Raising Awesome Teens in a Chaotic, Sexualised World

with an afterword by Steve Biddulph

The story in the media this week about the appalling behaviour of boys tracking down naked photos of girls in their schools and communities through an international website is sending shockwaves through many homes and schools.

This blatant predatory behaviour of teenage boys is disturbing and worrying, and as we come to terms with it, we need to have a conversation about how to redress this — and prevent it from becoming even more prevalent or normalised.

So firstly let’s explore the background to this. Teens are known to be poor decision makers, risk-takers and they are also biologically driven to want to belong among their friends and peers.

They are also becoming sexually mature in an age where they have been marinated and drowned in sexualised images since birth.

In my experience, girls who have been wearing padded bras, high heels and makeup since they were 4-5 become sexually active at least three years before girls who do not.

The endless saturation of perfect digitally altered bodies for both boys and girls has created an unhealthy concern of body image at unprecedented levels.

Boys are biologically wired to seek excitement and fun during this window before manhood and they are easily drawn into ‘pack mentality’, as losing status or face in front of other males is dangerous as it shows vulnerability.

This ‘pack mentality’ has been used to entice teenage men to lie about their age so they could go and join our armed forces to help defend their loved ones and their country. It can also be motivated to do amazing, good things like raise money for charity in fun runs, sports games and in clean ups after natural disasters.

When we add into the mix the ease of access in today’s world, the excessive violence in films and gaming especially towards women – we can see there has been a normalising of aggression and disrespect towards girls and women.

Then perhaps the most toxic poison in this mix has been online pornography, which is often not only free, it is hidden in hash tags and adverts beside many sites that children use.

So many parents despair at the loss of innocence that has occurred when their son or daughter has been shown their first pornographic video. You simply cannot un-see these things and often it unsettles children and frightens them for quite some time after.

In 2006 a report indicated that over 90% of boys aged 13-16 had viewed explicit material. More than 60% of girls had also seen pornography – this was 10 years ago!

Finally the weakening of the boundaries around privacy are another modern trend that has been escalated by our obsession with taking photos and videos with our phones of everything. In fact, journalist Madonna King who is researching a book about teenage girls,  claims there is around a one in three chance that a 14-year-old girl in Australia will have “stripped off, posed for a selfie, and passed it onto someone else”.

It’s become almost commonplace in this selfie-addicted society for teens to take photos of their body parts and share them, and engage in other forms of sexting, which is rapidly becoming an acceptable part of modern courtship.

So when all these things collide we have this perfect storm that has allowed many of today’s teens to lose the plot around how to behave respectfully to themselves and others.

I still firmly believe these teens are in the minority by far however they are a loud, highly visible minority and we need to step up as caring parents, family, teachers and community members to prevent this from getting worse.

We are all social beings biologically wired to thrive when we are in loving, supportive intimate relationships and when we struggle with that we threaten our wellbeing on all levels.

What can we do to help our children grow up to be happy, healthy, strong, kind and capable?

  1. From around 4-5, we need to have conversations with our children about body awareness, protective behaviours and the notion of consent. Our private parts belong to us and need to be valued and respected and they are not for public exposure. We need to speak about our early warning system that tells us when we are unsafe and what to do if we do feel unsafe.
  2. We need to tell our children if we ever see images or videos of people naked, especially when it makes them feel uncomfortable that they come and tell us or someone in their safe circle. By around 7-8, consider using the word pornography and warn them to close their eyes if they see it.
  3. We need to stand strong around valuing all genders – and that it is OK for girls to be valued as strong, clever and capable as well as boys to be gentle, caring and sensitive.
  4. We need to talk about family values and expectations, especially the ‘big three’: Try not to hurt yourself, try not to hurt others and try to not damage property or the environment. These clear expectations will help children to understand that we can hurt others by using mean words, actions that are disrespectful like telling lies or making up untrue stories about others and by shaming others. Holding these expectations helps children to understand what being a good friend means. (This audio for children aged 4-10 maybe helpful.)
  5. We need to model fair and respectful behaviour towards ourselves and others if we want our children to do the same. Restorative justice would be helpful in this case as the boys have no idea of the crushing pain and suffering they have caused. Maybe some videos from the victims could help trigger some empathy or a change of perception.
  6. When children have access to the internet you should have strong parental controls especially those that can monitor usage remotely like Family Zone. Please ensure you use these tools because they can be life savers in so many ways. Also ensure you have parental control protection on your smart phone. Avoiding seeing inappropriate material is the best protection you can give your child when they are young.
  7. Have clear family guidelines around age-appropriate videos and films, and ensure your children know why.
  8. Be clear to others about your boundaries around watching or playing appropriate material when your child is visiting their home.
  9. For boys please find father figures to get boys out of their bedrooms where boys are doing ‘hunting and killing’ online and give them physically challenging experiences in the real world – like boys used to. Find a men’s group who have stepped up to take boys on the journey to manhood with respect. Two books that are an excellent guide for families of boys are Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph and The Making of Men by Dr Arne Rubinstein. Also, perhaps encourage your school to run a special program for boys like the Rite Journey or Arne’s programs.
  10. For girls, please surround your daughters with a circle of healthy women who commit to being positive influences about why it’s great to be strong, clever, creative and empowered without always striving to be ‘sexy’. Choose women who can speak about loving intimacy and sex and about being your authentic best self. Some great books to help you raise your daughters to be healthy, empowered and respectful are Raising Girls by Steve Biddulph, the Girl Wise series by Sharon Witt (especially if you belong to Christian faith) and all of Dannielle Miller’s wonderful books, including Loveability written with Nina Funnell. Danni and her Enlighten Education team also runs programs for girls in school. Also Melinda Tankard-Reist regularly writes and speaks on issues of sexualisation, pornography and more. And check out the work Collective Shout have been doing to fight against sexualisation.
  11. Access to technology needs to be seen as a privilege not a right in your homes and your children need to use it in a responsible way. Keep their devices and computers out of their bedrooms – and yes you can ask them to show you their privacy settings and randomly check what images and videos are on their phone! If you have teen boys this may help. Also be aware of the apps your teens use as many have some worrying concerns that teens may not be aware of
  12. Please have conversations around what is OK to video or take a photo of – get permission before sharing images of others – and help both boys and girls to simply NEVER send an image of a naked part of their body. Snapchat has become incredibly popular with it’s ‘living in the moment’ culture but teens have to realise that even if images and messages are short-lived on the app, anyone on their feed can take a screenshot and distribute that wherever they want. Also given the capacity for images to be accessed illegally from the cloud – the internet is simply not a safe place to entrust your intimate images. Young people also need to understand that posting such images or having them on your computer/device is illegal and they could be charged under child pornography laws if they participate in such activities.
  13. As your teens become interested in forming relationships – which is a totally normal part of adolescence – help them to navigate that journey with information that helps them make choices that can limit them being hurt or abused. Finding films that show respectful consensual sexual intimacy that is loving and mutually enjoyable for young loves like The Fault in Our Stars or even the original Blue Lagoon show how different it can be. Best books for that are The Secret Business of Relationships, Love and Sex and Dannielle Miller and Nina Funnell’s Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships. (Cath Hakanson from Sex Ed Rescue also has some great information and resources on her page)
  14. Adolescence is a bumpy ride of transition and to be the positive influence as a parent or a teacher you need to have an understanding of the massive changes that are happening and how they impact behaviour. Every teen benefits from having positive “lighthouses”, who are adult allies other than their parents. For more information about adolescence check out this resource page.
  15. To support our teens to become awesome and be the best expression of themselves – we must share the journey with the collective. This means we help and support not just our own children but their friends and other families. We share our concerns and our triumphs and we simply watch out for them all as they navigate the bumpy ride to adulthood.
  16. Secondary schools that put student wellbeing right up beside the curriculum quite simply save lives. Value, celebrate and work with exceptional teachers and school staff who encourage and support our often stumbling, vulnerable teens.
  17. Every teen is going to make poor choices at times – however this does not make them dumb, stupid or useless that just means they made a poor choice. Help them work out where they made a mistake, how they can make it right and what would they do next time. Please avoid shaming – it causes deep scars in the developing psyche.
  18. Many teens have found my TedX talk helpful in knowing that life can be difficult and confusing when you are a teenager – and you can still make our world a better place – right now.
  19. Living with an adolescent will be a challenge at times however research shows that 82% of teens rank having warm connected relationships with their parents as being their number one need.[CM1]  Make your home a safe base for them to come home to – be the bigger person. Remember you do have a pre frontal cortex, while theirs is still very incomplete.
  20. Love them fiercely – all of them.
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Even though we may feel many aspects of modern life are working against us, we can still raise awesome teens to be loving, caring and respectful adults and most of them do become just that. Together we can support those in our communities to surround our teens with hope, passion and love despite the unique challenges of our changing world.

A word from Steve Biddulph…

I asked my colleague Steve Biddulph if he had anything to add to this blog and he shared these very wise words with me:

“We need to talk to sons – clearly and explicitly, about treating girls and women with respect.

…That today’s pornography shows them women and girls being disrespected, and mistreated, but real girls and women don’t like that, and neither would they if it was them. 

If they want to ever in their life be loved, and not become lonely creeps, then the way of respect is the way to form happy joyful relationships, and sex lives.  They have to choose, and now is a good time to do it.  That will mean often not going along with the dumber of their friends, and speaking up when stupid stuff is being said or done. That’s hard, but brave, but it’s what a real man does.  Both dads and mums have to reinforce this message with boys in their early teens. Letting them know we know is very important.” 

A version of this blog was also published by Essential Kids