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Category: Parents

Teens need love, not war

In the 4th century BC even the usually open-minded Plato clutched his proverbial pearls in despair: “What is happening to our young people?

“They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

Today, thanks to the online world, our lamentations and judgments provide a running commentary not only to, but on the lives of many young people.

And yet what strikes me is that apart from being unhelpful (has there ever been a young person who has behaved more positively as a result of being shamed?) the discourse about teens often bears little resemblance to what the young people I meet are actually like.

I’m a teen educator who has worked with adolescents for the past 25 years. And I’m mother to two teens. Far from being obsessed with selfies, sexting and sponging off their parents, this may well be our hardest-working and most civic-minded generation ever.

If we look beyond the media-fuelled stereotypes, shibboleths and anecdotes, what does the actual data show?

School retention and the progression on to higher education courses continues to increase (eight out of 10 young people aged 15 to 19 are enrolled in education and training).

Despite these academic pressures, young people also do almost twice the volunteer work that adults do.

More young people are giving up their already limited time to help others.

They are having less unprotected sex, taking fewer drugs and smoking less than their parents did, and many are far more aware of the risks of alcohol consumption.

And while the one per cent who make headlines (and sell parenting guides drumming up fear of a generation desperately in need of a firmer hand) the 99 per cent who are doing their best in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much are often largely ignored.

The latter is the group who have to get up early every day even when they feel exhausted (biology dictates that many teens do feel more sleepy early in the day, more active late at night). Drag themselves off to school to sit through classes which may or may not interest them, with people that they may or may not like. They then come home not to switch off for the day, but rather to ramp up again and do homework or prepare for the next round of state-mandated testing.

All while dealing with pimples, pubes, images of beauty and masculinity that don’t look anything like them, and coping with crushes.

Let’s put more focus on the positive attributes of our teens. (Pic: iStock)

We seem to suffer from a collective amnesia about what we were like ourselves at this age. Case in point?

The successful, dedicated dad who attended one of my parenting seminars recently and tearfully asked me how he could bond with his daughter who he was worried was becoming withdrawn and snarly.

Before offering strategies to help offer him some perspective, I first asked what he was like as a teen. “Oh I was a real piece of shit,” he laughingly replied.

There are numerous very real issues teens (and many adults) struggle with that we do need to address: body image angst, dealing with stress and anxiety, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships, just to name a few.

But while stereotypes might be easy to relate to, they are rarely helpful.

 The one thing I know for sure is the way forward lies in sharing positive stories about teens and in connecting with them, not in spreading moral panic, or in policing and patronising them.

And the way forward lies in reminding ourselves that even the one per cent who do act out deserve our compassion too.

A school I worked in recently had a sign in the staffroom that struck me as a timely reminder to us all: “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.”

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 23/9/17. 

 

The right way for dads to parent teen girls

As a best-selling author and educator who works with teen girls, I tend to get streams of emails seeking parenting advice. But the calls for help I get from parents wanting to improve their relationship with a teenage daughter are increasingly coming from dads.

Despite the popular perception that it is mothers who fear losing their bond with their daughter during adolescence, it seems there are plenty of fathers seeking deeper connections too.

Many of these men tell me that they found bonding with their daughter when she was younger relatively easy, but now that her interests are more adult how, they ask, are they expected to stay relevant?

The hundreds of conversations I’ve had with teen girls (and the wide body of research that supports their claims) tells us what won’t work. Any attempt to control her changing body, or lock their princess in the proverbial tower, will be met with rightful resentment.

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries; particularly as the reality is most romantic exchanges won’t happen under dad’s watchful eye.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’… it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgment to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

Actively seeking to build the self esteem Harry Connick Jr refers to is vital work for fathers too. The gentle teasing some dads find amusing is likely to grate with a teen girl who may be hypersensitive, particularly to comments around her appearance (don’t let all the pouting selfies fool you — these aren’t necessarily indicative of a solid sense of self).

Comedian Dawn French attributes her strong sense of self to her father and in her memoir Dear Fatty, describes a parenting moment par excellence. As she sashayed down the stairs on her way to a party, dressed to impress a boy she fancied, her dad pulled her aside. Rather than delivering the almost obligatory, “You’re not going out dressed like that!” lecture, he told her she was his sun, moon and stars — and that any man would be bloody lucky to have a woman like her on his arm.

She got to the party, saw the hot boy, and decided he probably wasn’t good enough for her after all.

Smart fathers will also seek out opportunities where they can learn more about their daughter’s changing world. Whether it be by asking her to explain why she loves a particular band and listening to their music with her (hey, you sat through hours of the Wiggles, you’ve got this), or offering to take her to that Instagram famous art gallery she’s so excited by (#LetHerLead).

Smart father realise too their own world is also one worth sharing. A colleague says that some of her fondest memories of her father when she was a young girl were of going to the hardware store with him on a Saturday morning, “He’d scoot thorough the aisles looking for supplies for his latest project. When I got my first house? I found myself doing the same thing every weekend and thinking back fondly on all the things he taught me how to fix.”

We can all be taught how to fix things. Even if there are angry silences, and shut bedroom doors, bonds built on trust, empathy, and mutual respect may bend a little — but they rarely break.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 22/7/17.  

We need to equip our teens with strategies to deal with sexting

If you have a teenager, it’s highly likely that at some stage they have been sent a nude image.

There’s also a strong possibility that they’ve sent a nude image of themselves to someone they trust.

And it isn’t just the teens who engage in other high-risk forms of behaviour, such as drinking and experimenting with drugs, who are sexting. Writer and women’s advocate Nina Funnell believes that the practice is in fact, now normalised among teens.

“Having spent several years investigating the phenomenon of what motivates nude image sharing, first in an academic setting and then as a journalist, I can tell you that it is more prevalent than ever. Educators and police have been preaching to teens about the dangers for almost a decade now, yet the words of warning just aren’t resonating,” she says.

These warnings may be going unheard as they rely on scare tactics; the messages often present young people as either callous criminals, or vulnerable victims. While it is important to be clear that sending, possessing or forwarding sexually explicit photos of underage photos of an underage person is a criminal act (even if that person is you) there is a wide body of research that shows campaigns that rely only on fear as a motivator are both counter-productive and ineffective.

It’s important for teenagers to know that being caught up in a sexting situation doesn’t mean they’ve destroyed their future. (Pic: Supplied)

The doom-and-gloomers also lose credibility quickly with teens who see such messages as alarmist, and possibly out of step with their own often more complex experiences.

What approaches do work? Acknowledging that at some stage our teens may be sent an unsolicited nude image, and providing scripts on a range of ways in which they can deal with this (everything from delete and block, to reporting the sender, to using humour — the mother of a 16-year-old girl recently shared an image her daughter automatically sends to any guy she knows who send her a “dick pic.” It shows a sharp knife next to a sliced cucumber).

Allowing teens who have sent nude images a safe, shame-free space to discuss why they sent these, and how they felt about this afterwards (especially if they were coerced into sending the image) can also be illuminating.

Blogger Jae Schaefer reflected on why she sent nude photos of herself at sixteen, and how she felt when these were then distributed around her school and workplace. “I had total strangers tell me I had ‘destroyed my future’… (but) life goes on. I don’t share naked photos anymore. Not because I think it’s immoral or dangerous, but because I don’t crave the attention like I used to. I got really honest about why I was doing it… now the exhibitionist within me is expressing herself in a more conscious way (through writing).”

It’s important too that when we talk about sexting we don’t present it only within a cyber-world framework. The discussion needs to also cover broader real-world issues such as what a respectful relationship looks and feels like, why it is that female nudity in particular is so often associated with shame and loss of reputation, on how we can be ethical bystanders, and on how we can always move beyond any mistakes we may make.

When adolescents are only ever told about possible catastrophes, threats and dangers, any opportunity for an open dialogue with them is shut down.

And we urgently need to not only continue talking, but to listen. Because when it comes to the relationship teens have with sexting — it’s complicated.

This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, and was shared online by RendezView 8/4/17 

The four things we tell little girls that set them up for future heartbreak

When I run my workshops on dating and relationships with teenage girls, I find myself having to debunk some of the messages they have been fed since early childhood that are not only unhelpful, but in some cases actively harming them. How much more powerful it would be if we could just reframe the discourse early on and set our girls on the right path to develop respectful relationships for life. Where to start? By eliminating the following phrases:

“That boy was only mean to you because he likes you.”

I get it. We tell little girls that when a boy pushes or teases, it may only be because he has a crush on her in order to make her feel better. Yet although there may be no malicious intent, it’s not only confusing to equate abuse with affection, it’s dangerous. Love never uses its fists, nor does it withhold, try to control, or belittle.

What should we say instead? You can start by telling her she has smart instincts for recognising when someone is treating her unkindly. We can advise her that when this happens, she is wise to move away, and let someone she trusts (like a parent or teacher) know she feels uncomfortable. And that if that person doesn’t listen to her concerns, she should tell someone else until she is heard.

The other reason why we should ban the he-likes-you-so-he-is-mean rhetoric is because we need to stop making excuses for little boys who behave badly.  Gender violence educator Jackson Katz argues that this type of dialogue is not only harmful to girls and women, but to boys and men too: “The argument that ‘boys will be boys’ actually carries the profoundly anti-male implication that we should expect bad behavior from boys and men. The assumption is that they are somehow not capable of acting appropriately, or treating girls and women with respect.”

“Oh, is that your future husband?”

There’s a swag of research that shows platonic relationships are very valuable for both genders. We shouldn’t be teasing kids who make these, nor should we be romanticising their innocent bonds. Keep in mind too that if you tease your daughter about a boy she likes as a friend, it’s almost guaranteed that when she does meet a boy she likes romantically when she’s older, she will want to keep that secret to avoid further ribbing.

“Your Dad will sit on the porch with a shotgun once boys start coming near you!”

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important  our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries with boys; particularly as the reality is much of the romantic exchanges won’t happen under Dad’s watchful eye. In fact, while 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, most of these admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

 

Cropped view of man (30s) hugging daughter (4 years), and holding 12-gauge tactical shotgun in his lap.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’….it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgement to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

“One day you will find your own Prince Charming.”

She may meet someone she wants to partner with ( and this person may, or may not, be of the opposite sex). But she may also be single for at least part of her life. In fact, one on four Australians live alone.

It’s important for all young people to know how to enjoy their own company and realise that even if they are not one of two, they are still whole.

You can have a happy-ever-after even if you are flying solo.

This post originally appeared on Kidspot – 3/3/17. 

Ladies, teach your daughters to say ‘No!’

What’s the one word we need to teach our daughters to be more comfortable saying? “No”.

While most of us would agree that teaching what defines active consent when it comes to sexual relationships is vital work (both how to say no, and how to accept it when one hears it from someone else) we are less likely to provide opportunities for our little girls to flex their freedom-to-choose muscles in social situations.

We tell them they should be friends with people they say they really don’t like, often without even first asking why they feel uncomfortable with that person (“You should be friends with everyone”), hug relatives they instinctively pull away from, and unquestioningly do as they are told.

They are encouraged to be seen (ornamental) yet rarely heard (sugar, spice and passively nice).

As women we may think we have moved beyond being girls who just can’t say no, and fought to finally find our own voices. But how often do even the most empowered of us still actively avoid difficult conversations?

To avoid telling the guy we met online that we’ve decided we don’t want to meet, we simply delete his profile and disappear like ghosts. When friends we no longer have anything in common with ask us out for drinks, excuses are made and we wait for them to get “the hint”. We silently sulk when we are unhappy with a decision our partner has made, hoping they’ll read our minds and change course.

It can certainly be difficult to set boundaries, those of us who are hard-wired for connection may be burdened afterwards with guilt. And there can be a backlash – women who say “no” may be  labelled as bitches or ball-breakers.

Yet if we can find the sweet spot between passive and aggressive, in my experience assertiveness and honesty are both ultimately not only respected, but viewed as refreshing.

If we can start by being honest with ourselves, surely then we’d see too that all the people pleasing we do isn’t really pleasing anyone. Women often feel overworked, over-committed and frankly exhausted. Those closest to us can usually tell when we turn up looking tense, stressed and resentful. 

As with most skills, practice makes perfect and starting off small can help build competence and confidence.

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The next time you are at the shops and someone pushes in front of you, calmly explain the line starts behind you. When a family member assumes you will be happy to do something you don’t want to do, offer to show them how to do it themselves instead. If a colleague asks you to do a task that goes beyond your job description, explain this makes you uncomfortable and tell them why you don’t feel able to do it, or, if it suits you to complete the work, ask for the support you will need to get it done.

The key is to delivering an effective “no” is to be brief (long winded explanations only open up points for disagreement) and breezy (by staying calm and controlled, you will defuse the potential for the exchange to be seen as confrontational). Finally, don’t play at regrets afterwards.

When we say yes to more balance and to more authentic connections, we not only help ourselves but say to the little ladies in our lives who are forever watching us, “See, you can speak your truth too.”

We are vaccinating our girls against the disease to please. 

This post was originally published by RendezView, 24/12/16. 

Do real men cry? How redefining masculinity can save lives

I’ve been busy writing features for News Corp’s new Sunday magazine, Stellar. This piece was first published 16/10/16.

Frequent readers may know I recently founded a company that works with teen boys in schools to bust the myths that we think most harm young men; Goodfellas. Ben Barber, interviewed here, is one of  our presenters. I am really proud of the work we are doing in this space, and I was pleased to be able to elicit more dialogue around gender stereotyping through the platform this new publication provides. 

BOYS don’t cry. That’s what TV presenter Andrew O’Keefe learnt while growing up. As a little boy, he only cried when he injured himself, and he never saw his father weep.

Yet he’s among the new generation of men who are trying to buck those harmful stereotypes – as a father himself, he tries to be open about his tears with his own kids.

“We should show our kids that it’s possible to be vulnerable or blue, and still be a sane and capable person,” he tells Stellar.

“And I think we bestow a great gift of trust and respect on the people we love when we share our grief and heartache, when we let them be the ones to console us sometimes.”

The statistics on men’s mental health show O’Keefe has got it right. An alarming 18 per cent of Australian males over the age of 16 experience mood and anxiety disorders, and struggle with substance abuse.

Men commit suicide at more than three times the rate of women.

Dr Michael Flood, an associate professor in sociology who has a special interest in gender and men’s studies, says blokes pay an obvious price for repressing the full range of human emotions.

Apart from health issues, they have “more shallow relationships or superficial friendships”.

I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

He adds: “Many men only feel able to share their more vulnerable emotions with a female partner [if they are heterosexual], and if they are left by that partner? Then they are really stuck.”

Actor Ben Barber experienced that emotional repression twice over.

“Growing up in a country town in Victoria, no one spoke about tears,” he says.

“I judged others who expressed emotion in a vulnerable way, and I judged myself for that, too. I thought that, as a man, that’s just not something you do. It was weak if you did.”

Barber later joined the army, where he feels he was trained to “breathe in toughness and squash down anything that could make you vulnerable.”

Gus Worland says crying can be a show of strength for men.

At the time, he says, this may have served him, but later when he left the army and was accepted into NIDA to study acting, Barber saw that his inability to cry was going to hold him back not just personally, but professionally.

“I realised I would be limited in the roles I could play if I didn’t learn how to cry,” he says.

“I thought there’s no way I can do it at a particular point in a script in front of an audience if I don’t have access to that in my everyday life. From then on, I made a decision that if I needed to cry, I just would.”

Barber was shocked at the impact this decision had on his life.

“I was watching a documentary on the playwright Eugene O’Neill and it really moved me. I felt my emotions build up and I stomped on them.

“This was very normal for me. Then I remembered my decision and when I felt emotion again as I continued watching, I let it go. This big sob came up from the depths of my being and the tears just overflowed.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to.”

“And that was it. I could not stop crying for about 45 minutes. I hadn’t expected how good that would feel – that’s what surprised me. It was the most amazing, cathartic experience; a release of 15 years of bottled-up emotion.

“It completely changed my life. When I finally finished crying, I felt like I just wasn’t the same person anymore.”

That’s the message Gus Worland, captain of Triple M radio’s The Grill Team (“the manliest show on radio”), is also keen to promote. He’s on a mission to question stereotypes around what it means to be an Aussie bloke, and filmed an ABC documentary series, Man Up, currently airing, on that very topic.

Asked when he last cried, his answer is unexpectedly moving.

Ben Barber was shocked at the impact of a 45-minute cry.

“It was last night, actually. I was having a cuppa when my dad’s partner called. My father went into the doctor’s for a routine check-up and they found five litres of fluid on his lungs. When they went in to repair the lung wall, they discovered asbestos.

“He was told he has between 30 and 50 days to live. Normally when I shout to get my kids to the dinner table, it takes about 10 yells for them to hear me. But when I heard this news, I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

Like O’Keefe, Worland believes it’s important for his children to see him cry.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to,” he says. “The stoic, keep-stuff-to-yourself approach? It’s just not working for us.”

Worland also finds his tears are a useful tool for showing others he may need support: “Last night I felt better after I cried. I later cried with my brother, who rarely shows emotions, so that felt helpful.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief.”

“Then it was like, ‘OK, well, that’s done – now how can we move forward?’ There’s a real release of pressure. It gives you some breathing space.

“I had another cry at the radio station [the next morning] with the boys I work with. We all had a hug, and they gave me sympathy and support. The problem gets shared a little bit.”

While sharing is invaluable, so too is the act of expression. Flood is eager to explain that crying is not about biological differences: “When you look at women’s and men’s responses to distressing situations, what is happening in their bodies is the same. This tells us that what is going on when we repress tears in men is social.”

Andrew O’Keefe: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us.” Picture: Darren England

If feelings are not expressed, then where else do they go? O’Keefe, who is a White Ribbon ambassador and campaigns against domestic violence, believes emotions come out in other ways: “As irritation, as despondency… all of which are far less attractive and useful than tears.”

Barber, who now works with teen boys in schools in busting myths around masculinity, says the next generation seems more open to letting go of the notion that men must only ever show emotional restraint.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief,” he says.

“There’s scepticism, too – sure. I say to them, ‘If we really consider ourselves to live in a free country, then we have to have the freedom to feel and experience the full spectrum of human emotions. This doesn’t take away from our sense of selves as men, it adds more to it.’”

While gender roles may be slowly changing, the fact that many of us would still be more confronted by the sight of a man crying than by seeing him kick a wall in anger or frustration shows there is still an urgent need for more open conversations around what defines both strength and vulnerability, and what defines masculinity as well.

Tears don’t mean men are weak; it shows they have a heart.

O’Keefe agrees: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us. We broaden our knowledge of life and our understanding of what it means to be human when we let ourselves experience the wounds of our own heart without shame.”

Porn crackdown: It’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s parenting

Further to last week’s post on an alarming new type of lewd cyber scavenger hunt, I thought I’d share this Opinion piece by author, columnist, journalist, semi-retired academic and social commentator, Dr Karen Brooks. It was first published by The Courier Mail and is reproduced here with the authors permission. I was pleased to have contributed to to the discussion.  

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According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 40 per cent of all sexual assaults in Queensland are perpetrated by school-age children, while the number of young people under 19 committing sex crimes in Australia has almost doubled in five years; 770 are under the age of 15.

Experts believe the shocking increase can be attributed to easy access to online pornography, which is giving young people distorted and unhealthy ideas about sex and relationships.

In the past, for a child to sneak a peek at an adult magazine or movie was risky. These days, all young people need is a smartphone and that world is theirs. Only, it’s changed: it’s more graphic, demeaning, sadistic and brutal — especially towards women.

Currently, 80 per cent of teenagers access porn.

Kids are copying the sexual behaviours they’re viewing — whether the exposure has been accidental, involuntary or deliberate (for example, an older person showing them) — and at a time when they’re naturally curious and wanting to experiment with their sexuality, to test the boundaries.

As a result, they’re developing toxic relationships with sex, their bodies, and each other.

But it’s not only through pornography they’re being exposed to warped ideas about sex. Popular culture inundates them daily (through music, fashion, ads, movies, TV etc), and the idea that sex sells — even acceptance from peers.

When well-known celebrities, such as the Kardashians, Katy Perry, and Madonna willingly share naked pictures of themselves, claiming they’re aspirational, for a political cause or to self-promote, or US congressmen send “dick pics” as a form of flirting, is it any wonder the kids are baffled and the lines between sexuality, acceptability, and pornography are being blurred?

For young people, sending a naked selfie/sexting, has virtually become part of contemporary courtship/friendship and even a rite of sexual passage.

Yet, not only are we seeing confusion around issues of consent and privacy with this, but a growth in predatory behaviours, where young men especially bully and blackmail girls into sending nude pictures, and the girls, believing it’s a way to be noticed and liked, acquiesce.

What often happens is that trust is broken and the image is shown to a wider audience and slut-shaming occurs. The consequences of this can be personally and publicly devastating.

Not only can a young person’s reputation be shredded, the image left in cyberspace in perpetuity, but both the sender and recipient can find themselves facing criminal charges and labelled “sex offenders” (even if what they’ve done is consensual), because they’ve made and distributed child pornography.

So, what are we, as parents, adults, as a society, to do about these and the invidious effect they’re having on young people’s digital and real identities?

Firstly, it’s important to understand and accept that young people exploring their sexuality is perfectly natural and normal.

Sexting has become one of the ways to do this.

In a harrowing article in Qweekend, Frances Whiting cites Detective Inspector Jon Rouse of the Queensland-based Argos Taskforce, who reminds us, “We are not dealing with criminals, what we are dealing with is innocence, naivety, sexual exploration, and using technology to do that.’’

The “Young People and Sexting in Australia Report” (2013), states we need to “recognise that sexting can be an expression of intimacy… Framing sexual expression only as a risk does little to alleviate anxieties or feelings of shame that young people may experience in relation to their sexualities.”

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, who works with thousands of young people across the country, agrees. She warns against moral panic and shaming. She also knows the abstinence approach — with sexuality and technology — doesn’t work.

She argues, “We urgently need to teach all young people about what respectful relationships look, sound and feel like.”

But when we provide them with very little in terms of “relevant, engaging relationships’ education”, we fail them.

We need to rethink sex education, at home and schools, and focus on intimacy, emotions; how we feel as opposed to what (not) to do. We need to have frank discussions about power, control and how pop culture exploits our sexual insecurities as well as entertains. How technology can be both positive and misused — the choice is ours.

But when the adults in a young person’s life and the popular culture in which they’re submerged can’t role-model healthy relationships, with each other, sexuality or technology, then how can we possibly expect our kids to have them?

Rouse says there’s only so much authorities can do. He warns parents, “you’re paying for these devices (phones etc), you’re providing these devices… take some responsibility for what’s happening on them… it’s not an invasion of their privacy, it’s parenting.”

Rouse believes we’ve let kids down.

It’s time we step up.

Dangerous games: ‘Girl on girl porn score the most points’

The following post was the lead Opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph 30/0/16.

In it, I discuss a game teens in the Newcastle area are playing. It may shock you. It certainly shocked me. In an OpEd piece like this you don’t have enough space to unpack in any detail what needs to be done ( 700 words doesn’t begin to cover explaining what is happening AND presenting a plan for moving beyond this stuff).

But we can do the latter here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and brainstorm solutions.

I’ve been working with teens for over 22 years. I thought nothing could shock me. I was wrong.

Earlier this week NXFM radio hosts Nick and Sophie contacted me to discuss something they’d seen while out for dinner with friends in Newcastle. They’d spotted a young man running through the streets naked. Moments later, they saw two teen girls streaking too.Sophie’s friend, a social worker, later saw the girls (now covered up in robes) and asked them what it was all about.

Cash.

Apparently, a number of schools in the area are engaged in a scavenger hunt (organised via a closed Facebook group) as part of their end of Year 12 celebrations. The object of the game is to post increasingly risqué images online in order to score points.

Entrants pay to compete and the winner of the competition earns the prize pool, currently reported to be $2,000.

The girls explained they were going home to film themselves engaging in explicit sex with each other and upload this as “Girl on girl porn score the most points. We just want the prize money.”

End of school high jinks and nudie runs may seem like harmless rites of passage in Australia.

Viewing explicit porn is sadly also a rite of passage for this generation who have grown up with it; the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11.

Watching p#rn is common for teens. (Pic: iStock)

Almost one in five young people aged 16-17 say they, or a friend, have received sexually explicit images of someone else.

But teens producing and uploading their own naked and sexually explicit images to a social media site in order to win a competition is a recent phenomena fraught with the potential for deep regret.

If participants are under 18, sharing naked images online may see them in trouble with the law (while the age of sexual consent is 16, anyone who produces, possesses or distributes images of anyone under the age of 18 may be convicted on child pornography charges and placed on the child sex offenders registry — even if the image is of themselves).

 Regardless of the age of those involved, as we have recently in the news with the revelation that there are Australian web sites aimed at collecting sexually explicit images of teen schoolgirls (images often taken without these girls consent) once such images are uploaded, it is virtually impossible to delete these should those pictured later wish to do so.

While news of a sexually charged online competition may have shocked me and the colleagues I discussed this with, police and educators in the area have seen this type of game raise its ugly head before.

Back in 2013 local news reports warned of teens filming themselves performing lewd acts as part of a scavenger hunt competition held that year. Alleged incidents brought to the attention of authorities then included vision of young people engaged in group sex, and a film of a student with a mobile phone vibrating in their anus.

Yet despite stern warnings from police and school administrators, it seems the stakes have only been raised higher.

Our challenge is to look beyond a “just say no” plea for restraint; an approach we know is rarely effective in changing behaviour. It is to look beyond our own shock and instead to examine a culture that tells young people that sex sells. A culture that tells them fame (or indeed infamy) is aspirational, regardless of the price paid for the social media hits.

Hollywood film Nerve, a current favourite with teens, explores what happens when young people compete to post outrageous videos. The movie unpacks the complex psychology behind this kind of dangerous risk taking and the impact it can have on real life.

The movie argues that the only way to win in a game that encourages you to be a social conformist is not to play in the first place.

It takes real courage to not be a player, or a voyeur.

And it takes real courage to realise that although some of the conversations we need to have with our teens may be uncomfortable and confronting, the need to have these is urgent.

Year 12: Welcome to the Hunger Games

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph 16/7/16 and online at RendezView.

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Since when have the final years of school transformed into a blood sport, apropos The Hunger Games?

School days used to be traditionally lauded as the best days of our lives — but those in Year 12 preparing for their final examinations feel more like they’re in a relentless competition that only the strongest can survive.

I’ve worked in education all my career and my daughter is doing her HSC this year. When I talk to teens about how they feel about their final years of schooling, I can’t help but think something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.This is what some of them told me:

“I am taking antidepressants, going to counselling and drinking alcohol heavily… I’ve also recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue.”

“The whole system has made me lose my love of learning… I used to be a chilled person but now I have anxiety and am on prescription medication for a tremor I have developed as a result.”

“I recently dropped out due to extreme stress. It got to the point where I was even trying meth to take my mind off the HSC.”

“At my school (a private boys school) because we have been exposed to alcohol for some years already, my friends have decided to medicate with drugs; weed, cocaine, caps (a form of MDMA) and during examination period, Ritalin, and other ‘smart drugs’. My friends aren’t exactly the smartest, nor do they have the same pressures as me (my brother was a high achiever and I’m a school leader). They… use it because they feel if they do, they can compete with the rest of the year, and ultimately try to increase their ranks, in an attempt to get the best possible ATAR.”

And it’s not just the stories of drinking and drugs that are deeply concerning.

There are teens who tell me they often think about dropping out — not only of school, but of life. Others who tell me they ask to be excused in class so they can lock themselves in the school toilets and cry. There are those who were made to give up sports and hobbies they loved (one girl was made to sell her beloved horse) so they’d have more time to spend on studying.

“It feels like all I am now is a brain my school and parents want to cram facts in to so I can spit them back again later. But I used to have a heart too.”

These insights might shock those who don’t know any Year 12 students. But they won’t shock educators or those who work in mental health. A 2015 UNSW study found that 42 per cent of the Year 12 students surveyed from a representative sample of Sydney schools had anxiety levels high enough to be of clinical concern.

Many of my teaching colleagues lament both the tears and panic attacks they witness, and the fact that due to the amount of content they must get through to ensure students are ready for exams, there isn’t more time allocated to stress management.

Dr Prue Salter, who works in schools teaching study skills and techniques to help students cope with the academic demands placed on them, despairs of the current system.

“All the research shows there is immense pressure placed on students in the final years and for what? It is an outdated system, measuring outdated skills such as their ability to memorise,” Salter says. “We need to reassess what we teach, and how we assess that. It’s criminal what we do to these kids.”

For now, I’ll hug my daughter often. Try to be patient when she procrastinates for days watching Gilmore Girls. And I’ll help her realise she can never be defined by a mark.

Sleazy pick up lines now available in a size 000


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“Hide your daughters.”

“I’m only here for the ladies.”

“Stud Muffin.”

You might expect to see these kind of slogans brandished across a T-shirt worn by Benny Hill or Hugh Hefner; by a bloke who hasn’t yet got the memo that being viewed as a player is no longer fashionable.

But thanks to Best & Less, these very slogans are being offered up for babies in its latest catalogue. Heteronormative stereotyping and sexism sold from a tiny size 000.

It would be tempting to dismiss these baby rompers as nothing more than a bit of harmless fun. But why must we impose limiting gender stereotypes on little boys and encourage others to view them as having one-track minds, or more bizarrely still, as the type we need to protect our daughters from?

Messages like these sow the seeds for stereotypes that harm both men and women.

And while much has rightly been made on how viewing girls and women as mere prey harms them, there has not been as much discussion on how these type of attitudes harm boys too.

Dr Andrew Smiler, author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, argues that stereotypes that view boys and young men as being barely able to control their sex drive risk becoming a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. These beliefs may lead to destructive hyper-sexuality, unwanted pregnancy, and less fulfilling relationships.

He argues too that despite the cultural assumption that boys only ever want one thing, the reality is that many young men yearn for far more than a mere conquest when they are dating. They want companionship, connection and emotional support.

In the course of my work with young men in schools through the Goodfellas program, I have found that when we first introduce the topic of male sexuality there is initially much chuckling and bravado in the room. But once my male presenters start to unpack the stereotypes, they see shoulders drop in relief and there is always a respectful, genuine interest in having a different conversation.

The boys we talk to report feeling cultural pressure to date and to be promiscuous. Those who don’t conform to the message that all boys just want one thing start to question whether in fact they are normal.

This from 15-year-old James: “I have lots of girls as friends but that doesn’t mean I only like them as I want to do something to them. To be honest, they (girls) are sometimes easier to talk to than my mates. It’s insulting to me, and to them, to imply otherwise.”

Indeed it is. And it’s vital we give all our young people the skills they need to critically assess culture in this way.

As an educator and mother to a daughter, I have given her the skills she needs to question and talk back to marketing messages and media portrayals of women that would limit her.

And I’ve given the same gift to my son too.

Because messages that would reduce baby boys to their penises? They’re for dummies.

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This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph and posted online at RendezView 2/6/16

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