Social media & the comparison game
Clear, reassuring and encouraging, Saleema Noon – co-author of Talk Sex Today: What Kids Need To Know And How Adults Can Teach Them – has been talking with kids and parents about sex and relationships for over 20 years. Collaboration is the name of her game: her online course Growing Up Game Plan for preteens (approximately ages 9-12) was designed along with preteens – and she teaches parents lots about how teaching our kids involves learning from them. We especially love her 1-page Smart Things To Say guides for parents.
Here Saleema sets out some of the puberty questions she covers in her spoof news episodes Pube TV and she talks about how to ask your child about sending nudes, how to talk with younger kids about porn and how to preload your preteen with good online habits…
As parents, we see our children’s lives as online and offline because our lives are separated in that way. But our kids exist in both of these worlds simultaneously. For them it’s all woven into one – texting, DM-ing, being on social media – and that’s how they socialise.
So we need to meet our kids where they’re at and say: “What about social media is important to you and what do you love about it? How do you communicate with your friends? Teach me. I want to learn from you so you can do what fulfils you in your social life and I can have some confidence that you’re safe, happy and healthy – because as your parent, that’s my job.”
We need to have a collaborative rather than a because-I-said-so approach to all aspects of our child’s online life.
Of course we don’t want to be prying into our child’s personal life, especially as they inch towards the teenage years. As they gain independence, we cannot control everything they do on social media, everything they consume or whether they create private accounts.
What we can do, though, is to show interest through asking questions in a general way. Ask your child to educate you – kids love being positioned as the expert. Rather than saying: “Has anyone ever asked you for a nude?” you can say: “It sounds like sending nudes is more common than we might think among kids your age. Can you tell me more about it?”
Then you can end by saying: “If you ever find yourself having those issues, you know you can come talk to me. I promise you won’t get in trouble. I’ll just be happy to support you and help you make sense of what’s happening.”
ON WHAT YOU CAN HELP PREVENT
Parents are understanding more and more that talking with their kids at an early age about bodies and healthy sexuality is a safety issue. It comes down to prevention and preparation.
From research all over the world, we know that kids who learn about this stuff at an early age from the reliable adults in their life are at reduced risk of sexual abuse. Predators are skilful at grooming their victims – most have been abused themselves, so they know what to look for. They know that a child with awareness, language and knowledge has also been instructed to report anything exploitative and won’t be an easy target.
Kids who learn early about sex and sexuality engage in fewer risk-taking behaviours later, and actually they delay their sexual debut. And young people tell us they want to learn from their parents. Parents just don’t know what to say, and how, and they wonder: “What if talking about sex encourages my child to ask a question I don’t know the answer to?”
But we need to say more sooner and establish ourselves early on as our child’s number one source of sexual-health information, which will give them healthy boundaries. We have to get the ball rolling.
Many parents, especially of young children, also worry: “If we teach our kids this stuff, are they going to want to go out and do it? Are they going to experiment earlier?” But it’s a lack of knowledge, it’s curiosity, that leads to early sexual experimentation. When kids don’t feel they have trusted adults they can go to, that’s when they turn to pornography, they Google “boobies” or they blindly believe what an informant on the playground tells them.
When I teach young children about sex and how babies are made, my next sentence is: “Don’t worry – this isn’t anything you need to worry about any time soon, because it’s for grown-ups. It’s a great thing between two consenting adults. And if you want it to be, it’s going to be a great part of your life some day, but it comes with very adult responsibilities. You’ll make decisions about that way down the line.”
It’s fun to talk openly about this stuff early because young children are so matter of fact and excited to learn about their bodies. They absolutely love it; they want to know everything.
Parents are comforted to know that there’s no such thing as saying something too soon because their kids will absorb exactly what they’re ready for, exactly what’s interesting to them and exactly what’s on their radar. Anything else will go right over their head.
I talk to kids aged 9 to 11 about porn in a very general way because the bottom line is that they are exposed to it from time to time in their daily internet use. And it’s not uncommon for someone as early as age 8 or 9 to consume it. So it’s important that we give it a name and let them know that it’s adult material, it’s entertainment, not education – and most importantly, to come talk to us so we can help them make sense of what they saw.
Even with younger kids, you can say: “This is something you probably won’t have to worry about for a long time, but I think you’re mature enough to have this conversation now and you deserve to know that people are doing this. This is what happens, and this is why I’m deeply concerned about it. If you come across this situation, please come and talk to me.”
ON THE COMPARISON GAME
It’s easy for young people to get sucked into the comparison game – comparing themselves to other people’s lives, clothes, activities, looks – which is a game that no one can win because what we’re comparing ourselves to isn’t real to begin with.
This is another area where adults are not exempt. I can catch myself leaving Instagram thinking: “Why are other people’s lives so much more fun?” That feeling is fleeting, because as a grown woman I can bring myself back and use critical thinking.
We want to teach our kids and teens to think critically and ask themselves some basic questions: “Is this photo real or are filters used? Does it represent a person’s real life – the good, the bad and the ugly? Probably not. Is this YouTube video real or for shock value? Does it serve me to believe those stories I’m telling myself about how everyone else is cooler than me and my life is so boring? No. My life is what it is. And other people have boring aspects of their life that they choose not to post.”
Part of beating this comparison game is encouraging kids to be authentic – and you too: post a dorky picture of yourself and inspire others to do the same, because the more authentic we can be, the more real our social media feeds will be.
ON HOW GENDER STEREOTYPES CAN PLAY OUT IN SOCIAL MEDIA
Kids act out on social media what gender stereotypes have taught them. Boys are more likely to post videos of themselves doing dangerous, attention-getting stunts because they get a laugh. That reflects how boys are often valued for their sense of humour, athleticism or doing crazy things. Girls are more likely to post selfies, even provocative and sexy ones. This reflects that we have learned, from day one, that we are valued for our sexiness, beauty, outfits, hair and make-up, and we’re expected to spend a good chunk of our time, energy and money on these things to get approval from our peers. If a selfie doesn’t get the likes, comments and follows they’re looking for, then it’s delete and start over, post something that’s a bit sexier, a bit more provocative.
Interestingly we don’t have data on the behaviour of non-binary young people on Instagram, because it’s based on their choosing “female” or “male” when they set up their account.
I tell young people that sexting – or sending nudes – is a hard “no”, because it comes with so many risks and the stakes are way too high, especially for girls.
The guy who receives a nude and shares it with friends is a player, a rock star. It’s cool in boy world. But the girl who sends it is branded a slut, and that’s the opposite of good in girl world.
So I talk a lot about privacy, about it being against the law for someone to send a nude to someone without their consent or to share a nude without that person’s consent.
We need to offer young people alternatives for expressing their sexuality and connecting with others that won’t have potentially devastating effects tomorrow or 10 years down the road. Because their brain is still under construction, they don’t fully understand the whole cause-and-effect thing. But young people understand more and more that how they represent themselves online today can impact them in a major way, because when they apply for special school programmes, their first job or university, these organisations may turn to social media to get clues on who they are.
ON TRUSTING KIDS TO MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES
I’m pleasantly surprised at the pretty accurate information that my stepdaughter, who’s 22, gets from TikTok. At first I was kind of ribbing her a bit: “Where’d you hear that? TikTok?”
As parents, we need to not downplay social media. Don’t be afraid to make comments like: “Isn’t it great when you’re having a tough day and you come across a funny meme?” Little comments here and there can send the message that we’re not all doom and gloom and not trying to just ban our child from social media.
We need to find this middle ground and not be afraid to recognise with our kids the many positives of social media: connecting with people, expressing creativity in ways we never could before, helping people with their social skills. Parents have concerns about their kids being on social media so much that they might lose the ability to communicate in real time. It’s a valid concern. But just last night I had a parent tell me that gaming helped her painfully shy child branch out and meet new people.
Our kids are also probably going to watch things that might make us cringe. When my stepdaughters were younger I did monitor some of what they watched, and it wasn’t always helpful. Most of it I didn’t approach them about. Did I wish they weren’t watching that stuff? Yes. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not worth the battle.
If there’s harassment or cyberbullying happening, or if your child is playing a role in discriminatory behaviour, those are things we’d want to talk with them about.
Also if you come across your child consuming pornography, have a conversation – not only to debrief with them about what they’ve seen, but also because they’re looking at it for a reason. They’ve got questions and curiosity. And we want to redirect that curiosity so we can put good information in front of them.
The thing is: we can’t control everything. We need to set reasonable guidelines and boundaries around what our kids consume. My stepdaughters came to have their own lives online, but at least I knew that I’d preloaded them with good habits and information and trusted them to make smart decisions. I kept the conversations open.
ON HOW KIDS CRAVE INFORMATION
The more we can laugh with our kids and laugh at ourselves, the more meaningful our connection is going to be.
Kids are a tough crowd, but making a fool out of myself has always been my MO with them. For our online preteen masterclass, the Growing Up Game Plan, we created Pube TV episodes with breaking news about puberty, pretend news anchors and special effects.
As you can imagine, kids aged 10 and 11 have tons of questions about puberty – their body and brain are changing, and they want to know that everything’s OK. They love hearing their peers’ questions, so we incorporated answers to the “Am I normal?” questions we get in the classroom, such as: “Is it OK that one breast is growing faster than the other?”
It’s not unusual for us to get questions like: “How big is the biggest penis in Canada?” At first glance that seems to be just attention-getting, but really they’re asking: “Is my penis good enough? Is it too big?” Or more importantly: “Is it too small?” Because even at this age they’re getting messages from society that you’ve got to have a gigantic penis to be a real man, which is ridiculous.
Often we hear: “When do periods start? What if my period happens at school? If I’ve never had sex before, can I still wear a tampon?” Those myths that we heard growing up are, sadly, still alive and well.
Kids crave information about sex and relationships. Thankfully parents are talking more openly at home – they feel more empowered and competent because they can get information online. But because most of us didn’t grow up with that openness, this is new territory. Where we’re going to see the results of all of our efforts with our kids today is when our kids have kids – and when those kids have kids – because they’ll grow up, hopefully, with parents who felt comfortable.
We’re taught to approach our kids like we’re the boss, we have all the answers and the learning is going to be from us to our kids. It’s not always the case. Let’s admit that we have a lot to learn and we can learn a lot from our kids.
Saleema Noon is the co-author of Talk Sex Today: What Kids Need To Know And How Adults Can Teach Them. Follow her on Instagram
Growing Up Game Plan, designed in collaboration with preteens, is a 6-week online preteen masterclass on body image, being assertive, gender stereotypes, expressing emotions and internet safety. Registration for Class of Fall 2021 is from 8 to 19 November (cost £115).
Also sign up for a free virtual Parents Edition workshop focusing on social media, changing bodies during puberty and bullying – it’s happening on 9, 12 and 18 November