know why wasn’t I talked about. So you know, we don’t want to talk about ages because you as the parent, you know the maturity of your child, you know basically what they can and cannot handle. Far be it for me to “say don’t start talking to them now”. If you think they can handle it and they’ve brought this to your attention then I think it’s a teaching opportunity at that point to tell them about drugs, what they can do, and what the harm can be.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Excellent, I know that um Cindy also shared with us um a link to a documentary about online influences, especially porn. It’s called ourkidsonline.info. So if anyone wants to check that out, that might be a great resource to exploring a lot of these topics. And then Sharon, this will be our last comment before we get to final thoughts. So while Sharon is sharing her perspective, if everyone could gather up maybe a one-minute final thought that we can give to our listeners. Go ahead Sharon.
[Dr. Sharon Maxwell]: Sure you’re talking about television shows like Euphoria, often when I’m talking to kids in my private practice they’re talking about relationships and I’m thinking oh my god they’re literally taking their cues for what is a romantic relationship from these television shows that they’ve seen because they don’t have any other conversation about it. We, every sex ed curriculum needs to have an entire section based on what is a healthy relationship. You know, when you watch these shows for teens it’s drama, drama, pain, drama, suicide, drama, it just goes on and on and on. No one’s happy, no one’s having fun, everything that one would want to have in a first romantic relationship, I don’t know where that is but it’s not on these television shows. Having conversations with your child about what constitutes a healthy relationship and what are you looking for in a romantic relationship is essential if you don’t want them you know thinking that what is being portrayed in the media is what relationships are supposed to be like.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Yeah I mean I grew up watching 16 Candles, where the guy pulled up in the portion they had a birthday cake on the table and that is my view of love and relationships and I do wonder what our kids are getting because Sharon, you’re exactly right. There’s drama and darkness and all these influences that I just was never exposed to as I was growing up so I do wonder how it’s affecting us. So I know that this has been great, I think we could talk for hours, even in our practice session we almost went for hours, you have been amazing today, these panelists. I’m so grateful to Pam and Children and Screens for giving us the opportunity to come together and to talk about these topics. So closing out I’d love a one, you know, minute summary or something that they could take away that you would like to give our listeners as they go. And I’m just going to start, I’m going to start with my view, with Stacy actually. You’re at the top so go ahead Stacy.
[Stacey Honowitz]: I just want to say one thing you know, actions have consequences, we know this and we know that sexually actions have consequences and unfortunately those consequences and those bad things end up in my office as a prosecutor. I would just urge parents, providers to have the discussion, don’t be afraid to talk about it, talk about what could happen if, God forbid, they do get themselves in these situations. Because the last place that you want to be spending your next three years is in a prosecutor’s office so just heed the warning, don’t be afraid to talk.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Thank you Stacey. I feel like if I had half your passion I’d be way different, in a different place in my life. You have so much passion I feel it through the camera. Thank you for bringing your passion and expertise. Sharon, you’re next.
[Dr. Sharon Maxwell]: Parents always ask me, “how do I start this, this is so embarrassing, I don’t know how to say it and my kids don’t want to hear it” and they keep walking away and there’s one piece of advice I often give. It’s like when you’re talking to your child about this and they’re resisting having these conversations tell them this: you know, at the end of the day as your parent I have to look in the mirror and know that I’ve done the best job I could do as a parent today. The same way you have to look in the mirror and see if you can be proud of who you were today. And without me having, my job is to give you this information and to tell you what my values are about this. So as painful as it is for you, you’re going to have to sit down and listen because when I go to bed tonight I’m going to look in the mirror and know I did the best job I could as a parent.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: You’re making me cry. Oh! I don’t know if anyone else got weepy but that just applies to everything, not even just sexuality. We’re all just trying to do the best we can every day. Shelley.
[Dr. Shelley Craig]: Sure, thank you. I just to remind sort of parents and providers that young people are indeed identifying increasingly in a range of gender and sexually diverse ways and that’s okay, that’s normative, that’s okay. So what we need to do is remember that just because there’s more representation doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily able or comfortable to talk to you more or that discrimination is not happening because it still is. And so our job, I think, is to really continue to be curious, to really understand why and how they’re using their social media about their experiences, their range of identities, and really kind of staying open and keeping that line of communication open.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Thank you, now Cindy.
[Dr. Cindy Pierce]: In 2011 a Dutch study came out about the value of teaching sex education early, you can find that on my website under “Teachers, Parents, and Educators” on the resources and everything we want in America; kids starting to have sex later, kids lower rate of teen pregnancy, kids understanding consent and not combining alcohol and sex. All the things we dream of are occurring when this early sex education happens and we are slow on the draw to adopt these ideas even though it’s what we want. So I encourage people to look at that, those studies.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Thank you so much Cindy! What a valuable resource and thank you for the other resource of ourkidsonline.info. Cora.
[Dr. Cora Breuner]: No pressure. I’m super into forgiveness because, and community, because this is really hard work, it’s really hard work being the therapist that you all are, it’s hard being the doctor, it’s hard being the educator, it’s hard being the parent, it’s hard being the quirky weird aunt that I am to my nieces. But, and we make mistakes and so we have to practice forgiveness so I agree with Sharon that we go to bed really doing the best we can but also giving ourselves some grace because it’s really hard. So if we give ourselves some grace we will give our kids some grace because we need to give them some grace. This is rough for them right now. I know, it’s not easy, so we have to give ourselves some grace and then we can give our kids grace and the community grace and the prosecuting attorney’s grace and the police grace and our legislators grace.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: And everyone, grace! I mean we are coming out of, we have the highest rates of anxiety and depression that we’ve seen in decades. You know post pandemic everyone’s trying to find their footings so, you know, giving everyone grace has been something I’ve been preaching as well as I’m sure all of you have. Excellent, thank you Cora. Jo.
[Jo Robertson]: I just want to say that there is a lot of hope in this space so, you, people are often like afraid of the conversation or they’re afraid of finding out that their young person has seen porn or is having lots of sex or something like that. But often parents find that once they start having these conversations they’re really productive and they’re really healthy and they feel a lot closer to their child. And I see people having, you know creating behavior change and making different decisions all the time based on conversations they had with adults. So it’s a really really hopeful space.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Yeah good. I’m glad that we’re bringing some hope into this as well. Thank you. Debby and then after Debby I’m going to say mine quick one and we’re right on time. Okay so go ahead, Debby.
[Dr. Debby Herbenick]: Thank you. Yes, these are great closing comments. There is a lot of hope. I think it’s helpful that there are so many resources available to parents who want to connect with their kids in these spaces. I love the encouragement I’ve heard today to just try it, to just do it. Even if you don’t have your talk the way you wanted it to go you can circle back and say “there was more I wanted to say” or “I didn’t quite get that right”. But as parents we’re really coming at this from a place of love and care and I think holding that value close and also communicating that to our kids of different ages. “I know this is awkward”, “I know it feels funny”, “I love you so much”, right, and “I really care about you”, and especially to these kids who feel different in any way. Whether it’s because of their sexual identity, their gender identity, something about their body, whatever it is that feels different to them, what helps is that resounding message from a parent is that “I love you, I care about you, I accept you and I’m here for you to figure out all the tough parts of growing up”. So there are great resources shared here in the chat around websites and books and podcasts and all sorts of things and they are your tools as a parent to support your kids.
[Dr. Michelle Drouin]: Yeah well, thank you so much for that Debby. I’m yeah one of the books mentioned is Birds plus bees plus kids, it’s a book and blog by Amy Lang. I’m gonna do a picture from my book because I think my final point will rest here so I just published a book with MIT Press in february called, Out of Touch: How to Survive an Intimacy Famine, which isn’t all about sex but it’s about how we’re developing as human beings in a technical world, in one that’s infused with technology. And what I will say in my closing point is that the world has shifted dramatically. We are not growing up now the way we used to and I had a recent experience with my sons where they were a couple years ago attending a Travis Scott Fortnight concert in our basement with a friend across the street while they were also streaming with their friends on snapchat, sharing that experience. And I thought this is so different than the world that I grew up in, where we would meet at the mall or we’d have two hour phone conversations. But this is their world and I need to try to understand it as best I can so that I can help them, guide them. And what I always tell my parents is you may not know as much as your kid about their iPhone -you probably don’t- but you know what you know a lot about? Life. The world. You have wisdom that they don’t know, so use that wisdom to help them troubleshoot the problems that they’re having in this world that’s very unfamiliar to you. You will always have more than them, hopefully. So thank you all and I am so grateful that we’ve had this talk today and I’m so pleased to then introduce Pam Hurst Della-Pietra who can close out our wonderful talk today. So thank you.
[Dr. Pam Hurst Della-Pietra]: Wow. Well thank you, thank you. Michelle, Sharon, Jo, Cindy, Shelley, Debby, Stacy, and Cora for talking with us today and sharing your compelling insights and prudent advice, no pun intended. Thank you again to Jo and In The Know for allowing us to share your videos and thank you as well to our Zoom audience for joining us live and engaging in this essential conversation. We hope you learned a lot and are ready to tackle “the talk” with your kids tonight or when the time is right. Parents I hope that this and our other programming at Children and Screens convinces you how important it is not to give up on your children and teens screen time and screen use. To learn more about this and other topics around the cognitive, psychosocial, emotional, and physical impacts of digital media use on toddlers, children, and adolescents please visit our website at childrenscreens.com. You can also follow us on any of the social media platforms listed here to stay up to date on our latest events and programming. We invite you to join us again on Wednesday, May 4th for, Here There and Everywhere: Emerging Technologies and the Future of Children, where we will discuss all the latest and upcoming technologies, their applications and implications for the lives of children everywhere. Thanks again for joining us today. Be safe and well.