My eldest son is 10 years old now, and as we prepare for the middle-school years, I find myself thinking about what’s changed since I was his age. Mostly, it’s about teachers, homework and on-again, off-again best friends, whether you grew up in Toronto in the ’80s, as I did, or you’re growing up in Vancouver in 2014, like my kids.
But two things have changed for today's preteens: their intimate relationship with technology, and easy, ubiquitous exposure to a hyper-sexualized culture. Though we might want to shove our kids in a WiFi-free cave at the first sign of puberty (believe me, I’ve considered it), this is the world in which our kids live. The education system—especially sex ed. taught in public schools—ought to respond to the realities of their online social lives. Unfortunately, it usually doesn't.
Social media platforms become increasingly important as kids enter adolescence. Their independence is growing, and they’re learning to forge important non-familial relationships—two key developmental milestones. But they’re also navigating new, ever-evolving online environments and platforms just as their sexual development goes into overdrive. While I looked forward to first crushes and in-person interactions with my classmates, our children are equally excited for their digital connections to begin.
In my work as a sexual-health educator (check out my blog, sexplainer.com, for info on raising sexually intelligent kids), I’ve found schools ill-prepared to meet sex ed. curriculum guidelines. Teachers are often relieved to know that I’ll swoop in and offer a 30- to 60-minute session with their students. Generally, a school is considered “proactive” at addressing sex ed. if an educator meets with students just once a year. But sometimes, with budgets stretched thin, every other year is the reality.
The expectations for teaching about bodies, puberty, sexual diversity and sexual-health choices vary by province and are often incredibly generalized. (None of them address the role of social media yet.) Sex ed. typically begins with students learning proper names for body parts, including genitals. BC and Manitoba require kids to identify body-part names by kindergarten. In Ontario, where the sex ed. curriculum hasn’t been updated since 2000, children learn about major body parts in grade one, but not genitals specifically. (Ed. note: After this article was written, the Ontario government announced they will be updating that province's sex ed. curriculum in 2015, incorporating parent input.) In Saskatchewan, genitals are not part of the curriculum until grade five. Meanwhile, some kids are entering puberty as early as age eight or nine, so waiting until grade five or six to educate kids seems rather late. In my sessions, the first step is to review body physiology; then we talk about reproduction. Kids need to have common language for body parts before they can learn what those body parts do.
Read more: The sex ed crisis in Ontario>
Remember when the gym teacher taught you about periods, sperm and fallopian tubes? I’m sorry to report that today is no different: Too often, the job still falls to gym teachers. And while they may be in a good position to talk about healthy bodies, they’re often not the best educators for broader aspects of sexual health: the way sex and sexuality intersect with technology, media and communication, and how kids should conduct themselves as digital citizens while they navigate all these changes.
“In many respects, due to the Internet, kids are more knowledgeable about sexuality than any previous generation in Canadian history—by a significant margin,” says Alex McKay, with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN). But kids are still lacking information when it comes to smart choices and practising safe sex.
Last year MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based digital literacy organization, surveyed more than 5,000 Canadian kids in grades four through 11 and found that half of students in grade four (when kids are ages nine and 10) have access to their own phones, or someone else’s phone, on a regular basis. By grade six, about 40 percent of kids have their own devices.
There is a link between sexual behaviour that happens online, or on a phone, and having sex in real life, say researchers. In July, the journal Pediatrics published a study that found that middle-school students between ages 10 and 15 who either text excessively or “sext” are four times more likely to report being sexually active. Of students who had access to texting, 20 percent admitted they’d received at least one sext, and five percent reported having sent one. Boys are more likely to send a sext than girls, and so are students who send more than 100 regular (non-sexual) texts a day. Because early sexual activity is linked with higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, the study authors are urging paediatricians to counsel kids about sexting during appointments, and want the risks of sexting to be added to middle-school curricula.
Online anonymity also creates communication rife with sexual bravado and aggressive behaviour. Ask.fm, a social media site that allows anonymous questions to be posted to someone’s profile, has more than 130 million registered users, and almost half of them are younger than 18. Even though 13 is technically the minimum age, I know 12-year-olds who have accounts. Alongside the benign questions about boy bands and favourite subjects, I’ve seen kids encounter posts like, “Have you ever been wet down there?” and others that are far more explicit.
Often, online bullying includes sexualized messages, whether it’s a comment posted on Facebook or a harassing Snapchat pic. This is when friends, cliques and appearances seem to matter more than ever, and yet interpersonal and empathy skills can be lacking. Kids can become overly focused on collecting followers and “likes” as their fragile self-esteem becomes entwined with online feedback. Girls especially may feel pressured to portray themselves as “sexy” on social media.
Read more: How to talk to your kids about sex>
Jillian Klein, a Toronto teacher and parent of a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old, describes the current challenge: “Media itself is in the curriculum, but it’s more about advertising and its impacts. There’s nothing on social media. It’s so new and changes so quickly that teachers have a hard time accessing and learning relevant curriculum. Meanwhile, our kids’ ideas of sexuality and adult life are being distorted when they go to parties and spend the whole time uploading selfies in sexy poses.”
Ophea, a not-for-profit organization that champions healthy living in Ontario communities, has been advocating to update that province’s antiquated health and sex ed. curriculum for four years. This can alarm parents who’d prefer to keep their kids innocent for as long as possible. “The goal is for students to develop the skills and learning before they are likely to need the information,” says Chris Markham, executive director. The updates would focus on human development in the earlier years, and on “conversations about relationships” all the way through. This means how our kids relate to each other, whether they’re together in a basement rec room or just texting each other. (Remember that for many tweens, there’s little difference between the rec room, a chat room and a Facebook timeline.)
“Our kids are capable of highly sexual conversations over technology, and our young teens might have sex,” says Jesse Miller, a dad in Vancouver who works as a social media safety speaker. “We have to give them skills to exercise good judgment, because there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.” These skills include understanding personal privacy and the pros and cons of social networking. Schools also need to better anticipate and respond to students’ sexualized online communication.
I’d love to see governments across Canada mandate comprehensive sex ed. Between the demands placed on teachers to meet learning outcomes (despite more students per class and increasingly diverse student needs) and the lack of sex ed. training, the truth is that few teachers are up to the job of covering sex and social media. We need money in the budget to better train our teachers. As a parent, do your best to educate yourself about how kids are communicating with each other, and set some healthy guidelines around smartphones, screen time and social media. Most of all, tune in and talk to your kids about their social lives, what’s going on at school and the challenges of growing up in an online world.
According to Bob Lotter, founder of “My Mobile Watchdog,” a parental control app for smartphones, these are the social media and texting apps kids are actually using.
Snapchat: a messaging app that lets users put a time limit on the pictures and videos they send before they disappear (usually 10 seconds or less). The fleeting images are a way for teens to share fun moments or goofy or embarrassing photos without posting them, but screenshots can still be taken.
Kik Messenger: an ad-filled alternative to texting, similar to WhatsApp. Kids like it because it’s free (using WiFi, not a data plan), fast, allows private messaging, and has no message or character limits. There's very little you can do to verify the identity of someone on Kik (which poses the risk of sexual predators chatting with kids), and it’s very easy to “copy all.”
Yik Yak: a free location-sharing app that lets users post “anything and everything” anonymously through brief, Twitter-like comments that are distributed to the geographically nearest 100, 250 or 500 people who are also signed in. It’s filled with cyber bullying because it gathers opinions, secrets and rumours from within a 2-kilometre radius.
Omegle: a chat site and app that puts two anonymous strangers together in a text or video chat room. You don't have to register, and you can connect Omegle to your Facebook account to find chat partners with similar interests.
Whisper: an anonymous confessional app that allows users to post what’s on their minds, paired with an image. It displays the area you're posting from, and you can search for users within 2 kilometres. Whispers are often sexual, and content can be dark (insecurities, depression, substance abuse).
Almost one-third of students in grades 4 to 6 have a Facebook account (despite an official age minimum of 13)
By grade 7, 67% of students have Facebook accounts
More than 40% of grade 7 to 11 students have Instagram accounts.
16% of students in grades 4 to 6 have Twitter accounts.
Source: Life Online—Young Canadians in a Wired World, a 2014 report by MediaSmarts.
This article appeared in our November 2014 issue with the headline, “The New Sex Ed” on pp. 40-42.
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