Friday, January 13, 2012

I have moved to Word Press

Hello all:

My university has converted to a Google interface, but did not adopt Blogger, making it very difficult for me to maintain my blog these days. Because of this hassle, I have migrated my blog and all its past content to WordPress. I hope you find this post and continue to follow me over there!

Dr. Kris

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How much sexting? It all depends on who you ask

A recent study published in the esteemed journal Pediatrics reports that 9.6% of young people have sent a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves. This percentage is half of the often-reported statistic of 20% that was generated by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. So, what gives? Which number is closer to the truth? CORRECTION: In the Pediatrics study, the number of young people who report having actually sent a picture is only 2.5% -- the other 7.1% received an image! Thanks to Larry Magid for pointing out the correction! Additional corrections will appear in bold.

Sampling gives some clue. The Pediatrics figure was generated from a sample of over 1500 10-17 year-old internet users, using random-digit dialing. They tried to get a good proportion of cellphone users only, but instead ended up relying disproportionately on land-line users. The Campaign figure was generated from a sample of 650+ 13-19 year-olds that come from a base of survey takers through an online marketing group. Results from the Campaign were weighted according to US Census numbers. The Pediatrics study did not weight data, though it attempted to create a representative sample. A quick look at the data shows that Hispanic and African-American youth are slightly over-represented. The two studies essentially asked the same question, so I don't think the methodology is to blame for the difference.

So, an easy spot to see differences is in age. The Pediatrics study surveyed younger participants, so it makes sense that their percentage of sexters is going to be lower. And indeed, looking at the older ages in Pediatrics reveals that 2 of the 10-12 year-olds said they had sent or received a sext (constituting less than 1% of this subgroup), 11% of 13-14 year-olds have, and the number of 15, 16, and 17 year-olds who report sending or receiving sexts -- 17%, 28%, and 21%, respectively (Note: The Campaign does not provide a specific breakdown of behavior by age). Now the data are starting to look similar, no?

There are other possibilities for the differences -- a closer look at the racial composition of the surveys, for example, but that may lend itself to predicting slightly higher numbers for the Pediatrics study, as it appears Hispanic youth are more likely to sext than the other racial/ethinc groups (I would love to know more about this, but it doesn't look as though there is enough detail to better understand this finding). The use of a group of teens willing to partake in online surveys may also skew the numbers of The Campaign findings higher -- it's easier to hide responses from parents, get permission to respond to the survey, etc.

But I think the first thing to do is focus on this age issue. Combining the results from these two surveys gives us an important message that we can act on. Going by the numbers from BOTH surveys, it looks like age 13 is when we should start to be concerned about sexting, and serious alarm bells should go off by the time the young person reaches 16. So, from a prevention mindset, we should start talking about sexting two years before it occurs. Health educators and prevention experts state that discussions about behaviors should begin at least two years before the behavior begins in order to get a healthy message across effectively and on time. Therefore, true prevention folks would target 11-year-olds in their anti-sexting messages. More tentative people better start the conversation by age 13 or 14, but even then that approach misses a lot of youth.

Curriculum designers take note! Sexting conversations should start around the 5th grade, and most certainly by 6th (the start of middle school). Parents be mindful! Sexting conversations can be woven into conversations about other sexual matters, or even be the springboard for conversations about healthy and unhealthy relationships. I hope more studies are done, but I love the fact that these two seemingly similar findings (despite media coverage stating the opposite), give us a solid direction and course of action towards better understanding this phenomenon that simply did not exist when I was younger.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Life as Constant Performance Art

I just finished reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which is both pleasant and horrible to read. It essentially breaks down how marketing defines womanhood from an early age (think princesses and more princesses), and how that impacts a woman's sense of self and sexuality moving forward. The chapter on girl beauty pageants almost did me in.

Towards the end of the book, author Peggy Orenstein comments on how social networking plays into this trap of womanhood = constant need to uphold an image of perfection and beauty:

"I don't mean to demonize new technology. I enjoy Facebook myself...Yet I am also aware of the ways Facebook and Twitter subtly shifted by self-perception. Online, I carefully consider how any comments or photos I post will shape the persona I have cultivated; offline, I have caught myself processing my experience as it occurs, packaging  life as I live it...part of my consciousness splits off, viewing the scene from the outside and imagining how to distill it into a status update or Tweet." p. 166

I wonder if this is how youth today constantly process their lives. What should I wear? Will there be cameras? Will this end up on Facebook? What will people say about me? What if I am there and people *don't* say anything about me? Is what I am doing right now worthy of a post or Tweet? As Orenstein notes, life becomes performance, not process. In other words, our days are lived for others' entertainment, comments, and approvals -- not the self. This is frightening to me. For how are we going to truly discover who we are and want to be, if we are not allowed to fail and flounder, lest we be judged by our "friends" and "followers"? Young women certainly want their 15 minutes of fame to be something worthy of celebration, not embarrassment. The trick is to make it safe to feel vulnerable with so many watching.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Siri as moral "guide"

According to Apple's website, Siri is the "intelligent personal assistant" that accompanies a person's iPhone, that uses voice recognition to, among other things, answer questions about location resources, or basic information. For example, you can ask Siri where the closest sushi restaurant is, or how far it is to the nearest hospital.

However, there's a critique of Siri's limitations that has gone viral, because many are challenging the reasoning behind its faults. Apparently, Siri is not capable of offering results that will direct a person to a birth control clinic or the nearest abortion services, but it is perfectly fine addressing needs for Viagra or Pregnancy Crisis Centers (which are anti-abortion). In fact, in some instances, those who ask for an abortion clinic are directed to Pregnancy Crisis Centers, when in fact there are nearby places that provide abortion services.

It's unclear as to whether Siri's limitations and flat-out mistakes are purposeful or just the result of poor programming. Or, as my esteemed colleague Shelagh Johnson hypothesizes, maybe it's a matter of terms like "birth control" or "abortion" being so absent from general discourse, that they are not readily available in Siri's lexicon. Johnson is also asking great questions such as "is Siri gay-friendly?" and how it reacts to questions related to HIV testing (note, the link I provide for Shelagh Johnson does not go to her critique of Siri, but to a series of interviews about her work. Her inquiry into this issue has, for now, been limited to Facebook).

For now, all we know is that Siri is not too helpful for those seeking certain reproductive health services. Let's hope this flaw is corrected with newer versions or a patch. After all, I would not be surprised if young persons will rely on Siri for the answers to very important questions that will have long-term impacts on their health.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Naughty or Nice? Teens on social networking sites

I am woefully behind, and therefore just now reading the report from Pew released November 9th: How American teens navigate the new world of "digital citizenship." Some things that strike me:
  • While I am glad that majority of young people (69%) say that their peers are "mostly nice to each other" on social networking sites, I am disturbed that 1 in 5 state that young people are mostly mean and another 11% stating that "it depends." In other words, almost 1 in 3 teens can't say that young people are mostly nice. That is a problem.
  • Almost all (90-95%) of teens say they ignore online cruelty when they see it. And 21% say that they "join in" when witnessing it.
I guess I am not surprised by that second bullet point -- at least when it comes to ignoring. It's what happens with other forms of bullying. In face-to-face environments, bullying/name calling/exclusion are seen every day at school, and youth just turn their heads, hoping it goes away, hoping it doesn't happen to them. And the joining in? That saddens me more for sure, but I can see similar motivations that drive people to ignore fueling those who are just a little more insecure, a little more scared, to jump into the fray. After all, if you are mean to someone, then perhaps the attention is directed away from you as the potential next target. Given that bullies are often bullied, there is some support for this argument.

And while it can be shocking to think of the passivity that supports (and condones?) cruelty, it's also understandable. A young person's desire to fit in is strong and developmentally appropriate. And right now, adults certainly don't provide good role models for speaking out against those who exude power inappropriately. Celebrities fights, demeaning radio show hosts, a divided Congress, and the way in which Occupy Wall Street protests are being handled, are all examples of how those in power matter and are listened to. And in all these instances, power is equivalent to putting someone else down.

If we don't redefine power and what it means to be important, how can we expect youth to do it for those of us who supposedly know better?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tooting my own horn -- and finding it's limits

I had the pleasure (and I mean it!) to work with Elizabeth Bernstein as she wrote her Wall Street Journal column, Skip the 'Talk" about Sex, Have an Ongoing Dialogue. Bernstein was genuinely interested in conveying the best information on how parents should talk to their children about sex in the limited space of a newspaper column. And while my last quote is definitely truncated:

"[Parents] should talk more about pornography. 'Talk to them about why you don't like it: It's unnatural and unloving,' Portland State's Dr. Gowen says" (What I said in my conversation with Bernstein was that pornography does not portray sex in a realistic manner, features bodies that are often artificially altered, and shows sex outside of the context of a loving relationship).

I think the overall messages about talking to children about everything and doing it on an ongoing basis came through loud and clear.

Then my phone rang.

I picked it up with my usual greeting and there was a parent on the other end of the line. He wanted to know more about how to deal with a sexting issue he was facing with his daughter (I didn't ask for details). Although no expertise was attributed to me about this particular topic, it was mentioned in the paragraph where my pornography "quote" resided. So, by proxy I suppose, I was the person to call.

He wanted to know about resources for parents of children who have already been involved in a sexting incident. Despite my almost savant-like ability to quote statistics and resources related to youth sexuality (think Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds), I was stumped. I gave him some possible resources -- MTV's A Thin Line and Nancy Willard, and wished him the best.

Not satisfied, I got on Google and tried to uncover what I did not know. And discovered I was really looking for something that did not exist. To date, all I can find are resources (some much better than others) that give parents tips on what to do to prevent sexting, but not what to do once it already has happened. Which, in my opinion, is just as important. But most likely not something columnists and health sites want to think about.

Is this my new mission? Possibly. At least this void will stick with me for a little while.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Straight from the Source: A Youth View of Social Networking Woes

I love reading essays published by youth. In fact, part of my job consists of working with young writers and getting their work published either online or in print, and it's extremely rewarding and educational. So I could not resist sharing this post (on Huff Post High School, but originally on TeenInk) from a young person who discusses how her addiction to Facebook interferes with her daily life as a student. While scholars continue to debate on the issue, it's nice to actually listen to a narrative about experience rather than generalities every once in a while.

The author discusses her struggles with time suck -- being drawn into social networking at the expense of getting her assignments done efficiently:

"When I sit down to write an essay, it can take me almost an hour to start my work. “Just one quick look at Facebook,” I think to myself. I then end up on the website for an extended period of time."

She also gets even more serious when she discusses the need to maintain popularity, but in a way that is essentially false camaraderie:

"These websites are addicting because they give a false sense of community. Users are tricked into believing that they are part of a close group...People become addicted to the high they get when someone acknowledges them on these websites." 

Even as an, ahem, "older" adult, I can fall into this trap. I sometimes wonder why a particular post of mine goes unnoticed, when I find it highly amusing and/or inspiring; it disappoints me for that moment (I think that's the strongest word I can honestly write about my reaction, though sometimes my reaction can increase to "bummed"). Conversely, I can feel giddy when I see lots of people responding to something that I posted, especially when I didn't expect anyone to really notice (So why even do it? That's a question for another time).

While this story is not meant to infer that all young people suffer from these issues, I think it's important to be reminded that there are young people who are struggling with, not always embracing, social networking.  And since socializing online is an integral part of the ways in which communities are formed and maintained, it's important to understand where and when frustration and disconnect exist for youth -- those whom older folk often assume celebrate such connections the most.