By Alex Rodrigues, PH.D.
With the arrival of the Internet, society has been provided an
ever-expanding catalogue of digital applications. Although digital
technology has proved to be an invaluable tool in combatting social ills, it is
just that, a tool, and like any instrument, the Internet and associated
technologies are neither inherently good nor bad. The Internet can
simultaneously provide conflicting, and sometimes dangerous, sexual
information. It is for this reason that those interacting with
adolescents need to become more knowledgeable about the evolving digital
landscape and the various resources and risks that teenagers encounter
Before identifying helpful interventions, it is important to
stress that purely prohibitive approaches are unlikely to work. While there are
unique circumstances where it is entirely appropriate to shut down a teenager’s
online access, such an approach is only suitable in select situations where
risk is imminent. Conversely, parents, caregivers, child advocacy
specialists, teachers, and clinicians are encouraged to consider adopting the
following steps to address adolescent use of digital sexual media.
1. First, adults
need to familiarize themselves with the resources and risks that encompass the
digital world. There is a plethora of online resources that adults can
quickly access to gain insight into this issue. Two online resources that
provide comprehensive information for laypeople and professionals alike include
Common-sense and Children and Screens. Both platforms offer user-friendly
websites that are packed with reliable, scientifically based information that
adults can immediately start to implement at home. Aside from informative
websites, there are free podcasts that can provide parents with relevant
information. Tech Stuff and This Week In Tech (TWIT) are two podcasts
that regularly cover tech-related issues. One can quickly search either
podcast’s show catalogue for a specific issue and become familiarized with the
topic before his or her commute is over.
2. An additional
intervention involves adults sitting with adolescents and having the youth
serve as a digital tour guide. Simply put, an adult asks the teenager to
show them their favourite websites, social media personalities, and
applications. Treatment professionals can use the same intervention
in their offices. I have personally used this approach with
enormous success. This is a great way to quickly build rapport, set a new
client at ease, and glean valuable insight into a teenager’s inner world.
During this exercise, the adult should ask what about the digital content is
appealing to the teenager, whether the content seems reliable, and whether
there could be any harm associated with the material.
3. For social media
applications, adolescents need to be reminded that individuals sometimes
present differently online than they do in the physical world. In the
social media world, one runs the risk of falling victim to catfishing (luring
someone into a relationship by using a fake online persona), doxing (publishing
someone’s private information online), and sextortion (the use of nonphysical,
online methods to blackmail a person). Adults need to teach adolescents
how to screen for online threats and determine whether someone is being
genuine. For instance, it is easy to do some harmless detective work to
verify an online persona. A large amount of public information on the
Internet has made it nearly impossible to hide from Google’s watchful
eye. Adolescents should be discouraged from invading peoples’ privacy or
engaging in subterfuge, but they should learn how to look for consistency
across a person’s social media profiles. For instance, do the pictures on a
person’s Facebook page match the pictures on his or her Instagram
account? Also, does a person’s responses match the content in his or her
digital profile? Most Internet cons can’t withstand even the smallest
degree of scrutiny, and many adolescents would benefit from adopting a stance
of respectful scepticism when confronted with online strangers.
4. Lastly, there
are many free and commercially available monitoring systems that can provide
adults an additional resource in managing adolescents’ online behaviour.
Although I discourage adults from using such software as their only means of defence,
it can be helpful for adults to have a digital ally to call upon.
With thoughtful consideration and research-supported
interventions, society can ensure that teenagers are getting credible
information as they navigate their sexual awakening.