Monitoring Teens' Media Intake Poses Challenges

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Many teens have a multitude of devices at their fingertips today, making it harder for parents to know what they are being exposed to. Corbis hide caption

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Popular Teen Web Sites

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Web sites with mature content often have screens nominally meant to keep out underage users, but it's usually not difficult to circumvent them. Common Grounds hide caption

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Scroll down for tips on setting rules and having conversations about media with your kids.

If you go to online spaces popular with teenagers, you'll find plenty of smart, funny, charming material. But you'll probably also find things that would make the most liberal parents cringe, such as one Internet-based animated game allowing players to sexually humiliate a popular singer.

It's easy for teens and pre-teens to access hardcore images of sex and violence that would have been hard for adults to find 20 years ago. Some Web advertisements blindside kids such as 15-year-old Angela Black.

"Pop-ups come up sometimes, and it's just like, 'Delete,'" Black says. "That's all I do, because that's disgusting, porn stuff."

Every day, Angela updates her social networking Web sites — all three, on Myspace, Xanga and Facebook. Most of the stuff isn't anything Angela's mother needs to worry about: Angela and her friends fill their pages with silly, supportive messages. They post pictures of bad hair days and muse about life, faith, and love.

But the pages of Angela’s classmates aren’t always as wholesome.

"I see people talk about their adventures with boys or girls — and sometimes it's freaky, but not shocking anymore, because you get used to it," Black says.

But the ability to disguise one's identity online can make it harder for parents to determine exactly what their children are doing. Ashley Hutchinson, a 21-year-old volunteer who helps educate teens on sexual-health issues, notes that parents have lost their historic advantage of being the first to know how to use communication tools. Teens use cell phones, gaming consoles and other portable media devices to exchange content in ways that don't always occur to their elders, such as text-messaging sex hotlines.

If experts agree on one thing, it's that most parents are clueless about the media lives of their children. It can be tricky for parents to define what is appropriate, especially when mainstream culture has become so casually risque. Susannah Stern, who teaches communications at the University of San Diego, notes that kids have "learned very well from adults what we value and what gets people to pay attention."

Recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation did a study showing that over the past seven years, sexual content on network television has increased from more than half of all shows to seven out of every 10 shows. The number of sexual scenes in those shows has gone up, too.

Teenagers do not respond identically to media messages, says Susannah Stern, so there's no one way to help guide them. She says adults should make clear that their interest is not in removing teenagers' autonomy but in helping them develop their own internal controls.

"What's hard is that parents [want] a list of the 20 things you should do and the 20 things you shouldn't do," Stern says. "I just don't think in this day and age dealing with adolescents that you can give that kind of prescriptive list."

Volunteer counselor Hutchinson describes hers as a guinea-pig generation: the first to grow up immersed in a brave new world of technology and media culture, and the first to master it — more or less — on their own.

Parents: Don't Let the Media Be the Boss of You!

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Debra W. Haffner is the author of Beyond the Big Talk and, more recently, From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children. hide caption

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The motto of today's media sometimes seems to be "defeat the parents." Let's see: raunchy sitcoms, vulgar movies, violent video games, explicit Web sites, not to mention provocative personal Web pages and instant messages. That's a lot of crudity and lewdity for mom and dad to keep tabs on.

Rev. Debra W. Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, regularly blogs on sexuality and related topics. She offers practical guidance for put-upon parents.

NPR: Should you ever spy on your kids to see what Web sites they visit?

I don't like the word "spy," but I think it's perfectly appropriate to say to a child under 16, "I plan to check the history of sites you've visited every day, and together we will set rules and limits on Internet use."

What rules would you suggest?

A Kaiser study found that about one-third of kids have access to the Internet in their bedroom. That's a really bad idea. If you care about what your kids are doing on the Internet, the computer should be in a family room where you can observe their use.

One of the most important things to say to kids today is you may NEVER go to meet someone you met online unless I go with you. I don't have too many absolute rules as a parenting expert, but that should be an absolute rule.

Another rule is that you can only instant message (IM) with people on your list, and I give approval for who's on the list. I tell my 13-year-old son, "If I don't know the person or the person is more than two years older than you, I will say no." And I check to make sure there aren't people on the IM list I don't know.

And I think it's OK to say to your child that periodically you want to look at their e-mails. Not to open their e-mails but to know they're from people they know.

Do parental controls — limits on the sites they can visit — work?

I don't happen to believe in parental controls for children over 12. For children under 12 it makes sense, but the controls limit too much access to health care information your child might want or need.

Should you let your child have a personal Web page?

If your child does, get an account as a parent so you can check your kid's site once a week to make sure the child isn't showing pictures in provocative clothing or giving out too much personal information. Kids might go, "I didn't give out my last name." But they'll give out where they go to school, what club they're in. That's a lot of information.

What if a parent sees a sexually provocative IM exchange that the child left on the computer screen?

The first question is, how did you happen to see it? Did you go look for it? I think it is important to respect your child's privacy (unless you suspect drug use and then all bets are off; privacy is a secondary concern when it comes to well-being).

In this case, you have a teachable moment, and ignoring that would be silly. Say, "Honey, guess what? You left up this piece and I started to read it. I really want to talk about it because it makes me feel uncomfortable knowing that you're having these sexualized conversations." Then talk about what's going on with them sexually.

Many parents might be a bit tongue-tied.

There's a three-part process you can use for kids from 3 through 30. You find out what they already know. You correct misinformation or incorrect information. And then you give your values.

So if the topic is oral sex...

"I read this and I'm concerned there's all of this talk about oral sex. I'm wondering what's going on with you — or your friends. I hope you know oral sex can cause any number of sexually transmitted diseases and you need to be protected when it does occur." And you state your family values: "In our family, we hope that you never do this, or that you wait until you are older before you think about doing this, or that you only do it in a committed monogamous relationship." The important thing is to clarify the values about sexuality you want to give your children.

What if your under-17 kid wants to see an R-rated movie, and says everybody is going?

My rule is it's illegal to go see an R movie unless you're 17 or older. But I'm happy to go with you if for every hour and a half of the movie we get 30 minutes to talk about what you've seen. I took my daughter to see American Pie and we talked a long time about how children make decisions, about whether you need to lose your virginity by the end of high school. The movie had lots of good opportunities in its grossness.

What if your child defies you and sees an R movie anyway?

There needs to be a discussion about the consequences of going to the multiplex and telling me you're seeing a PG movie, then going to an R movie. I always tell my children that I know the people who go to the movies around here. If you go to an R movie, there's a good chance I'm going to find out. And the consequence will be that you don't get to go to the movies alone for the next three months.

Do you believe in censoring a child's TV viewing?

It depends how old your kid is. I don't believe kids 12 and younger should watch TV without a grown-up to mediate sexual content. After the age of 15, you have to hope you've done a good enough job to have your child mediate messages. A Kaiser study says an enormous number of kids have a TV set in their own room. If you're concerned about what kids are watching, don't put a TV in their room.

What about violent video games? What's the point of banning them at home if your kids will play them at a friend's house?

You have the right to limit materials coming into your home. You may not be able to stop your kid from playing Grand Theft Auto at somebody else's house, but you have the right to say, "I don't want materials with people using violence and sex to hurt each other in my home."

Which won't make your kid a happy camper.

It is OK to make your child unhappy. Starting from when your kid says, "I'm not going in the booster seat," there are lots of opportunities to make your child unhappy. A child's being temporarily mad or even hateful to you does not override your need as a parent to make sure your child is safe and healthy.

Books Featured In This Story

Beyond the Big Talk

Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens—From Middle School to High School and Beyond

by Debra W. Haffner and Alyssa Haffner Tartaglione

Paperback, 241 pages | purchase

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Beyond the Big Talk
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Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens--From Middle School to High School and Beyond
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