What Your Kids See on Facebook Whether They Are Looking For It or Not

As a mom of teenage girls I find myself more often than not sounding the alarms. I’m not a hysterical sort of person, either. Nor am I a bra-flinging feminist, although I like the image. Yet, it’s becoming ever more apparent as I’m raising girls that what our children are exposed to in their social media playgrounds is of grave concern.

I’m talking ads and images that glorify violence against women, ads that condone rape, and ads that make jokes about beating up women and girls. They are everywhere. (If you need examples visit Women, Action & The Media.)

Tween Hair Line 2 © J Cousineau

Now I want you to visualize something. Consider that one in four girls in US will be victims of sexual assault before the they graduate from college. One in four. This is a verified statistic. Globally, it’s up to one in seven in some countries (World Health Organization, 2012). Yes, 70%.

If it helps to bring this home, imagine this: If there are twelve girls on your daughter’s soccer team, or dance class, or choral group, FOUR of these lovely, darling young women will be victims of sexual violence. Or imagine four giggling tweens snuggled on your couch watching a movie and eating popcorn. Yes, one of them. Or, as in the photo above of my younger daughter and her chums, one or two of these sweet peas will be a victim. Most likely by a male and by someone they know. It’s hard to imagine.

I’m not an alarmist. No. I’m sharing some facts.

So that’s reality for our daughters and their girlfriends. And there’s the reality for those of you with sons, too. Do you know what our girls and boys are exposed to in the media? It’s grim. Consider that the average age of exposure to hardcore porn is 11. Is your heart beating faster now?

Take a deep breath.

Let’s be calm and pragmatic. When teens are in the vulnerable developmental phase of adolescence exposure to violent images can be insidious. While there’s not enough research yet on the impact of negative social media on the behavior of teenagers, it’s important to know what’s going in developmentally. Teens’ fragile brains are exploding with neural connections in a glorious process of fine-tuning that will lead them to become responsible and productive grown ups; their brains are marinating in sex hormones compelling them engage in various antics – grooming, showing off, taking “selfies” and posting their photos everywhere – in order to be the most attractive specimen in their little tribe. They are competing, comparing and sharing. They can’t help it. It’s in their biological blueprint. Of course, these coming of age behaviors are compounded by the teen brain’s frequent happiness surges, aka a “dopamine rush” – a real physiological high – from the fevered stimulation they get from being in the presence of their BFFs, or connecting instantly with hundreds (or even a thousand+) of their online “friends”, or texting on their coveted cell phones. (Parents, you are just too boring for them now.)

It’s a perfect storm. Maturational changes, biological drives, desperate need to be with friends, competing for social status, and sensation seeking – all being played out on the modern stage.

Moms, Dads, are you sitting in the audience of this adolescent theatre? Are you paying attention? Are you covering your eyes?  Or, like me, are you trying play catch-up? Do you think you’re kinda cool and pretty much on top of things?

You aren’t.

You never will be. Just like your parents were pretty clueless, so are we. We might be even more clueless because we come to the new digital age as grown-ups; our kids are born into it. We’re the immigrants; they are the natives.

But there is hope.

We can exert some influence. A lot, in fact. We can talk about what’s going on (See post about a conversation with my older daughter.) We can learn skills to have ongoing dialog and know what we are talking about. We can advocate for change. We have that power. Parents are the greatest influence in teenagers lives. Let’s get to them first before they are exposed to violent images, seek them out, or become numb to them.

Here’s what woke me up recently (again). This past week a letter to Facebook was posted on the Huffington posted by Soraya Chemaly, Jaclyn Freidman and Laura Bates, and co-signed by many respectable organizations.* The open letter demanded that Facebook take swift action address three things:

  1. Recognize speech that trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women as hate speech and make a commitment that you will not tolerate this content.
  2. Effectively train moderators to recognize and remove gender-based hate speech.
  3. Effectively train moderators to understand how online harassment differently affects women and men, in part due to the real-world pandemic of violence against women.

“To this end, we are calling on Facebook users to contact advertisers whose ads on Facebook appear next to content that targets women for violence, to ask these companies to withdraw from advertising on Facebook until you take the above actions to ban gender-based hate speech on your site.”

Parents, “users” mean you. If your teen is on Facebook and you are not that is the first call to action. Sign-up. The second is to insist that you are part of your teen’s network, review privacy settings, and spot-check their postings and news feeds. Ideally, you will create a home social media policy for family members to follow. The third thing is to begin having conversations about the media, about your teen’s social networks, and about responsible use. (“Rinse and repeat” is the way to go with teenagers.)

You can also be a role model and show your teens that you care about what they are exposed to and care about how they present themselves in their digital footprints. The  current reality of the disparaging, violent sexual content in the media against girls and women – and what to do about it – are mindful conversations to be had with both girls and boys over and over again. You can also make your voice heard by demanding that Facebook and its advertisers (companies with products and services you use, like Amex, for instance) take “swift action to eradicate violent images” or remove their ads from the egregious FB pages. Or join me in an upcoming heart-to-heart teleclass geared to moms with teen girls.

Keepin Your Daughter Safe- Teleclass with Tara Cousineau PhD - image
Teleclass June 10, 8pm, with Dr. Tara

For parents who think one answer is to not allow your teen not be on Facebook, or any other social network, um, that won’t work well and not for long. Delaying their use of social networks can work up until about age 14 or freshman year high school. (The minimum age for Facebook is 13 years of age, anyway). Extreme parental control won’t solve any problems because social networks, like Instagram among middle and high schoolers, are the social currency of the day. They are here to stay. It’s part of teen life, college life, the workplace, cause marketing, and commerce. Plus, there are so many upsides to social media for connection, creativity and advocacy. Sooner or later your kids will grow into these networks and need to use them. Avoid a power struggle and collaborate instead.

Kindness toward others, respect, and responsible use of social networks is what is at stake, just like responsible driving of a car is once a teen has earned a driver’s license. But in the case of social networks, parents need to set up the terms in a thoughtful and constructive way. It’s never too late. Start now.

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*UPDATE May 29, 2013:  The open letter to Facebook was amazingly effective and Facebook is now changing it policies about violent content about women. Advocacy works! See story.

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