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 online.
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.