Family Online Safety Contracts

Father And Son Using Laptop At Home

Father And Son Using Laptop At Home

As my book, The New Age of Sex Education, how to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography, is nearing completion, I am researching resources for parents. One of these resources is the Family Online Safety Institute. This is a very helpful and informative site.

What I love most about the site are the online safety contracts I found there. These contracts not only provide boundaries and guidelines for the child, but also the parent. Here are a few tidbits from the parent contract:

      1. Parents will get to know the services and websites their child uses.

By doing this, the parent agrees to get informed and stay informed. This is critical to responsible digital parenting.

      1. I will not over react if my child tells me about something “bad” he or she finds or does on the Internet.

I LOVE THIS! If a parent can follow through on this part of the contract, they won’t shame their child. It is hard to not be reactive if your child comes to you saying he or she saw pornography or were solicited on a website they should not have been on. However, if you can be calm and talk about the issue, you will go a long way to create safety and not create an aura of shame around sexuality.

      1. I will frequently check to see where my kids have visited and talk to them about my concerns.

These are just a few of the 12 items on the parent contract. These rules facilitate calm and healthy communication between parents and their children.

The site also has Safety Cards specifically for: cell phone, smartphone, gaming systems, tablets and computers. These are designed for a parent to give to their child and discuss when they get a new device. A parent can write their own rules on the card based on their own beliefs and family values. There is also a parent’s promise section on these cards.

Parents promise not to overreact if their child views something inappropriate. The parent also agrees to learn new things and be part of their child’s digital world. Another parent promise is that they, themselves, promise to responsibly use technology. Parents need to model appropriate behaviors such as not texting while driving.

There are many sites that will provide you with resources and many are very good. I wanted to highlight this site because it does such a great job in showing us that parents need to be accountable too. Having rule sand boundaries for both parents and children creates a safe environment that fosters open and honest communication.

Webcam Trolling and Children

girl and web camera

little girl look to the web camera in her hand and smile

A study recently published online in the Telematics and Informatics journal brought to light the problems of webcam trolls and how they can victimize children on chat sites.

First, let’s talk about webcam trolls. Many people are likely familiar with the term troll that is often used for people who post disruptive, mean, or harmful communication on the websites or social media sites of others. It is not uncommon to see a comment in the news about some celebrity replying to a troll who posted something on their social media site that is perhaps fat shaming, sexist, racist, homophobic etc. While this is becoming a relatively common occurrence, webcam trolls are not as well known.

A webcam troll is someone who engages in trolling in online forums, like the site Chatroulette. They may show pre-recorded video loops instead of live time video. Webcam trolls also may phish for information on these sites.

How do webcam trolls go after children? The answer is through initiating contact, often under false pretenses, and requesting erotic video chatting. The troll is often using a fake identity and a video loop. Through the chat process, the child is convinced to expose themselves on the cam or engage in sex acts on the cam for the other person. The person on the other end of the chat will record the sessions and they can be used for blackmail at a later time. The children are often threatened with exposure to peers and parents. Adults who are webcam trolled are frequently extorted for money. Children are frequently blackmailed for more erotic content.

When this type of webcam trolling occurs, children do not usually go to their parents to tell them what has happened. The children are often scared and don’t want to face the shame of telling their parents what they have done online with a stranger.

We may think that these types of things only happen on chat sites that have a reputation for being sexual or nefarious. However, this study shares the case of an 11 year old child who was playing Minecraft online. Anyone who is aware in our world knows that Minecraft is a video game that is insanely popular with kids. Part of playing this game is the ability to chat with others. In this particular case, the online chat friendship included simulated sex acts. When the online friendship went bad, the other child posted these videos online for the public to see.

The moral of this particular case is to not assume that your child is not at risk because they are not on chat sites. If they are video gaming online, they are open to this practice.

While webcam trolling does not happen frequently, it does occur. The authors suggest that prevention measures be taken such as not sharing personal data online as well as technically safeguarding the computer. They also suggest that if a person is engaging in chat with someone, they ask them to write a particular message on a piece of paper and show it in the web cam. This practice will help distinguish video loops from real people. Our long term suggestion is that computers and devices with webcam ability should always be used in a public part of the house, not in a child’s bedroom

As always, discussion and awareness help prevention as well. Talk to your child about web cam trolling.

For more information on children and cybersex risk please see our page The New Age of Sex Education.

Kopecky, K. (2016) Misuse of web cameras to manipulate children within the so called webcam trolling. Telematics and Informatics, 33, 1-7

American College of Pediatricians Position on Pornography

In October of this year, the American College of Pediatricians published a statement on their website regarding the impact of pornography on children. This statement, written by Dr. L David Perry, summarized the current research on the effects of exposure to pornography on children and concluded that pornography is harmful to children.

The position statement focused particularly on research focused on how children (not adults) are impacted by exposure to pornography. Young children appear to have emotional distress upon exposure to pornography, including embarrassment, shock, disgust or fear. There is also some evidence that children can become obsessed with the acts they have seen online and attempt to re-enact them. This can lead to the victimization of other children.

This summary does not present this data for the first time. However it is perhaps the first time that pediatricians are being exposed to the data. The statement concludes by saying that pediatricians should be equipped to discuss pornography with parents and help them limit their young children’s exposure to pornography.

This position paper brings up yet another avenue in which we need to open up the discussion of pornography and sexting. Traditionally, these issues may or may not be brought up at home or in school. If parents have a worry about their child’s behavior, they may seek professional mental health counseling. I do not think that pornography exposure is something that is traditionally brought up duruing a pediatric doctor appointment. It should be! The more we talk about these issues, the more we end up talking about sexuality with children. This reduces the risk of stigma and shame and increases the chances of your children engaging in healthy sexual behavior throughout their lifetime.

This post is truly just to say thank you to the American College of Pediatricians for being forward thinking and taking the risk to talk about pornography exposure and children. If more doctors come to understand these issues, we will have one more venue in which we can educate children and help those who may be struggling.

For more articles on this topic, please see The New Age of Sex Education.

Not All Teen Sexting is Consensual

Last evening I was in the office with some free time as I had confused the time a client was coming in for an appointment. It was a “meant to be” moment as during that time, I had the opportunity to assist a fellow clinician with his concerns regarding an adolescent client. To keep things confidential, let’s just say the client was a young teenage man who had received sext messages from a young woman. The consultation started as a concern about mandatory reporting. In the state of Pennsylvania, this did not meet mandatory reporting criteria. However, it was a great teaching moment for both the young man and the clinicians.

It is rather common knowledge now that many teens sext. This behavior has become a part of their culture, courtship and relationships. We still are frequently seeing news articles about teens getting in trouble for sexting either in school or legally. Though we understand that this is part of the new “normal” of teenage communication, we need to be cognizant of the difference between consensual and non-consensual sexting.

This young man was getting these sexts from a girl and he told his therapist they made him uncomfortable. He didn’t really want to receive them. He didn’t send anything back but was confused as to how to respond. Bravo for this young man’s courage to bring this to his therapist. It brings to mind psychoeducation that we do for sex offenders. What is the difference between consent, compliance and coercion?. What do they mean? (I cannot attribute the source of these appropriate descriptions.)

Consent: When a partner agrees with an action. The partner must understand the proposed action, know what society’s standards are for this action, be aware of the consequences and alternatives, be assured that a decision to disagree will be respected as much as a decision to agree, voluntarily agree and be mentally competent

Compliance: When a person goes along without actively resisting even though they may think it is wrong and doesn’t want to participate.

Coercion: Using tricks, bribes, force, or intimidation to get someone to go along with what you want to do. Coercion is a tool a person uses to get a victim to comply or cooperate.

As you can see by the definition, these concepts are clearly different. In this case, the young man was complying, as he did not want to participate. Compliance is NOT consent. For adolescents, there may be social consequences for standing up to someone in these situations which makes room for the possibility of coercion or compliance in sexting.

This young man was advised to clearly state a boundary with the girl sexting him. Please do not send any more sext messages. If she does not comply with his boundary, he then has the option to take the issue to the authorities.

Though a behavior may be “normal” among teens, we must take the time to educate them the true meaning of consent. Consent does not just apply to in-person sexual behavior, it also applies to sexting.

For more articles on sexting please go to www.thenewageofsexeducation.com

Our Confusing Relationship with Sexting

Each day I get the daily news feed from Google on topics related to my field, sex addiction, mindfulness, sexting, etc. If you are unfamiliar with the news feeds, Google culls the internet each day for new things with your keyword and sends you the links to all the new pages. Sometimes this yields a treasure trove of new information and sometimes it is just junk.

When it comes to the sexting news feeds, I am always struck by how dichotomous the links are. The news feed links tend to come in three categories:

  1. People being arrested for sexting with minors or some other sexting related scandal.
  2. The dangers of sexting and how to protect our teens from the behavior.
  3. How to use sexting to improve your relationship and have better, hotter sex.

We seem to not know what to think about sexting and the lines between good and evil seem rather gray.

Scandal, Disgrace and Jail:

Many headlines regarding sexting involve adults sexting a minor or engaging in a sext relationship with a co-worker, subordinate or patient. Two recent headlines from my geographic area include a juvenile probation officer who has been criminally charged for his behavior. He was sexting with a juvenile female who was on his juvenile probation case load. Another recent headline involves a New Jersey police officer who was caught sexting teenage girls. The message here is clear. Adults sexting with minors is not tolerated and is to be criminally charged and frequently publicly shamed. In truth, sexting in these cases has become the newest extension of abuse of power and inappropriate sexual conduct with minors provided by digital technology. The message here is clear and not terribly confusing.

Sexting is dangerous for your kids

Another prevalent headline involves warning parents over the dangers of teen sexting. This can be results from a prevalence study to a public service program put on by the police to warn about dangerous sexting. The coverage sometimes includes articles about how texting and sexting fit into the social dynamic of teen relationships. The message here is confusing at times. It is clear from the research that sexting has become a normal part of the lives of some teenagers. Data shows us that it has been integrated into courtship rituals. However, the press tells us that parents are terrified and worried about teen sexting, clearly one of a parent’s biggest fears. Perhaps this fear is based on the outdated or non-existent laws regarding minor sexting in some states or concern about cyberbullying. To me, it appears as though parents’ fears are based on a lack of understanding of their own children’s culture, a fear which could be abated with open communication with their child.

Sexting can make your relationship better

Learn how to write hot, sexy sexts to turn on your lover and spice up your relationship. This is where my confusion really takes hold. Our press and culture focus on sexting being something to shame, ridicule and fearful. People in power can abuse others via sexting. Children can be damaged for the duration of their lives from sexting. However, that magic moment when we are now an adult instead of a minor, sexting moves from something to fear to something to embrace. What? How does that happen?

It is true that using digital communication like texting and sexting can increase the connection in a relationship. The data are starting to bear fruit. Tindr is not ruining dating for everyone and smart, loving and committed couples do, indeed, sext each other for fun. It seems to help their intimacy, connection and relationship satisfaction as well.

Why are we so confused about the role of sexting? I truly have no answer but the strange mix of news stories that arrive in my email each morning mimic our culture’s confused relationship with sex in general. Drive down a highway and you can find nearly naked women (and sometimes men too) plastered on a billboard. You can watch very intimate sexual encounters on prime time television (nearing soft core pornography). You can have sex with prostitutes in video games if you are 12.

However, the one thing we can’t do is talk about sex. We can watch it. We can see it. We can do it in a video game but we can’t talk about it. Our culture still carries so much shame around sexuality that it is incredibly uncomfortable to talk about for most people. We don’t talk to our children about sex (but we let them play grand theft auto).

Sexting, like sex itself, is neither good nor bad but rather context dependent. There is nothing inherently wrong with using a cell phone for sexual conversations. As with most things online, the problem is in the hands of the user. Any means of abusing a power differential in a relationship is unacceptable and sexting provides an additional avenue for abuse. If sexting is inherently bad because it opens new opportunities for abuse, is chatting or emailing bad because some people can use it for abusing children? If one uses that logic, it could be said that going to church is dangerous because children have been abused by clergy. Obviously, this logic isn’t sound.

Sexting is a means of communication. It is our responsibility as adults to use it wisely. Be aware of the potential ramifications of sending images of yourself that you might not wish the world to see. Be aware of the fact that chat transcripts might be read by someone else.

Be aware that your children are likely either engaging in sexting or know of people who are sexting. Educate yourself about the law, the outcomes and your child’s culture. Talk to them about sexting and the possible consequences, both social and legal. If we just say that sexting is a bad thing, we are shaming an expression of sexuality. Let’s teach healthy sexuality and how to express it in a healthy manner.

How to keep kids safe online and build trust

iStock_000003133831Large

Over the weekend, an article came out in the Daily Mail  from the UK discussing children as young as ten who are fighting pornography addiction. While this might have been news for the general public, this is something that is common knowledge in the field of sexual addiction treatment. The age of those addicted to pornography continues to get younger and younger.

Many parents, when faced with the either the media buzz or the reality of what their child is doing online, look for resources to help. The most common resource in this arena is filtering software. Traditional filtering software blocks access to certain websites or types of content. Depending on the software, a parent can block content via a pre-determined age delineation, block specific web pages, block app downloads, block social media usage and get a report of what sites their child is visiting on their phone, tablet and computer. Another option for parents are “spying” apps. These apps make the parent privy to every single thing that happens on the device. Parents can read emails, text messages, instant messaging, etc.

While these apps can be helpful in some cases and are created to help increase safe digital use, they are not fail safe and may not be the best option for a child depending on their age. The major flaw in any type of monitoring app is that a teen is likely to figure out a way around it. The digital native generation is often more tech savvy than their parents. As soon as an app comes out for a device, there are youtube videos published that will teach the child how to get around it. A monitoring app only stops a child from watching pornography on their own device. If they don’t get around it on their phone, for example, they can still get access to inappropriate content on a friend’s device. As the Daily Mail article explains, one child accessed the neighbor’s wifi when his parents took away his device.

I think that blocking or filter software can be very helpful in some cases. Often, a parent will install the software and think that all is well. They then do not talk to their child about content online, digital sexuality or cyberbullying. There is the thought that “if I put on the app, my child will be safe and I don’t have to deal with it.” This is very faulty thinking. Even if the app decreases your child’s access to digital sexuality, it should NEVER be used as a replacement for discussion about the topic. Filtering or blocking software is something that I would employ for younger children when you want to prevent inadvertent access to adult content online. This method is great for what Dr. Laurence Steinberg calls the starting the engine phase of adolescent brain development. In this phase, when puberty first arrives, the young teenage brain lacks a braking system and self control.

However, as a teenager gets older and his or her brain continues to develop, they begin to learn and work to master self control. This is the time to start to develop trust. If you, as a parent, filter your child’s content until she or he is 18 and never talk about it or give them a chance at self mastery, you can potentially set them up to have problems when they are on their own, in college or generally without strong adult supervision. Continuing to completely filter technology does nothing to foster the growth of trust in the relationship between parent and child. Instead of using blocking software or spying on a teen, a parent could institute a transparency policy. Perhaps there is no filter but the parent has open access to all content on the phone if they wish to see it. This technique, when used in concert with open and frequent communication can be effective and works to build a trusting relationship between parent and child.

If a parent wishes to continue to monitor the content of their child, an app such as PocketGuardian might be a better option. This app provides parents with an alert that there is content on the child’s phone that is potentially sexual or bullying without giving the parent the actual content. This app allows the parent to have a discussion with the child about digital use while maintaining some level of privacy for the child.

Ultimately, the decision to filter, block or monitor your child’s phone, tablet and/or computer is a very personal one. The monitoring industry will tell you that it is a wise decision and will protect your child. This is likely true for some children. What we do know from both clinical work and the research is that, where there is a will there is a way, and monitoring is not terribly effective for protecting children online. The research also tells us that open and honest communication with parents and a good parental relationship is a protective factor against high risk sexual behavior.

Embarrassed Parents Avoid Talking to Teens

shy teen high school student fantasizing about sex

I am working on the chapter of my book, The New Age of Sex Education: How to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography, that deals with why parents don’t talk to their kids about sex. In doing research on the topic, I came across a survey done last year by a company in the UK called Lil-Lets. In September of 2014, Lil-Lets published the results of a survey they conducted. The survey asked parents questions related to talking to their children about uncomfortable sex education topics, everything from puberty to menstruation to sex. Unfortunately, the results of this survey line right up with other research findings and what I find in clinical practice. Parents are embarrassed.

The study surveyed 2000 parents. Sixty percent of these parents stated that they have a hard time talking to their children about sensitive topics. This meant not just talking about sex itself but also the biology of puberty and sexual development. Half of the parents stated that they found talking about these topics embarrassing. Apparently “the talk” causes a great deal of anxiety for parents, some of whom reported worrying about having to have a sex talk with their child from the time their child was around four years old.

A surprising finding from the survey was how disconnected the parents were from each other when it came to talking to their child about sex. Instead of working as a team and parenting together, 41% of the parents reported arguing with each other over which parent was going to talk to their child. Some of the survey participants even stated that they and their spouse had come to blows while arguing about the topic.

Despite all the anxiety and fighting that may go into the preparation for “the talk”, more than 50% of parents did eventually have the talk with their child. The concerning statistic for me and my work is that four in ten parents admitted to completely avoiding talking to their children about the topics including sex, relationships and puberty. This is what I often hear from my clients who are struggling with pornography addiction. No one talked to them about sex. They had to rely on school sex education programs and most of those do not talk about pornography, sexting or other digital and current topics.

Parents who do not talk to their children about sex at all are leaving their education up to school, but this education is often supplemented by peers and the internet. Many of these kids don’t get accurate information about sex and relationships from peers and the media.

The sex education of children needs to involve parents and perhaps start with parents. Research shows that children want this information from their parents (see other posts). Why are parents embarrassed to talk about sex with their children? Those parents with biological children had sex to create them. If we can have sex, shouldn’t we be able to talk about it?

Parents need to learn how to have difficult conversations. Learn to bite the bullet and just talk to their kids. One uncomfortable conversation can result in a closer bond with your child and a child who feels like they can come to you to talk about hard things. As a woman I met yesterday told me, it all starts with the parents.

Many parents have no model for how to talk to their children about sex and sexuality. Often, their parents never talked to them or they got messages that sex should be secret and not discussed. This is the reason I am writing The New Age of Sex Education: How to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography. Parents can learn how to successfully have these conversations.

PocketGuardian: New App to Help Parents Detect Sexting and Cyberbullying

As a clinician who is very interested in prevention, I always have my eye out for new strategies or ways to help parents be aware of what their children are doing online and on their smartphones. We all see enough news stories to know that, though not all children are sexting, a large enough number of kids are sexting, bullying and being bullied that we all need to be aware.

This morning I heard about a new app developed by two dads from Maryland who both happen to be software developers. According to an interview on CBS DC, the dad’s were inspired to create this app after hearing about and discussing a news story about a student who committed suicide. The teens suicide was due to cyberbullying and the fall out of a nude photo being passed around. The dads developed a new app called PocketGuardian.

Like myself, these two dads came to understand that most parents do not know what their children are doing and find out too late if they are sexting. The app they have developed is different from traditional monitoring apps or software. Traditional monitoring or filtering block a user from accessing inappropriate apps or websites. Some apps allow the parent to be privy to every single text the users sends and receives. PocketGuardian is different. The app states that is NOT for spying.

PocketGuardian sends an alert to the parent if the app detects sexually explicit messages, nude photographs or text messages that could be seen as bullying. The app does not send the parent the full content of the message. This way, the parent can be alerted to what the child is doing but the child can maintain some sense of privacy. The parent can then initiate a discussion with their child about their behavior. I really like this model of monitoring. By the parents not seeing the exact message and being alerted only to the fact that there is an inappropriate message, the shame of being caught in this act might be lessened for the child. Also, the parent’s embarrassment might also be lessened, as they don’t know exactly what was said. Lessening the embarrassment of the parent increases the chances of them having a difficult discussion as we know from research that one of the main things that keeps parents from talking to their children about sex is embarrassment.

PocketGuardian has not yet launched but will be available for iOS and Android platforms. You can sign up on the website for information about the launch dates.

This is smart technology for smart and informed parents.

Revenge Porn: When Sexting Goes Bad

I have been working on a chapter in my new book, The New Age of Sex Education: How to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography, that addresses the legal ramifications of sexting by minors. While pouring through juvenile sexting law, state by state, I have also been checking out another type of law that has recently made its way onto the legislative floor of some states: Revenge Porn Laws.

To say that everyone sexts today might be an exaggeration, but the reality is that sexting is not uncommon. Sexting among adults is seen as an acceptable practice. Daily, my Google news alert is filled with articles about sexting. Some are about the problems with some teen sexting scandal. The antithesis of these stories are intermingled in my daily news feed. Titles like: 5 fool proof tips to enhance your sexting game from the New York Post or Sexting 101: Best message to get him hot not bothered on Latina.

The messages are entirely counter to each other. Teens should not sext. It is dangerous. It is bad. They aren’t developmentally and emotionally capable to understand the ramifications. But as soon as you turn 18 it is just fine to send sexy texts to your partner. No matter what your moral position is on sexting, we do knowthat people in loving committed relationships do sext each other. People who are dating each other, maybe committed, maybe not, sext each other. Most of the time, this is a practice that can be used to enhance the courtship, flirtation or maintain the bond between two lovers.

What happens when the relationship goes south? What happens to those images once lovingly and voluntarily sent? The answer to that is … well it depends. When a relationship that has involved sexting goes bad, there is a danger. This is where revenge porn comes in. Revenge porn sites are websites that specialize in the posting of images from the sexy to straight out sex videos that were once consensual communications, posted after a break up. The sites change all the time as once they are up, something normally happens, such as an arrest or a law suit and they are taken down. Another site pops right up in its place thereafter.
The premise of revenge porn is that the poster is getting back at or hurting their ex by posting private sexual imagery. These sites have become more common over the past several years causing many states to enact legislation to make the posting of an image (we’re talking adults here as minors fall under other laws) without the other person’s knowledge illegal.

In the state of Pennsylvania (where I practice) a revenge pornography bill was passed by the state judiciary committee on January 2014. The law was amended by the house in June of 2014 and creates a provision under sexual offenses for the unlawful dissemination of an intimate image. A person breaks this law if they post an intimate image with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm a current or former sexual or intimate partner. The law applies to images of nudity as well as sexual conduct. The law does specify that the image is of a former partner which separates it from laws regarding voyeurism or acts such as up-skirting. The law also states that the victim may bring civil action against the perpetrator. The main problem with these laws is that many of the victims of revenge pornography posting do not knowthey are victims. They often find out when a friend or they come across the image.

For those of us who are adults, we all have the choice as to whether or not we wish to send sexual images to our partner via messaging or texting. It all seems grand when the relationship is in full bloom. What we don’t often think about is, “what if this relationship ends”? In our digital age, every digital action has a footprint that really can’t be erased.

So if you are going to sext, do so mindfully.

Burnbook: Latest Anonymous App for teens

Friends Using Smart Phone While Leaning Against Wall

Anyone who has seen the movie Mean Girls instantly knows what this new app is all about. It is the latest in a series of apps that are designed for teens or young adults and offers a platform for anonymous posting.

This app is new, published only about two months ago. It is specifically targeted at high schoolers and allows them to engage in anonymous posting that is organized by their school. As with any of the app’s predecessors, there are already issues with its use among teens. The only rules seem to be these three: 1. a user is responsible for their content. 2. no nudity or violence and 3. don’t harass other people.

There have already been issues in schools in Oregon, Texas and California with issues of cyberbullying to bomb threats. Already, petitions have been created to remove the app from availability. The owner and creator of the app, Jonathan Lucas has had an interesting response. News sources have reported that the creator is turning the blame around. The app has a 17+ rating. He questions why children under 17 are using the app. Lucas stated that if a parent sets restrictions on the phone of their child, the child won’t be able to use it

In theory, these types of apps are great. Give teens a place to share thoughts and secrets anonymously. It is kind of like “dear diary” but with no worries about your sibling or mom or dad finding the diary and reading it. The problem is that the reality of these apps does not match their theoretical purpose. Perhaps it is human nature or at least adolescent nature to use these apps to share nasty comments, to bully, threaten or exclude others.

Though I am not a fan of these types of apps, I do feel that the founder, Mr. Lucas, has a very valid point. Is it not the duty of the parents to know what their children are doing on their phones? Wouldn’t it be better if parents understood what their children were doing online and paid closer attention? We live in a capitalist-driven technological world. Though a petition may shut down one app, another is sure to pop up in it’s stead.

The common denominator with all of these apps is: parents need to be more involved with their children’s digital lives. They need to know what is going on and to talk to their children about the apps they use and how they use them.

For more information on tech savvy parenting see our new book:  The New Age of Sex Education: How to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography.