The client is a 15-year-old girl referred by her guidance counselor. “Amber” has been disciplined by her high school for sending naked selfies to her boyfriend, which came to the attention of a teacher as the sexts were liberally shared around the sprawling suburban campus. Her horrified parents initially labeled the behavior a momentary judgment lapse fueled by “bad influences,” until a search of her phone revealed a couple of well-hidden hook-up aps. Her laptop browser history added to their concern.
The parents are college educated professionals, who responded to their daughter’s difficulty by grounding her for two weeks and taking away her phone and tablet indefinitely. They banned her boyfriend from the house and insisted she talk with her female church youth leader. Mom and dad were relieved when they got through the two-week home arrest with Amber “just being angry at first, then sullen and often disrespectful, but it could have been a lot worse.” They added, “We were sure she’d learned her lesson and everything would be fine. We just wanted to put this whole sorry mess behind us.”
And it seemingly was, until a few weeks later when they discovered Amber had gotten another phone and was exchanging explicit texts with a guy who claimed to share her interest in soccer and just wanted to get to know her better. The parents asked their pediatrician what they should do, and he said he had no idea other than finding a therapist. The school social worker also was unable to provide an appropriate referral, but she was aware of a local program for adult males who used pornography compulsively, and she gave the parents our number
“Please help us!”the mom wailed. “Our beautiful, talented daughter has gone off the deep end. We taught her better than this, but she won’t listen when we tell her how terrible she is. We need to send her to your facility and have you straighten her out. We’re so embarrassed and want this fixed before it further damages our family reputation.”
Yes, indeed. “Straightening out” is exactly what needs to be done with teen females struggling with problematic sexual behavior, right? And labeling an acting teen as “terrible” is sure to motivate her positively. Not.
The reality is that untold numbers of teens, both males and females, are engaged in potentially problematic sexual behavior. According to Statistics Brain (https://www.statisticbrain.com/sexting-statistics/), the numbers are staggering. In an online survey with 1280 respondents ages 13-19:
Perhaps it’s reassuring that 71% of teen girls and 67% of teen boys say they’ve sent or posted sexually suggestive content to a boyfriend or girlfriend. Less comforting, 21% of teen girls and 39% of boys say they’ve shared such content with someone they wanted to date or hook up with. Most frightening, 15% of teens in this age group (not broken down by gender) report they’ve sent nude or semi-nude pictures to someone they only met online- in other words, to a stranger.
Our sexually-saturated culture has far outrun most families’ - and counselors’ - ability to protect or even adequately inform and guide their children. The information presented by Dr. Gail Dines and Culture Reframed provides overwhelming evidence that pornography, not parents, are providing sex education for today’s kids. (https://parents.culturereframed.org/).
The culture is swamped with gender and sexual messages, images and values - most of them unrealistic and unhealthy.“Pornland,” as Dr. Dines calls it, increases early sexual awakening before the child is developmentally able to process what’s happening. It further encourages objectification of self and others, often in a violent form.
Recent research shows that early exposure to pornography is more predictive of later problematic sexual behavior than overt sexual abuse. If that finding proves true over time, the impact will only mushroom exponentially. Sadly, the pornified culture is unlikely to reverse itself any time soon, if ever.
Typically, teens won’t recognize their sexual behavior is a problem. They think they’re engaging with their friends and romantic partners like “everyone else.” Unfortunately, they may be right, since sexting and promiscuity are more the norm than the exception, including for teens raised in “good” homes
Teens usually don’t have the maturity to realize the impact of their sexual and relational behavior, which might affect the rest of their lives. Problematic sexual behavior can interfere with education, health, self-esteem, and social and spiritual development. It can also be extremely dangerous when girls (and sometimes guys) put themselves in risky situations.
Attachment theory illuminates the importance of healthy bonding between parents and children, yet more and more, today’s teens seem adrift in a technology wasteland. Many parents are similarly engulfed in their devices or work, or are themselves struggling sexually or relationally. Most parents label the acting out teen as the problem, and they miss the attachment wounds that may be driving his or her search for connection, however exploitive or fleeting. As Amber’s mom expressed it, parents want the teen “fixed,” and they may be unwilling to be involved in that solution beyond carting the teen in for therapy.
The field of treating problematic sexual behavior has evolved positively to include effective models for helping partners as well as addicts. Resources for teens, though, are woefully lacking. As far as I’m aware, only two in-patient treatment programs that accept adolescent males are equipped with clinicians who have specific certification or training for treating problematic sexual behavior. None of the programs I’ve found for adolescent girls have a specialized PSB program with therapists who are specifically trained in the field. A few outpatient support or therapy groups exist for teen males with PSB, but a group for teen females is rare. The need is huge for clinically informed, excellent resources, especially ones based on attachment theory and a family systems perspective.
Real change for a hurting teen happens within a systems framework, which means the whole family engages in the healing process. Parents need and deserve personal help to address their own emotional struggles and learn how to help their teen through altering their parental attitudes and behaviors. It’s vital that the whole family be involved in a coordinated process of understanding, growth, and change. The therapeutic environment should be non-judgmental, non-adversarial, and engaging for all involved.
Today, adolescents are probably the largest under-served population of those struggling with problematic sexual behavior. If you’re like me, the prospect of treating a teen is a bit terrifying. Yet we need more specialists in this area who can offer prevention and intervention, so that teens are spared some of the pain experienced by addicts and partners in adulthood.
by Marnie C. Ferree, M.A., LMFT, CSAT
Marnie C. Ferree, M.A., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Nashville, Tennessee, where she directs Bethesda Workshops, which provides Christian-based treatment for sexual addiction in an intensive setting. The workshop she established for female sex addicts in 1997 was the first of its kind in the country. Her book, No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction, is one of the earliest books to address sexual addiction in women. She is also the volume editor and a contributing writer for Making Advances – A Comprehensive Guide to Treating Female Sex and Love Addicts.
Bethesda Workshops has launched a new Healing for Teens & Their Parents Workshop, which offers gender-specific clinical intensive workshops (four-days) for adolescent females and males. The first workshop, June 13-16, 2018 is for teen females. Later dates, August 8-11 and September 26-29, will provide services for teen males. Parents accompany their teen and are required to attend the workshop. Visit http://www.bethesdaworkshops.org/workshops/healing-for-teen-females-and-parents/for complete information or call Bethesda Workshops at 615-467-5610.
The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH) sponsors this blog for the purpose of furthering dialog in the field of problematic sexual behaviors and their treatment. Blog authors are encouraged to share their thoughts and share their knowledge. However, SASH does not necessarily endorse the content or conclusions of bloggers.
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In honor of Safer Internet Day 2017 and as a supporter of the event, it seemed appropriate to write a blog about internet safety and kids for the SASH blog. One of the challenges in this ever changing world of technology is knowing what is available to protect kids from harmful content. Parents must sift through pages and pages of internet search results to find the best protection that meets the needs of their family. Depending on the age of the child and the type of technology in the home a parent can get lost in the weeds searching for an appropriate solution. This post will highlight for you some of the statistics around the impact of technology on our youth, discuss the resources available and their effectiveness, and identify other sources of help.
Let’s start with a little background. I am the mother of a 9-year old boy, who is rapidly entering adolescence. I am also the Executive Director of SASH. In both roles those worlds collide, most times in a good way. As the Executive Director, I am fortunate enough to have access to some of the brightest and most educated professionals on sexual health and problematic sexual behavior. The resources for protecting families from harmful content seem limitless. A recent query churned up some of the results I share with you now.
As a mother, my son is confronted with technology daily through some benign and some not so benign sources. As a parent, I have to monitor both home and friends.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation 2010 Study,
This is only a small portion of the problems parents face. We haven’t even addressed obesity, delayed development, increases in hyperactivity, and bullying—all of which are exacerbated due to technology use. Check out the Reward Foundation for more information on the mental effects of porn and other impacts to the brain.
For some parents, the best solution for technology is to limit and monitor access. This is done any number of ways, including parental controls and time limits based on an award system and the age of the child. However, parents must be at least as knowledgeable as their child, or controls can be bypassed, or hacked and systems compromised.
Most video service providers offer some degree of parental control. Happily, even Netflix has changed its practice and now has a PIN that allows limiting content by profile. Previously, controls could be set for child profiles but there was no way to lock the profile. Now content can be locked. Find out how to lock Netflix account profiles here.
Amazon Prime offers a similar service, found here. You can also block purchases on Amazon Prime. The one problem with this setup is that when you enter the numbers, a child sitting in the same room, can see the numbers on the screen as they are entered, before they become asterisks. I have had to ask my son to turn his head so as not to see the code. The same is true for Apple tv. Restrictions on buying can be set but the code is viewable as it is entered. In fact you have to scroll to the correct number in order to input it. This is completely unreliable as a safety factor.
Hulu’s parental controls are based on the age of the subscriber. To limit mature content Hulu recommends you log out of your account.
Typical cable providers have controls built into their systems based on the provider. These are set by the individual companies. Check your provider for details on how to set it up.
Speaking of television, most smart TVs offer applications such as You Tube, Vimeo, Facebook, Instagram and Skype. To set limits on these applications you have to utilize the functions of your individual television manufacturer. For example, we own a Visio. I can hide the application so my son doesn’t see it, but it doesn’t stop him for adding it back to the lineup. Some brands (or models) don’t have full parental controls. Ours, for example does not, although the next level up does. We can’t block our son from loading anything.
For cell phones, tablets and gaming devices there are a number of solutions.
The easiest solution is to limit the applications that are placed on the device based on the ages the apps set. Limiting the apps by age keeps the child safe from seeing certain content or language. However, we have found that the apps built for our son’s age group are often not the ones he wants to play. Friends are all playing certain games so he gets confused why he isn’t allowed.
Apps like Minecraft are very popular but some versions allow for multiplayer games and adding friends without parental consent. Multiplayer games with strangers are not allowed in our house. Decide what is right for your family. We don’t allow them simply because as a longtime member of the healthcare industry I am acutely aware of what can happen to young people who are naïve to the dangers of the world.
Gaming devices like Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo DS and Wii all have parental controls. Clearly the easiest control is to restrict the type of game you purchase. Or You can limit online subscriptions and the internet. This method is easier for younger children. It becomes more difficult with tweens and teens. And some apps as mentioned have access to the internet and can be worked around.
Tablets such as the Kindle Fire are a great resource for younger kids. With features like Kindle Free Time, inappropriate content is blocked, as are location-based services, purchasing, social services and web browsing. The only content that can be added is content the parent determines is appropriate. This was a wonderful alternative for our son. He could read, play safe games and we could limit screen time. But then friends with the same device had no controls, and it was no longer fun because he didn’t have access to everything he wanted.
Dr. Todd Love an Athens, Georgia-based professional and SASH member has written an article on setting up controls on Apple based products such as iPhone, iPads and Mac filtering. You can read those articles here and here. He provides step by step details on how to configure those settings that even the most inexperienced user can follow.
To limit content to computers or other devices, parents can purchase subscriptions to programs like the ones below. I am sharing with you the ones recommended by SASH professionals including Dr. Love who spent years working in the tech market.
Netnanny.com works on Droid, Apple, Windows and iOS systems and can be purchased for one device or a family pass for up to 10 devices. The single device feature is limited to a computer, and the multiple device plan works for all platforms. The software purports to protect kids from pornography and profanity, and provides time management, social media monitoring, internet filters, and personal accountability. Parents can manage it remotely and can set up reports and alerts. This is a good resource for families with young kids.
Covenanteyes.com is an internet filtering program and offers accountability for 1 or multiple users. This service works with younger kids, but in my opinion it is best for kids (or teens and up) who have already experienced content and need to be held accountable. It has a built-in panic button for those who need immediate help because they are feeling tempted and an accountability partner. It works on the following: Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Android phones and tablets, including Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD. It also has an app for those wanting to free themselves from porn usage called Overcome Porn. It offers a 40-day challenge via a specific app.
K9 Web Protection is a free internet blocking and time management system. It works for Windows based and Mac products and also offers protection from spyware and malware. Users can go to the website and download the version for their particular operating system and then set the filtering, blocking and search-engine specifications for the software.
Mobicip.com is a monitoring software for families, schools and businesses. It has features that allow you to monitor multiple devices on multiple platforms, including internet content, app usage, browsing history and a parental dashboard that can be viewed remotely (including on Apple Watch) to track time management and grant remote access when necessary. Mobicip.com also offers a limited version for free and other versions for a monthly fee like other programs. It also works on all the usual platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Chromebook.
Parents encounter obstacles when it comes to allowing technology. You will have to talk to your kids about why certain viewing, gaming or searching is limited or restricted. For example, we don’t allow (or greatly limit) YouTube. Our son can easily find content that is not appropriate for his age or level of understanding on that media channel despite locking the content. It is easy to work around YouTube systems, and savvy friends can show your child how to evade blocks.
There is no doubt that protecting our families and ourselves from unwanted or illicit material on the internet and in apps is an ongoing issue. We do recognize that access to the internet has many positive advantages for our youth in their learning and development. Determining what works for your family is best determined between you and other significant decision-makers in your household. With the rapid advances in technology and the increased use within all levels of academia, professions and homes, families are more at risk than ever. It is unclear how technology is impacting our youth. As a society we may not know that until this generation reaches full adulthood. For our family, communication is the key to coping with technology. The conversations aren’t always easy and sometimes there are tears, but in the end we parents must protect our children from what they can’t even begin to understand.
If you want to join the movement for a #SaferInternetDay, click the link to watch the live stream and post it to your social media channels. Get involved in internet safety. Or maybe you want to take a week off and join the Screen Free Week in May.
Other resources or articles worth mentioning:
What measures have you taken at home to protect your children? How is your parenting changing based on technology? What professional resources have you sought to get help?
Leah M. Briick, is the Executive Director of SASH and has been working in the field of mental health and addition treatment since 1986.