Saturday, May 28, 2011

Protecting Our Daughters

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

It’s a constant battle at my house: my seventeen year old daughter thinks she’s fat. She wears a single-digit clothing size and her height and weight put her in a normal BMI range. But somehow those things bring her no comfort; she stills sees herself as fat. Just like all girls, my daughter is bombarded everywhere and all the time with images and messages of what she should and should not be like to be considered thin and attractive. Personally, I don’t think any of these subliminal messages are really meant to be sinister in nature. What is scary, though, is that there ARE a number of websites on the Internet that really are sinister in nature, and therefore dangerous for all girls.

The website compiled self-esteem research findings from a number of sources, including these facts:
• A girl’s self-esteem is tied more to how she views herself than how she actually looks.
• Three fourths of girls with low self-esteem report engaging in negative activities.
• More than one third of girls with low self-esteem also believe they are not good daughters.
Understanding these sad statistics makes it all the more vital to be aware of what lurks on the Internet to continue chipping away at girls’ self-esteem and perception. Psychologist, author, and mom Michele Borba recently highlighted some websites that are nothing short of dangerous to girls.

One site mentioned is the Miss Bimbo Game. It’s not really necessary to explain any further – all it takes is a look at the title to figure this one out. In order to be a successful bimbo, the player needs to keep at a target weight, is encouraged to buy diet pills to do this, and keep up an attractive appearance by doing things such as purchasing breast implants. Some might say this game is just that: a game. But any parent of a daughter knows this game is played out in reality in homes across America every day.

Formspring is another site Dr. Borba mentions, which is also a site I mentioned to parents of incoming 7th graders last fall at our open house. Formspring encourages kids to ask questions and give comments about each other anonymously. The danger is in the anonymity because members use this as an easy way to attack and demean others, all without the worry of being caught saying something horrible. My daughter had a Formspring account for a while and she shed tears over what she read more than once. I kept telling her to just dump the account, which she finally did. She now realizes it is nothing more than a tool for easy cyberbullying.

Finally, Dr. Borba mentions some sites that encourage and promote eating disorders. Keep your eyes and ears open for the “names” Ana and Mia – these are clippings for the terms anorexia and bulimia. Sites that put eating disorders in a positive light bombard girls with messages about the importance of being thin and ways to avoid eating without arousing suspicion from parents.

Protecting our daughters from the dangers that lurk online involves two key things: open lines of communication and being involved with what our kids do online. If parents talk with their daughters about self-esteem issues with love and without judgment, and if we spend time learning about their online behavior, we will make strides in keeping our girls safe and raising them to be beautiful, confident young women.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Topic We All Want to Ignore but Can’t: Sexting

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Few words will make a parent, teenager, teacher, or school administrator more uncomfortable than the word “sexting”. It seems that any time the word “sex” is brought up in any form, all of the above people want to run and hide. Unfortunately, sexting is something that too many teens are engaging in either actively or passively, so parents need to grit their teeth and learn as much as they can – for the sake and safety of their children.

The Cyberbullying Research Center is one of the premiere websites that addresses all aspects of cyberbullying, including sexting. The definition created by Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin is fairly comprehensive: sexting is “the sending or receiving of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive images or video via a cell phone.” It is worth noting that while sexting most often occurs via cell phone, it can also happen through email, instant messaging, and social networking. Also, sexting doesn’t necessarily include sharing totally nude pictures; the pictures may be semi-nude (topless or in underwear) or sexually suggestive in nature.

Research done by Hinduja and Patchin in 2010 suggests that as many as 8% of teens create sexting messages and 13% receive these messages. The numbers climb as children get older. They also found that boys and girls were equally likely to send a sexting message, but boys receive significantly more sexts than girls.

The thought of sending such images makes most adults cringe; why do teens seem so blasé about it? Research done in 2009 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicate that the reasons include
• sharing images as part of a sexual relationship
• sharing images instead of having a physical sexual relationship
• starting or maintaining a relationship
• sharing images for fun or as a joke
• sharing images out due to peer pressure (girls say they feel pressure from boys or else risk not having or losing a relationship)

So, what can parents do? The overarching task would be to talk to your teen about sexting. Yes, it will probably be uncomfortable, but it is necessary. Teens need to realize that sexting is dangerous behavior both legally and socially. Laws in many states consider sexting to be creating, disseminating, and possessing child pornography, and the punishments for those offenses are severe and could have a life-long impact. The social consequences can be equally devastating. The stories of Jesse Logan and Hope Witsell sadly and graphically demonstrate this (both girls tragically ended their lives after engaging in sexting). Beyond keeping the lines of communication open, parents need to check up on their children’s behavior with the computer and cell phone. Dougherty County, Georgia, District Attorney Greg Edwards explained this quite succinctly: “The only thing that a parent can do is to check, check the devices, it's so many devices that allow you to do it now and it's going to be difficult but it has to be done.”

For more information and summary of recent research done on the issue of sexting, you can download a sexting fact sheet here.