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Why an authoritarian style or sudden imposition of parental controls – against sexting or any other troubling new issue – don’t work very well in parenting social Web users

By Anne Collier

We’re in quite a fix, we parents, over this “sexting” phenomenon. On the one hand, sexting “is causing growing concern among parents,” HealthDay cites a University of Michigan survey as finding. On the other, “the real problem sets in when grownups get involved,” writes columnist Conor Friedersdorf, pointing to the evidence: “In most cases, teens who conceal their sexting from authority figures suffer negligible adverse consequences…. Perversely, however, tragic stories that begin with ‘sexting’ are all too frequent when principals, police officers, or district attorneys get involved. The two known suicides attributed to ‘sexting’ actually resulted from adults who exacerbated, rather than stopped, the abhorrent ‘slut-shaming’ that peers callously directed at girls whose naked photos were spread around school; and authority figures in at least six states charge less troubled teens who send naked pictures of themselves with distributing child pornography!” [And I can’t resist quoting where Friedersdorf goes with this child-porn-law point: “Should technology ever permit humans to download our brains’ mental images to a hard drive, every last teenager in America will wind up prohibited from living within 10,000 feet of themselves” – but maybe quite a few adults too, no?]

I think he’s right. Whether or not you agree that sexting is digitally exacerbated normative adolescent behavior, I hope you agree that adults need to tread very lightly or at least carefully in these situations, with child-pornography law a factor (see ConnectSafely’s tips). But forget about school policy and law enforcement for a second and just think about parenting: Certainly we need to apply our values to our parenting and, if those values call for it, try to mitigate the sexualized media environment surrounding us all, but it’s best to spread that teaching and parenting out over time and not allow ourselves to be so shocked by what we’re seeing as to react in ways that send kids into determined resistance, “underground” online, where our values probably don’t have much influence at all.

Cornell University assistant professor Sahara Byrne, while presenting a survey of parents and kids about online-safety strategies at the Harvard Berkman Center last week, found all kinds of evidence that “the more angry kids are, the more they’re going to try to restore their freedom” – or assert it. That’s why sudden changes in parenting style like overreaction or anger, banning technology (which to a teen can be like banning a whole social life), or suddenly installing monitoring software can have unintended, sometimes risky effects and workarounds.

So we’re not really in such a fix, fellow parents. We just need to mindful of the concerns we have and channel them wisely. Trying to make our children avoid risk altogether can be riskier than being consistent about “our family’s values,” letting them do developmentally appropriate adolescent risk assessment, and being there for them when stuff comes up. I love how parent and media professor Henry Jenkins says it – that we need to “watch their backs rather than snoop over their shoulders.”

Related links

*Sahara Byrne: Parents, Kids & Online Safety” in the blog of Prof. John Palfrey, co-director of Harvard Unviersity’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society
* Latest data (from Pew/Internet last week): “Sexting: New study & the ‘Truth or Dare’ scenario”
* Prof. Sahara Byrne’s presentation on parenting & online safety (I’ll be posting more on this)
* “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth”
* ConnectSafely’s tips to prevent bad effects from teens sexting

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