Is the internet today’s primary sex educator? How much and how easily are youth accessing sexual content online? How does what they view shape their perception of “normal” in romantic and sexual relationships? Is the increasing prevalence of AI playing a role?

Children and Screens held the #AskTheExperts webinar “The New Sex Educator? Online Sexual Content and Today’s Youth” on May 22, 2024. Panelists explored the research on the nature and frequency of sexual content accessed by young people online, discussed current trends and developing concerns, and provided tips for parents and caregivers to help understand and guide children as they navigate  potentially sensitive or disturbing online experiences.

Speakers

  • Carolyn West, PhD

    Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Washington
    Moderator
  • Elizabeth Englander, PhD

    Director, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center; Professor of Psychology, Bridgewater State University
  • Debra Herbenick, PhD, MPH

    Provost Professor, Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University School of Public Health
  • Amy Lang, MA

    Sexual Health Educator, Birds & Bees & Kids
  • Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, PhD

    Professor of Communication, University of Arizona

Online sexual content is more accessible and pervasive than ever before, and children and teens are increasingly using the internet to learn about sex and experience sexual content. In this #AskTheExperts webinar, our distinguished panel discussed how online sexual content shapes youth perceptions of sex, relationships, and sexual health and safety.  Panelists provided numerous tips for navigating this tricky topic with children in an age-appropriate way that will help keep them safe, informed, and healthy.

00:10 Introduction

Kris Perry, MSW, Executive Director of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, introduces the webinar and panel moderator, Carolyn West, PhD, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Washington, Tacoma, an award-winning author, and a leading expert on domestic violence, sexualization of women in media, and the study of pornography.  Dr. West briefly discusses the challenges of the current media landscape with respect to online sexual content. 

03:40 Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, PhD

Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, PhD, Professor of Communication at the University of Arizona and expert on sexual content in traditional media, speaks on sexual content in mainstream media and its effects on adolescent health and development. Dr. Aubrey details the results of recent content analyses to understand the sexual messages contained in mainstream media and leverages these insights to provide actionable tips for parents attempting to navigate these issues with their children.

20:17 Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH

Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH, Provost Professor at Indiana University School of Public Health – Bloomington and  long-time researcher on human sexuality, media, and education, discusses emerging sexual practices portrayed in both pornography and across social media, particularly sexual “choking.” Dr. Herbenick emphasizes what parents and professionals need to know to help youth develop healthy sexual lives and risky sexual behaviors that may cause mental and physical harm.

37:14 Elizabeth Englander, PhD

Elizabeth Englander, PhD, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, discusses how emerging AI technologies are reshaping the landscape of online sexual content. She explores how AI is being used to generate new types of online sexual content, as well as the use of AI companions and other tools in romantic and sexual relationships.  Dr. Englander discusses the problem of AI-generated deep fakes in detail, providing tips for families and teens to keep their images safe.

53:37 Amy Lang, MA

Amy Lang, MA, founder of Birds and Bees and Kids and renowned sex educator, speaks about how to talk to your kids about sex and pornography in the age of the internet.  She suggests appropriate ways to discuss these issues with children of different ages, as well as steps that empower parents and children alike to make good choices and keep themselves and their families safe and healthy when online sexual content is so pervasive.

01:06:55 Q&A

Dr. Carolyn West invites all panelists back to answer questions from the live audience.  Panelists speak to sexualized content in video games, how to effectively use blocking software and filters to keep online sexual content away from kids. They also describe how to get past the feeling that you’re the only family restricting kids’ access to the internet, as well as unique approaches that may work for neurodiverse youth or any child that feels a bit different compared to how typical kids feel and engage with online sexual content. 

[Kris Perry] Hello and welcome to the 75th Ask the Experts webinar: “The New Sex Educator? Online Sexual Content and Today’s Youth”. I’m Kris Perry, Executive Director of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. We often talk about behaviors around screen time or digital media use, and while both are important factors for a healthy relationship with digital media, today we’re going to focus more closely on a third important factor: content. Specifically sexual content, which children may come across in movies or television shows on social media platforms, in messages with peers, and of course, pornography. What is this content portraying, and how often are youth exposed? What are the impacts on development, and how can parents and educators reclaim the sex education conversations to support youth more holistically across development? We have invited an exceptional panel of experts to discuss these questions and more, sharing both research and clinical experience to help us all better understand the landscape of sexual content online and its impacts on youth health and well-being. We understand that this conversation can be nerve wracking for many adults, but our goal today is to present the facts and so there will be some mature information shared. If there are any children around, we recommend listening with headphones or moving into another room. Now, I would like to introduce you to today’s moderator, Dr. Carolyn West. Dr. West is an award winning author, internationally recognized speaker, documentary filmmaker, and expert witness. She is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Washington, where she teaches courses on sex crimes, sexual violence, and family violence. For more than three decades, she has been investigating gender based violence in the lives of marginalized populations and sexualized media. She is writer-producer of the documentary, Let Me Tell Ya’ll Bout Black Chicks: Images of Black Women in Pornography, and was consultant on the 2022 Common Sense Media report, Teens and Pornography. Welcome, Carolyn. 

[Dr. Carolyn West] Thank you so much for having me. I am so looking forward to having this very important conversation with you all today. I started doing this work decades ago, and things have gotten in some way progressively more challenging with our media landscape. And so when I was asked to be a consultant for Common Sense Media, and we did a national study where we actually looked at what teens were consuming and what they were being exposed to on online content. And we were finding that they were being exposed to sexual content, and they were also being exposed to pornography. So the concern was, what can we do about this? Because children were pretty disturbed about what they were seeing. So it’s my honor and privilege. I think we’ll just go ahead and get started and really start to hear from our other experts on the topic–ask some questions, get some questions answered. But let’s get started. Dr. Jennifer Stevens Aubrey is Professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Arizona, and she studies the media effects of emotional, mental, and physical health in young people, focusing on adolescent sexuality and particularly body image. So I think she can give us some really great insights from her work. So I’m excited to see what you’re finding, Jennifer, in the work that you’re doing.

[Dr. Jennifer Stevens Aubrey] Thank you Carolyn. I’m going to start us off today by talking about sexual content in mainstream media. And by that, I mostly mean non-pornography media. And we’ll look at the content in these media, and also there we’ll start with talking about their effects as well. So I wanted to start off a little bit by talking about the context of development. So, in adolescence we see with the beginning of puberty a real dramatic shift from being averse to sexual information and sometimes romantic information as well, to a period of kind of intense sexual curiosity. So, this creates a situation that we call a high need for cognition. So adolescents at this stage have a high interest in sex and sexuality, but low experience. So they have a high need to learn and be oriented toward the topic. And in this situation, the media provide a really salient and tempting source of information for adolescents. At this age, adolescents are eager to learn sexual scripts. So what will they need to know when they are in sexual or romantic situations? So they want to know that useful normative information about who should do what, to whom, and what circumstances, and with what results, and the media provide these sexual scripts in a kind of a high reward, low risk way. And by that I mean that they don’t have to ask their parents or their teachers. They don’t have to ask adults and create a potentially embarrassing situation. And so they’re learning about sexual scripts from the media, but maybe they’re not learning what parents or educators would want them to learn. So, to what effects. So I just said that the adolescents are interested in the sexual scripts in the media, but what do they learn? So there is now decades of research about teen exposure to sexual media or sexually oriented media. And this ranges everywhere from social media to television, movies, music, and used to be magazines, although those aren’t as relevant as they once were. And so teens who consume a great deal of that type of media, we can kind of categorize their effects in three different ways. So, the first is sexual attitudes. So research suggests that teens who consume more of the screen media have more permissive sexual attitudes and also describe their peers as being more sexually active than they actually are. In terms of sexual behaviors, we see an earlier age of sexual initiation, so the earlier age at which they start having sex, a greater number of sexual partners, and more engagement in risky sexual behaviors. And the area that I do research in is the area of gendered sexual beliefs. So teens who consume more sexual media are more likely to endorse the double standard, where girls are punished and boys are rewarded for sex; sexual expectations in romantic relationships, which would for girls mean that they want to control the timing of sex, whereas boys want to control the amount of sex that occurs in romantic or sexual relationships; and more lax perceptions of sexual aggression, so expecting, you know, interpersonal violence in sexual context and kind of normalizing that as well. So with these effects then, the next question is how do these effects pair with the content, the themes, what they actually see in the sexual media that they are consuming. And so, collaborators and I recently did a systematic review of content analysis. And a content analysis is a special type of academic study where researchers try to objectively and systematically code content to understand the systematic portrayal of a topic or issue. And so with regard to sex, we reviewed quantitative and qualitative content analyses of portrayals of sex and sexuality and screen media that were either popular with adolescents, or screen media that were specifically created for adolescents. And then again, this would mostly be on the non-pornography side of adolescent media. And for this paper we reviewed studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals that were published in or after 2010 to get kind of more of that current examination of portrayals. The study also had to be empirical, so based on evidence–not just somebody’s kind of reading of a particular text, but had to be based on a systematically described method. So those were the studies that we focused on, and the goal of doing that was to try to make some conclusions that were grounded in evidence about current representations of sex and sexuality for youth. And I say, I put the “ish” in there–current-ish. The reason why I qualify that is because content analyses are kind of labor-intensive, and once they get published, they’re probably describing materials that were available to youth maybe five, even ten years prior. So what I’m talking about this, it’s not, you know–there’s somewhat of a lag between what we know about portrayals and what the academic research reflects. So even so, I can make four conclusions based on good evidence that are recent-ish. So the first conclusion I can make is that depictions of sexual talk and behaviors are quite frequent in entertainment media for youth. And so the couple studies that still show this–this has been something we know for a while–But in teen sex romps, which are movies created for teens in which a teen character is pursuing a sexual romantic relationship, sexual behaviors occur at a rate of four per hour, and sexual talk occur at a rate of five per hour of the film. In TV shows popular with tweens, sexual behaviors occurred about five behaviors per episode, and in TV shows popular with teens, sexual behaviors occurred about 15 times per episode. So quite a big jump between the tween and the teen audience. But I will qualify that and say that most of the–this is not like sexual intercourse being portrayed, these are rather mild sexual behaviors, of the type of like, physical flirting and kissing. The second conclusion we can make is that heterosexuality is still assumed and naturalized in youth media, and this is evidenced by the portrayal of LGBTQ+ sexual relationships as being still quite rare, and LGBTQ+ characters acting as sources of humor and derision in sexual contexts. The third conclusion I can make kind of furthers that idea, and that the pervasive theme about sexuality conforms to a heterosexual script, and this largely overlaps with the sexual double standard. And so, according to this script, sex is portrayed as risky for girls, both emotionally and physically, and as such, they are more likely to receive negative consequences or punishments for sex than boy or male characters. In addition, boys are portrayed as being obsessed with sex, driven by sex, and this is mostly portrayed as a way for boys and men to demonstrate their masculinity to others. So these are definitely themes that we see that are connected to adolescent sexuality in the screen media. And the fourth conclusion I can make based on the systematic review is that portrayals in youth media reflect a recreational approach towards sex as well. And this is reflected in several ways. First, sex often occurs in casual sex relationships or “hookups”, sometimes called “friends with benefits” relationships, in teen media. The percentage of sexually active teens in entertainment media is significantly greater than the percentage of actual teens who have had sex. So there is a kind of a rather dramatic overrepresentation of teen sexual behavior in these mainstream media. And finally, sexual behaviors are largely unencumbered by discussions of risks, like the contraction of an STI, for example, and responsibility, which would include taking precautions like using condoms while having sex. So these are the four main conclusions that we can make. And so it seems like, you know, the question I often get is, “where’s the progress?” And there are some really interesting and salient examples of progressive adolescent sexuality. And so, parents will often ask me, “I thought we were doing better. What gives? Why is the research still reflecting this?” And I will say that there are some really great powerful exceptions to these kinds of normative conclusions that I’ve just stated. One that I really like is a show on Netflix called Sex Education. And here in this show, we actually see a kind of hitting the notes of a comprehensive sex education approach to adolescent sexuality. And in that, I mean that there’s a diversity of sexual relationships, a diversity of sexual identities portrayed there. There are also frank and open discussions about sexual consent and the application of sexual consent in sexual context as well. There’s also frank discussions about the goods and the bads of adolescent sexuality. So in many ways, this is a show that kind of breaks the norms of what I’ve just presented to you. But, this is an exception that perhaps we should call attention to and celebrate, but it’s still an exception. It’s not the rule, at least according to these systematic analyses of content, where we can try to make kind of overall conclusions about how sex is portrayed to teens. So what can parents do? And professionals and educators and people who care about youth– What can they do? I will highlight two main recommendations. One is the curation of media content. So there are some great and powerful exceptions, like Sex Education. So I encourage parents and professionals to curate their media content for their youth by choosing media that has positive messaging. And of course, what is considered positive will vary by parent, by family, by individual. But you have an opportunity to choose content that conforms to what you consider to be positive messaging. I encourage parents to use Common Sense Media to find those good examples of media that they would like to share with their youth. And then also reinforcing positive role models. So if there is a character or even a celebrity who the teenager likes and you like what that person is representing or the decisions that they’re making, reinforcing that role model by highlighting that good behavior, and what you like about it. And then finally building media literacy skills together. I have this picture of The Vampire Diaries up here because I like to share an anecdote of a friend of mine who has a teen daughter, and she was finding it difficult to get in there about discussions about sex and romance. And so what happened is they started watching this show called The Vampire Diaries. It wasn’t a show that my friend would have chosen on her own, and necessarily enjoyed on her own. But she watched the whole thing from beginning to end with her teenager, and she found so many teachable moments in there, both good and bad, and she was able to highlight sexual scripts in there that contradicted her values. And so that way she was able to help to replace some of the sexual scripts that would have just been encoded in there in the child’s memory by the media, and kind of get in there and helped to shape those sexual scripts in her own vision. So those kinds of opportunities are really great, not only great for the sex talk, but also really great for bonding with your teens as well. And here’s just a quick overview of the research that I’ve highlighted here in today’s presentation.

[Dr. Carolyn West] Thank you so much. That was really informative. Can you say though a little bit more–You really kind of answered that question that I was going to ask–But anything else that you can, any other tips you can give about how to foster, like, having healthy intimacy when kids are exposed to this media landscape? 

[Dr. Jennifer Stevens Aubrey] Yeah. I think creating good discussions. I think always having an example, something that the teen is watching or interested in, and kind of highlighting what you liked about that portrayal, but also how, you know, if it was a problematic portrayal or a non-healthy storyline, for example. You can have a really fruitful discussion about how that could have gone differently and what, you know, what would have been how that would have, you know, been authentic to the teenager’s own values and experiences. Right. So, being part of that conversation, I find that having it connected to something that you can kind of experience together makes it a more grounded discussion, you know, less aversive to the teenager being embarrassed because it’s not about their own experiences is about, you know, something that they’ve seen on the screen. And it can make it kind of more grounded, and more comfortable for both parties.

[Dr. Carolyn West] Okay. Thank you. Jennifer. That’s great, great advice, so appreciate that. And let’s turn our attention to Dr. Debby. Dr. Debby Herbenick is an internationally recognized sexuality and reproductive health professor, researcher, and educator. And she’s a Provost’s Professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health and Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion. And for more than 20 years, she’s dedicated her efforts to understanding how people experience their bodies and their sexual lives. So, looking forward to seeing what you have to share with us, Dr. Debby. 

[Dr. Debby Herbenick] Thank you for having me here. And it is a delight to see friends and former students and colleagues here among our attendees. So, thank you for joining us here today. A bit about me. I’m at Indiana University, and I’ve been in sex research and education for more than 25 years, and I’ve taught college human sexuality classes since 2003, which has given me a lot of insights beyond my research into what young people’s sexual landscape looks and feels like for them. I also have a new book called Yes, Your Kid: What Parents Need to Know About Today’s Teens and Sex, and some of the information in the presentation comes from that book. So those of us who are here today probably share some common views. For example, that it is common and expected for tweens and teens to sometimes have crushes (some do, some don’t); to be curious about relationships and sexuality and intimacy; and that they may try to learn more about these topics through reading, through talking with friends–certainly these days the internet as well–and also as teens or young adults exploring with partners, perhaps. And as parents, when we often think about our kids’ future relationships, we often think kind of in, you know, positive terms around intimacy and connection and imagining them being in love, perhaps, and showing care and respect to others, the happiness that they might experience in dating and relationships, and also some of the heartache and break ups. But some of the things that I’ll be sharing with you today, some of these emerging trends in sexual behavior and their media influences can feel unsettling to some parents. I’ve been studying, you know, this for many years and so it is more common and comfortable to me. My goal is to prepare you by sharing information, not to scare you. But that said, I will say that many parents and educators do sometimes feel a little worried, a little scared, a bit nervous with hearing some of this. So if you feel that way at times in my presentation, remember first they’re brief presentations so it won’t last for too long. You can take some breaths, and you can rest assured that I’ll provide you with information, tips, and conversation starters so that you can figure out how you want to think through some of these conversations in your own families. And I’ll provide you also with some specific resources that you can use. And so today is just a place to start thinking about it. You don’t have to do anything right away, right. Just take the information. And so again I mentioned being in sex research and education, and my whole career has been spent focused on tracking sexual attitudes and behaviors in the United States. And about eight years ago, we noticed that there were some real upticks and what we call rough sex behaviors. We think now at this stage that these were actually starting closer to 15 years ago, probably around the time, you know, when we saw, for example, much broader access to pornography through the internet and then eventually through smartphones as well–which the vast majority of kids have their own smartphone or access to a smartphone by age 12. And of course, Fifty Shades of Gray and related fanfiction and related erotic media, with Fifty Shades of Gray coming out in 2011. So, for example, many young adults today actually got some of their first exposure to really learning about sex through those books. So rough sex is an imperfect umbrella term. People use this term sometimes to refer to a whole constellation of behaviors that can include light and hard spanking, sexual choking–which is actually a form of strangulation–smothering, name-calling, slapping, and many other kinds of sex. Mostly people say that they engage in these kinds of sex to explore, to feel kinky, to feel kind of sexy, or just because they feel like this is how sex is these days. There’s also a number of media influences that I’ll go through today. Sometimes they’re worried about being seen as boring if they don’t engage in these kinds of sex. But it’s important to understand that for most teens and young adults engaging in these kinds of sex, their intentions are about novelty and exploration, and not usually about harming other people. That doesn’t mean that some people aren’t harmed, which underscores the need for fact based sexuality education and family conversations. So last month, some of our research was covered in “The Troubling Trend in Teenage Sex” in The New York Times, which got a lot of attention in some of the pre-selected family questions. We saw that some of you had read this article and had questions about it, and our research on sexual choking is what I’ll be focusing on today. So when people refer to sexual choking, if you’re not familiar with this concept, what they’re generally referring to is, again, a usually consensual activity with using one hand, sometimes two, less often a limb, which is usually a forearm like a choke hold, and less often a ligature like a tie, a chord, or a belt, to press against or squeeze the neck. Because it involves external pressure to the neck that can restrict blood flow or airflow, it is technically strangulation, because choking technically refers to internal blockage of the airway like we worry about with choking on food or toys. But because nearly everyone calls it choking–whether in pornography, Cosmo, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, TV shows, celebrity interviews, or people themselves–you will see that term used here today and in our research. And people report all ranges of intensities from very light to moderate to pretty intense, saying on a scale of 1 to 10, even the eight, nine, tens, with an average of about four. So why do young people engage in choking? I get asked this all the time. Sometimes they say it’s because their partner asks them to choke them, and they wanted to please their partner; It feels kinky or exciting; Some notice the high that the body can experience from decreasing oxygen to the brain and then re-oxygenating when they release the pressure; Some don’t want to be perceived as boring; Again, some people think this is just how sex is today because of what they’ve seen in the media or heard about from friends; And of course, for some people it’s not a choice to begin with. It can sometimes occur, of course, without any communication or consent. However, sexual choking is now very mainstream and prevalent among young people. It used to be considered exceptionally rare. At the beginning of my 25-year career, we would have put it at probably about 1%. In fact, in our U.S. nationally representative studies, when we look at people 50 and older and say, have you, you know, ever in your life engaged in this, almost none of them say that they have it’s really that low, around 1%. But these days it’s very common. We have conducted four college campus representative surveys of thousands of randomly sampled college students in each one, and we consistently find that around two thirds of women, nearly a third of men and more than half of transgender and non-binary college students report having been choked, usually consensually. Our most recent data show that it’s becoming more frequent, more of a normalized part of their sexual repertoire – again, thinking about those sexual scripts and how people understand what to do sexually – with now 1 in 5 students reporting having been choked more than 25 times. But it’s not just college students, and in a 2021 U.S. nationally representative survey, we found that 35% of women ages 18 to 24 reported that they were choked during their most recent sexual encounter. And it’s not just an American thing. In the past six months alone, we’ve seen new data out of Italy, Australia, Iceland and most recently, Germany, demonstrating that it has similar prevalence in these countries as well. Concerningly, it often begins in adolescence. Among our random samples of college students who have ever engaged in choking – which again, if you think of the women, it’s about two thirds that have been choked – 1 in 3 report first engaging in choking between ages 12 and 17. So where are they learning about it? Well, all sorts of places. When we ask them, they give us lots of examples. They often can’t remember a first place because they can think of so many different places they’ve seen or heard about choking. In addition from their friends and their partners, also popular TV shows among teens like Euphoria and The Idol, celebrities like actress Julia Fox, who wore dress with a hand around her neck to an Oscars party, shows like Netflix’s Lovesick, Hollywood movies like the The Long Shot, TikTok videos in abundance. There are huge numbers of TikTok videos that address choking. The number one song in the United States this winter for six weeks was Jack Harlow’s “Lovin On Me” – which many of you probably know or your kids may know – at this point, it’s been viewed over 100 million times on YouTube and used in more than 2 million TikTok videos. The chorus says, “I’m vanilla, baby, I’ll choke you, but I ain’t no killer baby.” So not only referencing choking, but now redefining it as a vanilla behavior. Young people, especially young women, also talk about remembering learning about choking from seeing it in memes, and some of these memes and studies that we’ve looked at mock, for example, the idea of getting consent for choking and often conflate it with our sort of look at blurry lines around aggression or violence. So things like, “When you made him angry earlier” (on the left), “just so he can choke you with both hands during sex”. We’ve also studied the online media articles that talk about choking, and if you Google how to choke someone during sex, you will find a large number of them. They generally do not describe that it’s a form of strangulation. They generally describe choking in positive terms like “hot”, “sexy”, or “pleasurable”. And although around three quarters acknowledged that it’s possible that people can die, very few of them address other non-fatal injuries; for example, that people can have airway collapse in the hours or days that follow or elevated stroke risk in the months that followed, or elevated dementia risk much further out. Rather, most of these articles suggest that even though there’s risks involved, there’s safe ways to do it or proper ways to do it, and this article will show them how. Rest assured, there are no zero risk ways to engage in this behavior. The articles do sometimes tell people to get to communicate or get consent, but usually don’t provide detail or examples about how to do that. And even though many of them again say that there are safe or proper ways to engage in sexual choking or strangulation, in our research, we find that people report a large number of choking related symptoms. This is just a small number of them: Loss of consciousness, of course, reflects an effect on the brain. Memory loss, suggests that the loss of consciousness rate is actually a little higher because people often have gaps in memory when they have loss of consciousness. Neck swelling I’ve also highlighted, even though the number may seem low to you as 4%, it is one of those symptoms that if people were to experience it in a strangulation event from any type of context, we consider it as potentially life threatening and would want to have that person under observation, to make sure that they were all right, that they didn’t have an airway collapse. And of course, around 40% being unable to breathe or speak while being choked has implications for consent and the withdrawal of consent. My colleague, Dr. Keisuke Kawata here also at Indiana University, who’s a neuroscientist, also invited women into his lab who had been choked recently and frequently at least four times in the past month, as well as those who had never been choked during sex. And using blood biomarkers and brain scans, they found differences between these two groups of women in terms of patterns of connectivity and parts of the brain, verbal and visual working memory tasks, cortical thickness, and elevation of a blood biomarker that’s showing really how the brain is responding to these stressors or insults on the brain. The one that always sticks out for me is the working memory tasks, because while in the scanner, what they notice is that both groups of these, you know, young, healthy, educated women, their college and graduate students, were able to arrive at the correct answers. The group that had been choked took longer to arrive at the correct answers and as they could see in the scanner, had to recruit more areas of their brain to do the tasks correctly. So, in other words, in his team’s, you know, description of this, their brains showed evidence of being less efficient. So contrary to these media articles’ assertions that choking is safe, we’ve observed a broad range of physical responses, including some that are really concerning related to consent and potentially life threatening. So some key messages for teens and young adults, including college students: First, this information may be concerning to you. It may be shocking to some. So take a beat and you know, take some breaths and try to figure out what conversation you want to have with your kid so that you can lead with calm and curiosity. Try to make it part of a much longer, ongoing conversation that focuses on the positive, respectful, and safer approaches to sexuality and relationships that you view for them. And rather than acting shocked or accusatory, let them know that you’ve heard about these trends. You know, “I went to this talk today, I heard about this choking thing. What have you heard about this? What do people your age talk about when it comes to rough sex or choking?” Share your feelings and also some fact-based information related to health risks. My own college students tell me that they didn’t know about these risks, and that now that they know, it’s not a behavior that most of them plan to continue. Encourage them to avoid these high-risk behaviors like choking. Share that there are many safer ways to be intimate and to explore their sexuality, and that new kinds of sexual activities need new consent. Where we see a lot of problems with assault and sexual misconduct, in campuses and communities, is when people agree to do rough sex, but not specific types of sex. So they might say, oh, I was fine being slapped, but I didn’t want to be choked, for example. So, new consent for new behaviors. And always talking and really making sure that you sort of figure out limits and boundaries and comfort levels before introducing new risky or potentially scary kinds of sex to people. Talk with kids too, about their health, their brain health, consent, and care for others. Be clear with them that they don’t have to choke a partner even if they’re asked to. They can say, “I’m not comfortable doing that”, or “I’m not into that, or the risks aren’t worth it to me”. And if they don’t want to be choked, try to preempt it by saying, “I’m not into being choked. So please don’t do that”. And that can be important even with brand new partners, because we find that around 20% of first time hookups, somebody chokes their partner. So in summary, sexual choking and rough sex have become mainstream and normative. They’re widely depicted in media that young people access. It’s typically a form of strangulation and never zero-risk, and parents and professionals need to join the conversation with care, compassion, curiosity, and fact-based information, and without shame or judgment. In addition to my book, there’s these great fact sheets from New Zealand called “In the Know”, and the website It’s Time We Talked is getting ready to launch a campaign related to sexual choking and rough sex. And so you can sign up to be alerted when they have that available as well, and they have lots of great free resources. So thank you so much.

[Dr. Carolyn West] Debby, there was a lot to unpack there, and I appreciate you’re doing this very important work and sharing this with the audience. Rather than a question, I’ll just make a brief comment, and then we’ll move on and have more time for people to ask you questions about the research. But as a domestic violence researcher myself and as an expert in the area, we know that there’s no safe way to choke anybody. Strangulation is always a dangerous activity, and it is indicative of domestic violence homicide, too. So we maybe need to talk about that outside of a sexual arena and just make it clear about the domestic violence – serious domestic violence that tends to co-occur with strangulation. So thank you so much for that. So we’ll all take a deep breath and try to unpack everything we’ve learned from you. And Elizabeth Englander will go ahead and get started – looking forward to her research as well – Is an award-winning author and the Founder and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. And it is a center which delivers programs, resources, and research for the state of Massachusetts and nationwide. She’s also a founding member of the Social and Emotional Research Consortium, and a member of the Children and Screens National Scientific Advisory Board. And she will be talking to us about AI. So, Elizabeth, looking forward to hearing your comments.

[Dr. Elizabeth Englander] Thank you so much. And, hello everybody, and thanks for coming today. I’m going to be casting my eye a little bit more towards the future. This has to do with a project that we’ve been doing in Massachusetts that really seeks to understand how AI is going to impact kids’ relationships and sexuality online. And just like Debby pointed out to you, some of it may be alarming and my intention is not to alarm you. It really isn’t. I think that having information makes us more powerful as parents. So that’s really my goal here today. There are lots of ways that kids can express sexuality online, but what I’m going to be talking about today is how AI is impacting it. So there are a couple of ways. One is the kind of content that AI can make it very easy for kids or other people to produce. And the other is the whole idea of AI being very appealing as a companion, or a romance, or a relationship as kids are growing up. So, is AI going to change relationships and sexual exploration online for kids? I think it’s likely that it is going to change it. And I don’t think that we’re quite there yet where we’re seeing very widespread adoption of some of these issues, but it’s a good idea to be aware of how AI may change sexuality and online relationships for kids. So one example of a way that AI I think is going to change things is it’s going to change photo manipulation. So right now photos are considered to be fairly reliable. So if your daughter comes to you and says “people, you know, are showing this photo of me, but it’s not real”, you know, if it was today, you may say, “Well, look, I’m looking at the picture. It looks pretty real to me.” But going forward with AI, the idea that a photo could be manipulated becomes more and more probable. So different ways that photo manipulation can happen that can be simplified by AI. One is using very old photos to make them look new, as though they’re not historical. You can also see a situation where it’s very easy to copy things in a very convincing way. That was more difficult before; AI makes it very easy to outline a shape and copy it. It’s also much easier for faces and heads to be swapped, and these can be done in a way that is virtually undetectable. It’s not like the old head swaps, which were pretty, you know, pretty obvious. It’s going to be a lot less obvious. And finally, there are what we call “undress apps”, which are apps that can remove clothes, or appear to remove clothes, on any photo. And that’s one of the ones we’re really watching to see how kids are using it. AI can make people’s bodies look slightly different. So this is an example of this. This is in–the original photo is on the right, and she’s an Australian politician. And what happened was that her chest was enlarged, her breasts were enlarged and her top was cropped in the photo on the left to make her look a little bit sexier, a little bit more interesting – as the posters felt, anyway – so body changing is a possibility. Transforming neutral pictures is also a real possibility. These are sometimes called “deep fakes” or “nudefakes” or “deepnudes”. And there’s lots of apps now that can create sort of hyper-realistic erotic images from photos that are very neutral. So photos where people are just online, in their clothes, you know, photos you might post of your kids on your Facebook account could be taken and used to create a hyper-realistic issue. So this is an example of one of these pictures. This is a deepnude or a deep fake, and the woman in this is an actress named Jenna Ortega. She’s not of age, she was 16 years old in this photo. And I think this brings up a different issue, which is that right now, a lot of these deepnudes are deep fakes are focused on people who are public profiles. So celebrities, actresses, maybe musicians, people who have a public profile are more likely to be targeted for these kinds of photos, but theoretically, they can be done for anybody. I think it’s hard to know how to deal with these, because, of course, they’re not actual photos of somebody naked. They’re manufactured photos of somebody naked. And it seems that the internet is really not sure yet how it feels about these, although they are pretty common, you know, they’re pretty common. And you can see that they pop up on the top of some of the search engines. And there have been cases already that have involved this. There was a case in California, in a middle school, where a group of students used AI to create and share fake nude photos of their classmates. And I suspect that as people discover these AI tools, more and more, we may begin to see these fake nudes more and more often. Now, excuse me. Creating fake nudes is not the only issue. One of the other issues that’s really an interesting one is the whole idea of relationships migrating online. Now, I don’t mean when you meet somebody through a dating app online and then you go on to have a relationship with them. That’s not what I’m referring to. I’m referring to relationships that are only online and that are with AI chat bots. So one of these is probably the most – the biggest one right now, although there are a number of these, is called Replika, and Replika is an app where you can create an AI companion. And these companions are conversational, they will remember you, they are personalized. So you can make your AI chat bot, you can give it a name, a gender, you can describe how it looks. It will sort of always be there in the app waiting for you if you want to chat or talk or, you know, talk about how your day went or anything like this. They’re designed and programmed to be emotionally supportive and to be trainable and correctable. So you can tell them, oh, that’s not true. Or oh, I like it when you compliment me. So that’s part of this sort of personalization. And it’s designed to be sort of a safe environment. You can have a romantic relationship with Replikas as well, and that can involve some sexualized wordplay. But it is important to understand that the romantic relationships actually cost some money, whereas just a standard companion or friend doesn’t cost anything. One of the big questions is, can these AI companions actually be good for you? And I think that a lot of people look at these and assume that they’re bad, but there actually is some evidence of sort of modest mental health benefits. So, for example, AI companions can help people who are struggling find resources. So if somebody says, “oh, I’m feeling really depressed” to their companion, their Replika companion, that companion then can turn around and say to them, “well, here are a couple of mental health clinics within five miles of your location”. Maybe “here’s some phone numbers. You could call them and see if you could set up an appointment with a therapist.” So it can do that. There was a study–a guy did a very interesting study looking at posts about people’s mental health when they had Replika users. And what they found is that it could be harmful or helpful. There was also another study that was done more recently on Replika users. And you can see that a lot of people describe their replicas in positive ways. They said, oh, they were intelligent or human, and 3% of them interestingly credited their Replika with keeping them from committing suicide. So that’s kind of an interesting finding. What are some of the impacts on kids of all this? These AI chatbots and relationships can offer nudity, they can offer sexuality, and they use humans to train these chatbots so that they’re very realistic. I think kids really need to be aware of how AI boyfriends and girlfriends work. I think this is a way we can really help prepare our kids for living with AI, is understanding that there’s a model that they’re trying to do. They’re trying to get people to download their app. They’re trying to gather personal information, of course, and use trackers, and in order to engage their users, they’re going to push you towards sexuality, towards sharing photos, towards revealing private information. Kids may ask, aren’t AI boyfriends and girlfriends okay? Aren’t they sort of, you know, what’s the big deal? Is there any problem? And it’s really important to understand that these are not real relationships in the sense that they’re never challenging. You know, being involved with a live human being is somebody who sometimes is in a bad mood or somebody who doesn’t have time to talk to you. These AI companions are always there. They’re always there to talk. They have no needs themselves, so they’re always catering to your needs. So in that sense, it’s not a real relationship at all. The real question is who is going to pursue these relationships? Is it going to be most kids? Is it going to be some kids? Is it going to be one gender versus another? Is it going to be kids who are lonely? Is it going to be kids who really need someone to talk to? It’s really hard to gauge how harmful or helpful this will be without knowing the answers to these questions. Right now, AI companions are not rare, but they’re not super common either. When we have talked to the subjects we’ve studied who were teenagers, a lot of them didn’t even know that that was happening. They didn’t understand what AI companions were and they didn’t know about it. I think it is important to understand as a bottom line, there’s very little research on this. It’s really something in the future. There are some benefits and some concerns for AI and how it’s going to impact kids. I think there are deep fake nudes. We’re worried about sexual harassment and displacing real relationships. Those are genuine issues. On the other hand, it can be helpful for people to have somebody who’s always there, who will always listen sympathetically and talk. And, you know, if you’re lonely – one of the kids said to me in the lab, hey, if you’re lonely, it’s probably better than nothing. That might be true. So what’s your to-do list? First thing I think we should do is we should all, as parents, keep reading up on these issues. So we should know what’s happening, look for news stories about them, and understand what kids are going through. Stick to your values, to what you think is right or wrong, and talk to your kids about this. Think about using books as a way to sort of promote a discussion about this. One book that’s very popular right now is How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography. And I think that these are things that we really need to do to help guide kids. Blocking software is something I’m asked about all the time. I think it is fine to use it. It’s good to use it, but it’s not enough. We still have to talk to kids even if you’re using blocking software. Because even if you’re using it, your children have access to all their friends’ phones, and there’s going to be kids who won’t have blocking software on it. So it’s really important to understand that access is pretty universal, and we have to prepare kids by talking to them about these things. Finally, offer to be a source of information for your kids. Don’t leave it to the internet to educate them about things like AI girlfriends and boyfriends and whether or not they’re healthy. Whether or not, you know, changing photos of other people is okay. Bring in your own values about whether these things are right and wrong and offer to talk to your kids about this. This is one of the ways that you can really help them navigate these new areas.

[Dr. Carolyn West] Thank you so much, Elizabeth. You’ve given us so much to think about. I think everybody’s talking about artificial intelligence and it is just really surprising how it’s being used now and things that we have to be aware of that – no idea what was happening out there. So we’ll talk to Amy. But I really wanted to learn more about, like, how to prevent the deep fake, the problem with deep fake. Could you briefly say something about how to address that?

[Dr. Elizabeth Englander] Sure. So how to prevent deep fakes? Right now, I think the best way to prevent deep fakes is not to post photos of your children that can be used to create a deep fake. Remember, any photo of your child can be used to create a deep fake. So I think the safest thing to do honestly is do not post photos of your children and encourage them to be really thoughtful and limited in what they post about themselves. Just because the more photos that are out there, the more opportunities that somebody can scrape one of those photos and use it to create a deep fake. So I think we have to be really more careful about how much we’re posting about our kids.

[Dr. Carolyn West] Okay. Thank you so much for that. And Amy. Amy is a sexual health educator for 27 years. Amy Lang combined her expertise in adult education and her love of sexual health and started Birds and Bees and Kids in 2006 to help parents become comfortable and confident when talking with their kids about sexuality. Amy is certified in neurodiversity, in sexuality, and has a master’s in Applied Behavioral Science, and is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator. And so looking forward to your thoughts, Amy, on this topic.

[Amy Lang] First I just want to say thank you. I’m really honored to be taking part in this. And I also want to say congratulations to those of you who are here. This is a lot of information and it can be hard to hear. And even for me, and I’m steeped in this. So I thought it might be nice if we just took a little nature break, and looked at something that might settle your neurological system and get you ready to learn some things that will, hopefully help you feel more comfortable and confident talking with your kids about this important part of life. And I’m actually going to set a timer because I could talk forever. All right. Thank you. So first of all, I think the overriding message for you when it comes to having conversations with your kids about sexuality and pornography and all of this is that you need to understand that you are powerful. You have the most power and influence over your children’s sexuality education, how they see themselves as a sexual person, their values, and you have a ton of power and influence. Up until they get to be about age 12, and then their peers take over. And the peers are never more influential than you are, they’re like neck and neck. But I just want you to embrace this idea that you have so much power and influence and that you can help your kids have a really great experience regarding sexuality and relationships. So the next thing is this. So most of us growing up when we had our sex education and we had conversations about sexuality, they were very prevention focused. So the overriding message was: don’t do it. And I’m sure this sounds familiar to many of you. And this just does not work. Very negative information, and really a sense that having sex, being sexual, was a bad thing on multiple levels. And so a better way to think about this, and a better way to support your kids, and honestly, to feel better about having conversations about this, is if you think about it in terms of preparation. You’re preparing your kids for this hugely important part of life. Sexuality is something we do from the time we’re born until we’re dead. It is a lifelong experience. Everybody does it differently. Everybody feels differently about themselves as a sexual person. So for me, when I started my company, when I had this revelation – and I actually heard this from somebody else – I was like, okay, I’m in, because doesn’t it feel good to think about, like, getting your kid ready for this part of life? And then just another way to look at this is just imagine if you had had a trustworthy adult whose goal was to help you be ready, as ready as you can be – because I don’t think anybody’s ever ready for this – as ready as you could be for the world of sexuality, relationships, dating, and all that good and fun stuff. So, you’re powerful. Mindset switch to preparation. So, I want to talk for a little bit about why sex talks are protective. So talking with your kids about sexuality is really important in terms of helping them manage their pornography exposure. They will see porn. Don’t tell yourself that they won’t. 100% they will see porn. Like if you lived in a log cabin in the middle of Montana and had no screens or anything around you, sure, but that’s not going to be anybody’s lifestyle. So when you talk about sex, it gives your kids a frame of reference so they understand, like, hey, this is what healthy sexuality looks like, this is what (I’m going to just say) “normal” sex looks like. It gives them an understanding that this is what healthy sexuality looks like. This is how this works. Talking about consent, different sexual orientations, that sort of thing. So that’s the first important thing about talking with your children openly about sexuality. The next thing is that it decreases curiosity. So, if your kids know that they can go over here to this awesome book, they can watch these great videos – they’re wonderful, safe videos for kids about sexuality now – if they know that they can talk with you, they have this space and this information that helps them to understand, again, like, this is how sex works. This is what relationships look like in a safe way. Now I’m just going to just have a little asterisk here. Because not every kid, not every kid. For some kids, this might increase their curiosity, but it’s your responsibility to do everything you can to help your kids feel good about this part of life, to keep them safe, you know, out in the world and online. And then the next thing is when you’re talking openly about sex with kids, it helps them develop a sense of their own sexuality. It helps them understand healthy sexuality. It also gives them an opportunity to think about and understand their values. So when we talk about sex, we are always talking about values. And values are one of the most fundamental things we can talk with our kids about because it gives them a place to start. And their values are going to change, and that’s fine. And although I know that pretty much everybody wants their kids’ values to be the same as their values – I do! – but that’s not a thing, right? That’s not a thing. So the sex talks are so important on multiple levels. And, you know, since we’re talking about porn and online safety, that’s where we’re going to focus next. All right. So you have to talk with your kids about porn. I’m going to give you some really simple scripts that you can build on. I’m a big believer in using the simplest words you can, partially for you because it’s easier to get stuff out of your mouth and then also for your kids because it’s easier for them to understand. So this is a very simple kind of generic explanation of what porn is. So what it is: it’s videos, cartoons, pictures, books, about people having sex or doing sexual things. Its sole purpose is sexual stimulation. There’s nothing else going on. And then, you know, the porn making money. So with a little kid who knows about sex, like a kid that’s like ten-ish and under, you can just say – they have to know about sex, to say sex. People having sex. If you have a younger kid, if you have a kid that’s five and under, you really do have to talk about this. And instead of saying “people having sex” if they don’t know what that is, you can say people, naked people doing things together. So, if your kids are older, we’re talking ten, 12, and older, then you can be way more explicit. So people having sex, doing sexual things, talk about how pornography is fake – Those are actors. Nobody’s body looks like that. People don’t do those things, don’t say those things, and that is not a healthy depiction of how people are sexual together. And then you can talk about the industry and more and more and more. And so this bare, very basic, simple conversation. Next up, some other things to say is why it’s not safe. It’s not for kids, it’s not for kids, it’s for adults. It’s kind of like coffee or alcohol, really. Not quite the same, but it’s adult stuff, which kids understand that. Also let them know it can be confusing, and scary, and weird, and make them feel kind of funny in their bodies, so they might be sexually stimulated by it, which is perfectly normal, but also it can feel awkward and uncomfortable or weird. Again, because kids’ hearts, minds, and bodies are really not ready to see that kind of explicit, sexual behavior. So one way I think about this – and it’s kind of gross, but frankly, after talking about choking, hey, I’m like low-level gross here – is it’s kind of like picking a scab, right? It kind of feels good, but then you kind of shouldn’t do it, it kind of feels good. So that kind of a feeling. And then the last thing is talking about how just terrible messages about primarily women and women’s bodies and, you know, women of color, really bad information and terrible messages about women, what sex looks like, how it should happen. Teenagers and kids think that watching pornography teaches them how to “do sex”. And so again, talking openly about how that is just not the way things roll out. And these are really awful messages that can come through, with regard to porn. Okay. So what they can do. So again this is super simple. We’re going to build on it. So first of all you need to tell them, “stop looking”. Especially if they’re under your own roof at the time. Stop looking, turn off the device, shut it down, unplug it, and then come and tell you. Come and tell you. So that’s for little people. Older kids that are hanging out with folks who have phones, who have unfettered access to the internet. I know we just talked a minute about using monitoring and filtering – just assume that other families in your kid’s life do not use monitoring and filter filtering. Just assume that, because it’s just safer for your child if you know that the other kids are not going to be having that kind of safety in place. So with an older kid, you want to give them some scripts and some things to do. So, one of my favorite examples is my friend Kim. The first week of middle school, on the school bus, a kid showed her daughter Arden porn on his phone, and she looked at him and said – well, honestly, she said “WTF?” And then she said, “I think looking at porn is a solo activity.” And she walked away from that kid. And so cuing them up with stuff like that, making sure that they have a couple of funny videos. So if somebody is like, hey, look at this, they can say, whatever, and look at this. And then the other piece too is that sometimes, they’re just not going to be able to do that. Right? This is kind of higher level thinky stuff. So, if they’re stuck, if they watch it, if they’re in this position where they can’t get out of it, then just tell them, this might happen. And here’s the most, biggest thing that I want you all to understand. You have to tell them they will not be in trouble. So when you’re talking about this, this should be something you say like 8 million times. You will not be in trouble if you see this, you need to tell me. You know, I might get upset, I might freak out, but you’re not going to be in trouble. And so they need to hear you say that in your out-loud voice, and you might have to say it a million times. And then the next thing for you – and I know we got this little “should” in here, I tend to be very bossy – the other thing is, if you haven’t been using monitoring and filtering, if you haven’t been talking about sex, if you haven’t been talking about porn and other crapola online, you need to say it to them. Especially if you’re initiating this conversation or if something happens. This is my fault for not keeping you safer online. And I’m sorry. When you apologize, your kids will lean into you, and I’m guessing you’re probably a little bit sorry. So a whole lot of these conversations need to be around connection. That should be your goal. And so, a couple other things. And then one more thing. Okay. I know I could talk for hours. All right. To sum it up, you need to empower them with information. Somebody already said this – knowledge is empowering. Sex talks are protective because it gives them a space to learn about this stuff, and it also shows that you know what you’re talking about and that they can trust you and talk to you. I want you to use your power for good. You are powerful. Don’t think that you’re not. And then the last piece of this is this: I know you want your kids to grow up to be whole, happy, healthy adults, and making sure they have this information, you’re sharing your values, that they see sexuality as a positive, important part of life, and that you’re preparing them will go a long ways toward having that happen. And then the last thing, I promise you, when you’re having these conversations, no one’s going to die and no one’s going to throw up. Okay. If you want to learn more from me, little QR codes. If you’re a parent, I’d like to get my newsletter click on – or whatever – take a picture of that one. I don’t even know how to talk about that. And if you’re professional, who works with children, I also do classes on sexual behavior in children and sexual abuse prevention, and then all my socials are down there. Birds Bees Kids.

[Dr. Carolyn West] …We can all go on forever, with this very important topic, but let’s get to some questions. We had so many great questions that were pre-submitted and were submitted during all of these fabulous talks. One area where we do find a lot of sexualized media is video games. Is anybody looking at that or have any suggestions about how to deal with sexual content in video games?

[Dr. Elizabeth Englander] I can talk a little bit about that. One of the things that we’ve noticed in video games is that they more and more resemble social media and have elements of social media in them. So kids are chatting and talking, they’re sharing things like photos. So I think what we have to do when we’re thinking about video games and sexuality is we have to stop thinking about them as somehow different or separate from social media. Instead, we have to focus more on how to help prepare kids for what they’re going to see and how it may make them feel, and how they can handle different situations. Just like Amy was just talking about. And I think that that has to sort of cover the gamut, you know, gaming and social media and messaging, all of those things.

[Dr. Debby Herbenick] Yeah. You know, with gaming, too, a lot of parents that I interviewed while writing Yes, Your Kid talked about adults accessing their kids through gaming, through the social aspects. So I know we’re not talking as much about that aspect here, but in some of my research interviews, I also found that some kids, because gaming is something they often do at younger ages when they had the benefit of parents or even of friends’ parents who just sort of talk to them about that stuff. Right. And, “I want you to only connect with, like, your friends”. And “here’s how we’re going to, like, create some safety for you”. Those conversations actually were described as protective for them well into adolescence and adulthood, because they really understood at a young age about how those social spaces worked. So I think they can be really some foundational skills for teachable moments, too.

[Dr. Carolyn West]. Okay. Jennifer, do you have any thoughts about that? I know that you’re doing, like, popular culture and…

[Dr. Jennifer Stevens Aubrey] Yeah. Well, I mean, the content analyses on video games show that they’re highly sexualizing in terms of how, especially how women and female characters are portrayed. So, they’re objectified and there’s a lack of humanity imbued onto those characters. So, when I think of video games, I think that in terms of like, a homogenous or systematic message about sexuality, that’s typically what comes to mind. And also, along with that, the body is very much – the body for both male and female characters – is very much exposed, and they’re very heteronormative and kind of gendered expectations about how bodies should look. So women should be very curvaceous and men should be very muscular. And the effects studies actually show – the studies on how these kinds of portrayals affect kids. It doesn’t matter how much the character can kind of have agency or kick butt in the game, if they are portrayed as a kind of a sexualized being or primarily a sex object, they’re not well respected by players.

[Dr. Carolyn West] Okay. Well, the obvious question that so many people have is about filters, monitors, accountability programs. How do we keep young people from accessing this information? Amy, what can you tell us about how to do that? 

[Amy Lang] So, first of all, talking, conversations is the most effective thing that you can do for your kids, 100%. Next up, you have to use monitoring and filtering on every single device your kid can access the internet on. This is exhausting, but it’s required. I think about it like, my analogy is like, you’re in a car, right? And you would never let your kid in the car without a seatbelt. So the seatbelt is the monitoring. It’s always on. And your baby’s in a bucket, then they get in a booster, right? They turn around. So that’s filtering – it gets let out. By the time they’re about, you know, seventh grade they should be able to go anywhere they want on the internet, but you’re watching. So there’s a product called BARK that I love. It’s an app. So you can turn it on, turn it off. You can see what they’re doing– 

[Dr. Carolyn West] Could you say that again? What’s the name of that? 

[Amy Lang] It’s called BARK, and somebody can find the link. It’s called BARK, it’s great. It’s not perfect. It’s not perfect. But, your kids are going to see all kinds of nasty stuff, right? They can Google how to shoot up fentanyl, commit suicide. Right. We’ve had a lot of fun with scary stuff here. Choke, right? Why not learn how to do that on the internet? So if you think about this in terms of your child safety and health, it’s your job, right? It’s your job. Do not not tell them you’re doing it, right. You tell them, this is why I’m doing this. This is what’s happening. And then one more thing. If you are late to the game, even if your kid is, like, in high school, whatever, this is an apology moment. You say, I am so sorry we screwed up. This should have been happening for you. And then you might have to do a little bargaining and bribing for them to get that on. I use all the tools in the parenting toolbox. So, required. And like I said, assume nobody’s using it. And be that leader in your community. And your kid’s going to hate it. So what? Welcome to parenting your child. 

[Dr. Elizabeth Englander] And you won’t be the only parent. I mean, Amy’s totally right. You won’t be. One of the things that we find, which is really interesting, is that middle schoolers tell us that – very often tell us that – they’re among the last to be allowed certain things with technology. But when you actually measure when they get these technological privileges, they’re usually right in the median. So, you know, part of childhood is telling your parents that they’re mean and they’re keeping things from you that everybody else gets, and it’s just never true. So I think it’s important to sort of get a grip on that argument. But also it’s really, really important to remember that, things like BARK– which I agree is a wonderful product – It’s really only going to take you part of the way, because part of what we want to do is we want to teach kids not just to not understand these things are out there, to never encounter them, but to understand how to cope. To understand, why is it that pornography can be detrimental to your sex life as an adult? Why is it that an AI girlfriend might not be the same as a girlfriend in person? Why is it? How are we going to cope? We want to give them the tools they need to live in a world with all of these things in it. And so that means conversations. And I know that’s really, really hard for parents. I really do appreciate how difficult this can be. I have three kids myself. I really do get it. But, I think that in this day and age, it’s kind of an essential part of raising kids just because of the pervasiveness of these challenges to our kids’ mental health and to their sexual development. I think it’s really a basic part of growing up, and your parents can be a help or not. 

[Dr. Carolyn West] Debby, Jennifer, you all have anything to add about the monitoring or filters? Anything that you all wanted to add about that? 

[Dr. Debby Herbenick] I think they covered it well. I think the key thing is, right, I mean, you want to block what you can, but ultimately, those conversations are so key because they can access it in the world around them, right, through friends, and school bus, and hallway, and stuff like that. And in fact, that common sense media report, Dr. West, that you and I worked on, you know, they were saying too that they were accessing it during their school day. Well, you know, as friends. So, that conversation is really key as well. 

[Dr. Carolyn West] And speaking of that, I think we have to, you know, make sure that we’re seeing kids who oftentimes get overlooked. So, is there any special consideration with kids who are neurodivergent or who are differently abled or anything like that? How can we make special efforts to keep them safe too?

[Dr. Elizabeth Englander] We actually are doing a whole project on this, Carolyn. It’s really interesting that you bring this up. So right now we’re studying kids who tell us that they feel different. Kids who… this includes, but it’s not limited to neurodivergent kids. Kids who feel different, kids who feel like social skills and friendship making is really more difficult for them in person, use the internet differently. And, right now, what we’re seeing is that a lot of the risks that these kids face are similar, but they also get more benefits than other kids. So, the internet can really be an incredible place for them. It can be a place where they can meet other kids like themselves. You know, suppose they have a characteristic and they come from a certain family background and that makes them feel different in their community. Well, they can meet other kids who have families from the same background. There’s lots of ways that the internet can be wonderful for people who may have felt very isolated once. On the other hand, we really want to encourage kids to make those social skills, and to learn how to make friends, because when it comes to social problems, as children grow up, there is nothing as protective as having friends, hands down, nothing as protective as that. So, when you’re dealing with a child who may feel different, I would say that a great thing to do is to understand how important online connections may be for them. But at the same time, have those conversations about health and safety and really look for opportunities to help them develop more conventional friendships so that they can be protected in that way from some of the social problems that we see between kids.

[Dr. Carolyn West] Perfect. I guess I would – a couple of other questions as we start to wind down. Somebody asked about specific tools or resources. Culture Reframed is an organization that I’ve worked with, and they do a lot on teaching literacy and safety to parents and professionals about pornography and online sexual content. So, Culture Reframed. But probably the question I get asked a lot is when – what age should we start doing this? When should this conversation – Because these are really tough topics, especially when you start talking about strangulation and choking and all that. I mean, these are really tough topics. When should we start having these conversations?

[Amy Lang] I’ll do that. So really we should be having sex talks from birth, and that means you’re using the correct names for private body parts and then talking about boundaries and that sort of thing. Your kids should know the usual way babies are made and what sex is, and that people have it for pleasure because it feels good to share their bodies, it’s not for kids, by the time they’re five. And then you build on that, and then you’re having internet safety conversations. Your children should not anyway be on screens unsupervised for a very long time. And then by the time they’re like pre-puberty, they need to know about puberty. And then when they get to be 10, 11, 12, just give it up – talk about everything. They’re going to hear everything. They’re going to see everything. And it’s safer for them to have this information from you. And the other piece is, remember, you’re super influential, like you are the most influential person. And so, like I said, use your power for good. Now, when it comes to sexual practices like choking in that kind of thing, I would hold off a little bit, you know, maybe more like 13, 14, 15…13…but they have to know, and you’re the best person for it. So don’t be afraid. You’re not going to hurt them. You’re going to help them. And I know people are like, (gasp) five, but, trust me.

[Dr. Carolyn West] Any other concluding thoughts that you want to leave participants in this webinar with as we wind down? Anything you didn’t get to say or think is important that you want to say? 

[Dr. Debby Herbenick] Yeah. You know, related to the autism issue. So, we have actually a whole chapter in Yes, Your Kid on sexuality education for kids with autism. And one thing related to that that’s relevant to the talk I gave relates to the popularity these days of choking and rough sex: we’re actually hearing from a lot of parents of teens who are surprised when their autistic teens are finding their way onto, like, kink websites. And part of it is just that it’s popular in the culture right now. But part of it is also that for many autistic individuals, teens, and young adults, that there can be a real appreciation of some of the clear communication, the rules, the structure, and sometimes the sensory issues, that they may see as a benefit related to kink or rough sex. So, you know, so I think sometimes parents just are really floored by this, but there are a sex therapists who can, you know, who can work with teens, in age appropriate ways, developmentally appropriate ways, to support them in being able to understand their, you know, their sexuality, to keep them away from materials that aren’t for their age group if they’re teens, but to still help them and those issues around, like, you know, getting sensory need mats, for example, or helping them navigate communication. So I would say that, and then also again, every family is going to know what’s right for them in terms of age and developmentally appropriate conversation. Part of it is those ages. But I think if you’ve got a kid, even if they’re younger, and you know that they’ve seen pornography, it is a good idea to have conversations that you thought you might be saving to their teens. But if they’ve seen the stuff and they’re seven and they’re eight and they’re nine, you know, go with where they’re at and help them the best you can with those ages and places. Because now that’s a whole new ballgame, right. And again,  as we saw on Common Sense Media, that average age of first thing pornography is 12. And as an average that means there really are – it’s difficult,  I’m a parent too, It’s very difficult – but, we often are saying now an age appropriate way is those conversations around eight, nine, ten are a lot more common these days. And also, you can do it. It is hard, but you really can do it. And there are amazing resources shared here today. 

[Dr. Carolyn West] Okay. Thank you so much. 

[Dr. Elizabeth Englander] Yeah, I’d like to build off that just briefly, what Debby just said. You know, these issues I think feel huge. They feel overwhelming. They may make you feel very uncomfortable – technology and sexuality – but, I really want to encourage you to sort of have a little bit of courage, because one of the things that we find pretty consistently in our research is that parents don’t need to know everything. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to have all the answers. If you’re having a conversation with your child and they bring something up that you don’t know what they’re talking about or you’ve never heard of it, ask them about it. Kids love to instruct you, remember that. So, don’t worry if you don’t know everything. Just be interested. Want to talk, want to see what they’re thinking about, want to see what they’re experiencing in this area. That really goes a long way. Kids who told us that their parents had conversations with them about these kinds of issues told us – about two thirds of them said that conversations with their parents were really helpful. And so you know, and it’s not that everybody else in the world knows more than you. That’s not really what’s going on. You know, we’re all sort of dealing with new issues, new technologies, a new world. And so it’s okay, don’t feel like you have to know everything or have the answers. Just have the conversations and be interested, and you’re going to help your kids a lot. 

[Dr. Carolyn West] Yeah. And I guess I’ll just end with my final thoughts. A couple of people in the chat were like, “Would you just jump right in and talk about these?” Yeah, in some ways, you do. There are media, everything that’s going on in the world gives you plenty of information to work with. So when things come up in the news, or lyrics, or just whatever, those are easy conversations to kind of step right into it because the kids are talking about that anyway, and then have that conversation, while it’s at the forefront of your mind and kids are interested. And it seems really odd, but it’s those small conversations that you have all the time that can make a huge difference. So, so thank you to all of our amazing researcher panelists. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your knowledge with us, and you’ve given us a lot to work with. So, we’ll turn it back to Kris. 

[Kris Perry] Thank you, Carolyn, and the entire panel for sharing this sobering but incredibly important information with us today. Thank you also to our audience for taking the time to tune in. It’s been our great pleasure to host these 75 webinars over the last four years, and we are grateful to our donors, big and small, for helping support these resources. If you found this webinar valuable, please consider making a donation to support future Ask the Experts webinars and other free educational resources. To donate, you can scan the QR code on the screen, click the link in the chat, or visit our website at ChildrenandScreens.org. Check out the Learn and Explore section of our website, follow us on these platforms, and subscribe to our email list to stay informed of new resources and other updates. This is our last webinar of the season, but we will be back in the fall with another great lineup of information for you and your input. Thank you and have a great summer.