Friday, December 22, 2006

Virginia's Youth Internet Safety Task Force Releases Report

Virginia's Attorney General Bob McDonnell compiled a "rock star lineup" to investigate ways to protect Internet users and prosecute online criminals. The result, is a 100+ page report full of recommendations based on five meetings of three different groups -- The Law Enforcement Working Group, The Parents/Educators Working Group, and The Technology Partners Working Group. Most of the changes suggested consist of strengthening laws regarding access to child pornography and toughening punishments for those caught soliciting minors online. A few pertain to creating educational materials for children and parents about how to be safe online (one of the suggestions is to create a fun video game to teach kids about internet safety -- do these ever work?).

Overall, the report is filled with every message one would expect, with no additional surprises: The Internet is dangerous, we must find a way to stop predators, we must rise to the challenge to save our children. There are also several statistics quoted in the report: some are cited, some are not. One that is cited is the infamous "one in five children is sexually solicited online" from the UNH report of 2000; that number has decreased to 1 in 7 in 2005. One that has no reference, other than United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, is “There are as many as 50,000 predators online trolling for child sex victims at any given time.” I have no idea where that number came from or how it was derived.

Many people participated in the Task Force -- judges, law makers, teachers, parents, even teens. But two groups not represented were psychologists and researchers. I wish they were invited to the table to provide a better balance of voice. I think this is a topic worth addressing, but it should be investigated not only with policy in mind, but also a true understanding of what is going on. So little is known about cyberspace when it comes to sex and even less is known about the active role children are playing in it. The fact that the Task Force did not invite people who may have insight into this aspect of the problem either shows that those in charge are completely unaware of this aspect of the issue or are trying to deny it.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Megan's Law goes virtual

According to several news sources, including MSNBC, Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell has proposed a bill that would require sex offenders to not only register their physical address with the state, but also their "online identities." In other words, when sex offenders have to register in accordance with Megan's Law, they will have to disclose their email addresses on IM screen names along with all their other personal information, which can include their place of work, make and model of car, and basic physical description.

While I appreciate legislative attempts to increase the safety of our youth, I believe that this is yet another misguided attempt that will not solve the problem of online predators (which, by the way, we really do not have a sense of how big a problem it actually is). I mean, how hard is it to establish new online identities? Heck, you can create several of them in the span of an hour. All a sex offender has to do is register one or two of them with the state, and then simply interact with youth using one of the other 20 they have kept to themselves.

I have a neighbor whose friend, "Steve," pretty much lives with him. In fact, I thought the guy did officially live in this house, but it turns out he doesn't -- he just crashes there all the time. Steve is a registered sex offender, having had been convicted for a sexual encounters with a young boy. But when I go online to look up the names and pictures of the sex offenders in my neighborhood, Steve is not among them. Why? Because he dutifully registered in his official zip code of residence. Nevermind he is never there -- he is always hanging around on our block -- he is obeying the law perfectly. But if he ever does reoffend (I have no reason to believe he will or will not either way) he most likely will do so near me, where he spends most of his time.

Now translate this concept to cyberspace where it is infinitely easier to claim one identity (read: residence) as your real one and then use another one or two or more as you hang out in cyberspace. There are provisions in this bill against this scenario; "To guard against offenders registering one address but using another on MySpace, the penalty would be the same as it would be for not registering or for providing incorrect information, which could result in a misdemeanor or felony charge," states the MSNBC coverage. But you know how it is. A misdemeanor in return for anonymity? Doesn't sound like a bad trade off to me. That is, if you get caught.

Just ask Steve about that.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Couldn't say it better myself

Teens can indeed be the voice of reason. There's an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that is essentially a transcript of a focus group where teens are talking about social networking. It's a great piece; the teens are able to articulate the realities of how they and their peers use the Internet to connect with each other. Some of the basic messages:

1. Don't ban your teen from using the Internet because they will just go over to a friend's house and use it there.

2. The media gives MySpace a bad reputation. Learn about what social networking is really about from the people who use it, not report on it.

3. Parent involvement is good as long as the parent and child can talk to each other about what is important to them.

Ryenn says it best:
"I think the Internet is safe unless you make it unsafe."

That about sums it up.

Friday, November 17, 2006

99% Pure

According to a study commssioned by the US government, about 1% of sites indexed by Google are sexually explicit. They also found that the strictist Internet filters block 91% of this content while the more lenient ones (that also allow for educational material related to sex to be searched) block about 40%.

The study also debunked the notion that porn or other sex related material is the most commonly searched topics: their study found that less than two percent of searches pertained to sexually related content.

So, are we making a lot of fuss over nothing? Maybe, maybe not. No matter what, parents are going to be concerned about the content that their children encounter. And the 2005 report by Crimes Against Children found that one-third of youth online saw sexual material they did not want to see, compared to one-fourth in 2000.

But how many youth are seeing sexual material that they wanted to see? Or how much of the unwanted sexual material was seen because they were trying to look up information related to sex and simply used the "wrong" words in their queries? We will never know unless we ask.

I am glad that researchers are asking about youth exposure to sexual content. It's also great that they are asking about relationships formed online, and experiences of sexual solicitation. However, we need to know more about purposeful searching for sexual information. Not just sexual health information -- we do know a little bit about teens' searching habits when it comes to looking for information about STDs and pregnancy -- but information about sex, what it is, and what is it like. Without healthy role models and examples of the actual experience of sex, youth will seek out the information and we have no idea what the results and the effects of those results are.

There is no easy solution here. I don't know how we are going to solve the problem of children asking questions and having easy access to all sort of inaccurate answers. But until we start to grasp the extent of the issue, we can't even begin to ask the right questions that will lead us to sensible solutions.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Breaking up is not so hard to do anymore

You've heard it from several places already I bet, but Britney Spears supposedly broke up with her husband Kevin Federline via a text message. And for extra technological fun, it was captured on YouTube, as poor Kevin was on a talk show when it happened. Just goes to show you that if you check your messages while in the company of others, karma is going to catch up with you.

I was disappointed in the basic story coverage by the US news affiliates. It seems as though they got lazy in their research. The Rueters news article which is the one everyone seems to be using (it's the one I linked to via MSNBC) states that "No U.S. figures were available to track the use of text messaging to dump partners." Although they are correct, there is some US research that is close enough to make it worth mentioning. According to a Pew Internet and American Life survey conducted in 2001, 13% of teens have used IM to break up with someone (to be fair, 17% used it to ask someone out). Given that it's been five years since this research, one can imagine the numbers for breaking up using text messages would be similar. It's also similar to the Swiss figure, which states that 9% of their young population has broken up with someone using a text message.

So Kevin, don't feel so bad. You can get online and IM your friends to let them know how sad you are.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The 29-Year-Old Virgin

Slightly off topic, but bear with me here. This deserves special notice. The Feds have now expanded the audience of their abstinence-only message to include unmarried adults up to age 29 according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

I understand that many people -- especially parents -- want their children to refrain from sexual intercourse while they are in high school. But to not engage in sexual activity until age 30? That seems more than a little preposterous to me (and to the rest of America; over 90% of persons in their 20s are sexually active). Currently, the average age of marriage for females is 25 and it's 27 for males. This new policy really shows that the government is serious about its abstinence-only guidelines: that people should remain abstinent until marriage.

As a 38-year-old never married female, I have to admit that this administration would be disappointed in my behavior, so I am more than a little biased here. But I cannot imagine that very many people are going to take this suggestion seriously. And is it even healthy -- not just physically, but emotionally and mentally -- to not engage in sexual activity for such a long period of time?

If this sort of policy takes hold in our educational system, the Internet is really going to have to step up in its role as sex educator. With no information about contraception, STDs, or sexual pleasure reaching anyone before marriage through the schools or community programs (the elephant in the room, of course, is the assumption that somehow people are going to magically get this information on their wedding day), the WWW is going to become more heavily relied on for persons of all ages who want basic sexual health information.

I know a lot of places that are up for the task for teens such as Cool Nurse, Sex Etc., and Teen Wire but what about adults? Hopefully there are some great sites for them too as they are kept in the dark about even the most basic sexual health information.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My MySpace Messages

Today "AsianPie" sent me a message asking me to join her group called Top Live Web Cams. And "Cool Girl" asked me to join Hot Chicks. Although flattered (how did she know I just turned 38 and realized I am staring 40 head-on?), I declined. Actually, I flagged her as Spam. And then there is poor Kristi. Last week she supposedly sent me an invitation to join Brunettes not Blondes; the message contained a picture of a young woman's backside in a pastel pink thong, lying with legs splayed (I have no idea if the woman in the picture is Brunette, Blonde, or none of the above). Kristi later sent a message apologizing and saying "this is not a real group and I did not message you. some1 got my password and did this."

So, with some sense of satisfaction, I denied AsianPie, Cool Girl and even Kristi the chance to have me as a member of their groups. I even called them SPAM and got to click "yes" when asked if I really thought of them that way. It may indeed be the first time that I got to reject a girl from the sexy crowd. It was fun to think of them as the artificial meat product that sits for years on grocery store shelves.

Maybe there is a lesson to be learned from these young women after all.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Everybody's Doing It...At Least Up North

According to a survey conducted by CampusKiss 87% of its users have had virtual sex, with over half using IM (53%) but almost as many using a Webcam (48%) while 44% stuck to the technologically primitive telephone.

No, this is not the most scientific poll ever conducted, and yes, the 2,484 respondents are Canadian, but this glimpse into the sexual behaviors of young adults is interesting. It shows that cybersex is not uncommon and hardly an activity reserved for deviants. It shows that a heckuva lot of college kids have Webcams and know how to use them.

It shows that the US really needs to get its act in gear and collect similar data from our kids.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Just me and my 5,000 closest friends

A recent article in USA Today profles a 17-year-old girl who has over 5,000 friends in MySpace.

It's girls like Brittnie who give MySpace a bad rap. She admits she doesn't know about 90% of the people she befriends. She admits she denies friendship status to anyone with fewer than 150 friends because it means that "no one likes them." Actually, "admit" is probably the wrong word to choose here. In the article, it sounds more like bragging.

No one knows what friend collecting does to a teens' self-esteem, understanding or appreciation of true friendship, or ability to form close relationships in the physical world. My hunch is that social networking can benefit all of these things, but taken to this extreme, it could be harmful. How does having thousands of "friends" who you have never met, and never will, encourage forming true bonds with those who really care about you? To me, it smells of a demise of intimacy in our culture that might impact the youth of our generation for years to come. Maybe I am overreacting -- like I said, we have no data on the effects of social networking on friendships -- but I believe that moderation and selectivity are the keys to successful relationships. Not collecting people as though they were stamps.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Be my friend!

Since I talk about it all the time, I thought I would go ahead and do it. I have my own MySpace page. Check it out at here and let me know what you think.

So far, I have added friends and had a couple of people make comments. I have surfed for people who I believe are compatible with me (ususally people and organizations that are interested in teen sexuality) and I have made my page pretty cool -- thanks to the help of a friend.

What I haven't done, is really get into the community of MySpace. And I think that is part of the reason why so many of us adults simply don't get the appeal. True, we are at a disadvantage in that, for the most part, our friends we meet in person do not have pages, so we have to start our communities from scratch. And we were not brought up with the Internet as a main means of communication, so although we may rely on it today, we don't see it as an obvious starting place to socialize and connect. But teens do have friends with pages and they are used to building community online. So, as adults, we need to see the world through that perspective.
So I hunt for friends and figure out ways I can connect with them. So far, I haven't really come up with any solid ideas. So, I will do what the teens do. I will start leaving comments on my friend's pages so they know I am thinking about them. I will send bulletins so that everyone knows what I am doing. I will continue to surf for friends.

So, won't you be my friend? See you in MySpace!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"The Truth About Tweens"

According to a story in the British newspaper "The Independent," a new research study conducted by Dr. Joan Atwood reveals that 10% of girls between the ages of 8-13 had been asked intimate sexual questions in chatrooms and more than a third have had sexually explicit messages, photos and/or videos on their phones.

The study involved youth from Britain, Canada, Australia, and the US who were recruited in chatrooms. It appears to be the first study that asks younger girls about sex-related activities online.

Two things about this study come to mind. First, it was not conducted in the US. This is most likely because the US is not willing to consider the fact that children not even into their teens are being exposed to sexual messages to the extent that they are.
Second, playing off this theme of denial, this story was not reported in any US-based publication that I am aware of (I subscibe to several news alerts and like to think I scan the Internet extensively, actively seeking this information). It appears that no news is good news.
We can only hope that our country will be able to investigate issues such as these from a national perspective. There is no use pretending young people are not exposed to sexual material -- there is no pretending that young people are not the creators of this sexual material. But how will we know what is really going on if we are not allowed to ask?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Warning: This blog may soon have a warning label

According to various news sources including Yahoo News there is a provision to a House appropriations bill floating around Congress that, if it passes, would require all web sites with "sexually explicit 'depictions'" to have a warning label. The reasoning is that if these sites have warning labels, then it would be easier for filtering software to block access to all such sites.

Like obscenity, there doesn't seem to be a clear definition of what a "sexually explicit depiction" actually is. But one thing is for sure: this web site would have a warning label. So would YouTube, MySpace, and all other diary-based URLs. So would all photo sites, unless they were carefully monitored for pictures of bachelor(ette) parties and such. Other sites with warning labels would include TeenWire and Sex Etc. and, oh yeah, the Center for Disease Control.

Does anyone in Congress see this slippery slope?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Another breath of fresh air!

Last week the House passed the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) by a lopsided vote of 410-15. As a politician, how can you say you are against deleting online predators? I would love to hear the dissenters on that one. They are brave souls!

Although well-intentioned I'm sure, the bill was not well conceived and doesn't solve the problem it addresses. Larry Magid in his editorial eloquently points out the flaws of this bill.

DOPA attempts to get rid of online predators by requiring "recipients of universal service support for schools and libraries to protect minors from commercial social networking websites and chat rooms." Putting the onus on schools and libraries to protect minors? How, do tell, does this get rid of predators? All this does is drive the problem further underground as teens will have to be more secretive of their online use. And, as Magid points out, prevents social networking sites from being a positive teaching tool.

It would take a miracle, but let's hope each and every Senator sees the fundamental flaws in this bill before raising his or her hand to say "aye."

Saturday, July 29, 2006

A mom with common sense

I just wanted to share an article that was in the Seattle Times today. For every editorial like this one there are unfortunately 100s of others that create panic in the hearts of every parent. Linda Kanpp, a parent herself, wanted to know more about MySpace and did so from her objective, open, journalist mind.
The result? She learned about some bad stuff and also some good stuff. And she advocates for parents to get more involved with their children's online activities. So simple, yet so absent in the media today.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Have you read your SPAM today?

Like many people I am sure, I don't take the time to read my SPAM. Thankfully, most of it goes into my Junk mail folder, and when I compare the amount I get to how much my partner gets, I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

But today, I decided to read some of it. Out of the eight (yes, only 8) messages I received, three were about sex.

1. One provided a link to where I could get Viagara for cheap. Remember, this medication requires a prescription from a doctor.

2. One told me about a fantastic product that could increase my penis size by 4 inches (10 cm). Needless to say, that didn't really interest me.

3. Finally, I got an email boasting about a product that would stop my "premature creaming."

What SPAM did your child get today? Ask him or her about it. It will help you learn what messages youth are bombarded with on a daily basis and potentially help start a conversation about sex. The one you have been meaning to have, but haven't gotten around to yet.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

It's official! MySpace is #1

According the the Internet tracking company Hitwise, MySpace was the most visited web site last week, reports USA Today. So it appears that MySpace is weathering all its negative press (or perhaps it is thriving because of it).
Although I do not doubt this statistic, I do have a problem with this brief article; USA Today misleadingly refers to MySpace as an "online teen hangout." While it is true that many users of this site are teens, adults still make up the vast majority of its members. Let's not let the press fuel the myths and culture of fear that is surrounding the phenomenon of social networking. An accurate portrayal of MySpace can help parents and others obtain a better understanding as to how it and other social networking sites work to help connect people to each other. While some may say I am nitpicking and/or arguing semantics, I believe that every piece of information can help create either a true -- or false -- concept of something. Something that is completely foreign to many whose only knowledge of social networking sites comes from the media.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

MySpace caters to the concerns

Maybe it took a multi-million dollar lawsuit, but MySpace has created some new rules in order to protect the safety of minors.
MySpace users who are 18 or over will no longer be able to request to be on a 14- or 15-year-old's friends' list unless they already know either the youth's e-mail address or full name. This is to prevent prowlers from scoping for youth in MySpace, but will allow parents, relatives and other adults to be able to befriend a child -- IF they know his or her email address. This policy will not remove those adults who already are on minors' pages, so those with ill intent could be working overtime to befriend as many minors as possible before this rule goes into effect.
One of the major limitations to this regulation is that MySpace currently has no mechanism for verifying that users submit their true age when registering. I know many people who are supposedly 99 years old. And if someone wants to choose an age closer to their real one, it doesn't take a math genius to figure out what date of birth you need to register under in order to become an 18 year old and completely available to the public eye.
Another limitation is that this may encourage teens to become more secretive with their MySpace accounts. They may create one account with their real age for their parents to monitor: I'm sure it will be full of school events and some cool new music. And then a teen can have his or her "real" space, using a different email address, where they learn about parties, crushes, and other assorted gossip.
MySpace does need to increase its regulations. But don't think that there are not easy work arounds for teens who want to have a public profile.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Every parent's nightmare

By now you have read about the 16-year old girl from Michigan who was on her way to Jericho to marry a man she met on MySpace. She was an honor student, a "good girl" who somehow managed to convince her parents to get her a passport (she said she wanted to go to neighboring Canada to see a friend -- so much for the beefing of security post 9/11 making her life SAFER: before 9/11 passports were not needed to get to Canada...). Then she snuck out of her house and boarded a plane to meet her future husband.

Yup -- husband. Apparently the 21-year-old native of the West Bank and the Michigan girl were going to get married after she was to williningly converted to Islam and signed a marriage contract.

This story is about as prototypical (possibly stereotypical) when it comes to explaining parent fears about MySpace as any story can be. The girl in question was not really considered a "trouble-maker" and yet she boarded a plane for a war-ridden region to marry someone 5 years old who she had never met face to face without her family knowing can make anyone believe it could happen to their child.

But could it have been avoided? Possibly. The parents could have been a little more inquisitive about the trip to Canada -- where exactly was she going? Who would she be staying with? Her lies could have unraveled at that point. Adults can also check in with their children about their friends and who they are talking to and spending most of their time with. Given that she wanted to marry this guy, I am going to assume that they had interacted extensively online. Would his name ever come up if asked? Maybe, maybe not.

Meanwhile, the scorned husband-to-be is heartbroken on the other side of the world. He resents being labeled a predator and really believed that he had truly found love online. His parents knew about his relationship with the American girl and were supportive of the union.

The girl turns 17 this week, which means she is a year away from being able to unite with this young man without anyone being able to stop her legally. Will they still be together then? Probably not, as I would imagine that many precautions are being taken to keep them apart. But the internet is a place where one can create many identities and have many contact sources. If the two really do love each other, they can wait a year and become a true modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Will Dateline put itself out of business?

For the past several months, Dateline has been targeting online predators. Although the TV-viewing audience continues to be enthralled week after week, each time the episode is the same thing over and over again: A man shows up to a random house expecting to hook up (inappropriately) with an underage girl and instead comes face to face with a news reporter and a camera crew. Each time, the man in question tries to make some plausible excuse as to why he is even there, nevermind with fast food in hand and sometimes only partially clothed.

My question is this: Why would anyone risk picking someone up on the Internet -- a child no less -- given even the slightest chance of not only getting caught but also caught on camera? And even if you don't become as infamous as those on Dateline, there are news stories cropping up all over the place, like this one from the Chicago Tribune about police setting up their own stings to catch pedophiles. And then there is the web site Perverted Justice who started this whole thing -- and whose 27-year-old founder recently signed a six-figure contract with Dateline, proving that this fascination isn't going away any time soon.

Obviously, I am over-simplifying this issue. There are some people out there who are compulsive, mentally ill, and cannot help themselves. But even then, the idea of finding "prey" online seems a high risk strategy. Maybe by showing people getting caught time and time again, Dateline and Perverted Justice will put themselves out of business? One can hope, but not count on it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Oprah gets in on the act

I always want to hear what Oprah has to say about a particular issue because she has power. A lot of power. So, when I came home early from work and turned on her show, I was excited to see that she was going to talk about online safety. I patiently waited through the Anderson Cooper interview, only to be met with disappointment.

First of all, the "segment" was two three minute bits separated by a commercial break as long as the piece itself. The opener was an update on some adults that had been convicted of rape and other violent and sexual behavior of children. These adults had been apprehended thanks to Oprah viewers. While I am glad that these adults are behind bars facing long sentences, I did not like the implication of leading the online safety piece with this. All these criminals had prior relationships with their victims and lived in the same neighborhoods. Despite all the press about the evil that lurks online, most pedophiles have a prior relationship with their victims. Many are family members. It is important not to lose sight of this fact, lest we succumb to the myth that those who are most dangerous to our children are complete strangers. It hurts to think of the truth, but the fact of the matter is that children who are victimized most likely know their assailant and that assailant is likely a member of, or close to, the family -- NOT a stranger from the online world.

Then the actual online safety portion is featured. It consists of a New York Times reporter going online, finding a girl between 13 and 16 who lives in Texas using some unknown search engine (it clearly comes from a social networking site, but is not MySpace, but I can't identify it), learning her high school and IM screen name and attempting to contact her. He accomplishes this all in 2 and a half minutes and ends his story stating that if he had "ill intentions" he would be at a state where "now I can do whatever I want" [with her].

While it is true that he COULD theoretically go to her high school and kidnap her, this story leaves out the control the girl could have in this situation. Although she made some poor choices by making her high school and IM screen name easily accessible, there are other ways she can foil this man's "ill intentions." She can not respond to his IM and even block him from being able to contact her again. If she believed that he was up to no good, she could report him to her ISP or to a cyber tipline. She could tell her parents that some creep tried to contact her and they could call the police. There are many things a child can do to stop predators. I only wish Oprah had focused on what people can do to stop them instead of sensationalizing what could happen if no one did anything.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Where the control lies

All this talk about how to monitor kids' internet use is going to become moot pretty soon. According to the LA Times on May 11, MySpace now comes in a cellphone version. Although this feature is an exclusive to a few elite phones produced by a company called Helio, as we all know, it won't be long before everyone will be able to access this version of MySpace.

And yes, these phones are being aggressively marketed to teens.

What this article brings is an underlying message: It isn't enough for parents to simply monitor their child's computer use. Soon it will be necessary to monitor phone use. But then what next? As technology becomes more and more complex it won't be long before the use of some other device will need monitoring.

It boils down to the need for parents and children to communicate with each other in order to build trust between them. This can only happen if adults become familiar with the world their children live in. Grownups don't need to -- nor should they -- adopt youth culture (lest they want to be ridiculed by people of all ages), but they should try to understand it so that they can draw boundaries and set limits based on an educated opinion, not fear or the latest news story or talk show feature. Adults need to ask their children questions and share concerns. Then they need to listen to the other side of the story. The positive aspects of online social networks as seen through youths' eyes. The best rules are set when all sides of the story are heard.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Modern Day "Dear Abby"

Just got back from the Adolescent Sexuality Conference in Seaside, OR where I got to talk about oral sex for 90 minutes :-). Great discussions, and the passion just exuded from all participants. People who work in sex education really care about what they do and how it affects young people. Events like that remind me of why I love working in this field so much and it makes it really hard to go back to my "real" job.

Anyhoo, I went to a presentation lead by Nora Gelperin of Sex Etc., a website for teens by teens. It is one of the best sex ed resources for young people because of its accurate information, responsible fact checking, and unique combination of youth voice and expert information.

In the workshop, Nora had the participants guess the most common questions teens asked about sex in their "Ask the Experts" section. And the answers are (drum roll, please)...

Boys ask about penis size and masterbation. Nuff said.

Girls ask about pregnancy (can I get pregnant if....) and painful sex (does it hurt the first time?).

If you work with youth or have teens these may not surprise you. What I like about these topics is that they are REAL. These are questions that pertain to everyday life, the logistics of sex and sexuality, and are a part of being a sexual being. When it comes to sex, this is what teens want to know.

Do we talk about this in school? Heck no. Do parents talk about these things in the legendary "birds and the bees" talk? Rarely. Yet these are the concerns teens have. And thanks to the internet, they can get answers to these questions -- ones that are not brought up in their other sources of sex education and ones that they would probably not dare utter out loud. Places like Sex Etc. are like a large-scale anonymous question box -- a place where a young person can get the information they need without fear of judgement and scrutiny.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Homeland Security, sure -- but what about Cyber Security?

Hot off the press!

DHS Official Charged in Online Seduction

Brian J. Doyle, a US Department Secretary for Homeland Security was charged with "using a computer to seduce a child" after having sexally explicit conversations with a supposed 14-year-old girl. The "girl" just happened to be an undercover detective.

According to the sheriff's office, Doyle sent pornographic pictures to her and asked her to perform sexual acts while thinking of him. He also told her what sorts of sexual acts he wanted to do with her.

On some twisted level, that makes sense. A man seduces a girl online by sending her porn and talking dirty to her. Here is where the story gets strange (at least to me):
Apparently, Doyle also told this girl his real name and picture and told her what his job was and gave her his cell phone number. I find it hard to believe that the man could be either that stupid or that arrogant to think that giving out his real identity was OK.

Didn't he take a course on online safety? Doesn't he know better than to disclose his true identity and give out information so that he could be traced?

Well, if we can't teach the adults to be smart about making friends online, at least we can make sure our children are savvier than that.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Want to buy a few million people?

Facebook is on the market. BusinessWeek Online reports that the owners of the privately held company have turned down a $750 million offer and hope to sell for as much as $2 billion. You may think of Facebook as a mere shadow of MySpace (at least in terms of media attention) but it is a powerhouse of its own. According to comScore Media Metrix, it is the 7th most trafficked site in all the internet. MySpace remains the second most visited website, sandwiched between Yahoo and Google. Last year it was sold to Rupert Murdoch's media empire last year for "only" $580 million. How much a year changes things.

So despite the bad press, social networking sites remain popular and apparently expensive. Given that big business does not seem to be concerned over the bad publicity of these sites as breeding grounds for predators, it doesn't look as though they are going to fade into the woodwork anytime soon. All the more reason to talk about them in a healthly, constructive environment to really understand the benefits as well as the dangers they bring.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

At least there's the EU

For the next four days, I will be taking in the sights and sounds of the biennial conference of the Society for Research on Adolescence. This morning was great because I went to a whole special interest group session on adolescent romantic relationships (when you are among researchers and academics, you think about "adolescent phenomena", not "teen issues" or "stuff"). I heard from those whose work I have followed and admired for years. I listened to the new wave of thinking in which researchers have started to look at the healthy aspects of adolescent sexuality and sexual expression (note: it was acknowledged that this sort of research is essentially not fundable in today's political climate).

But no one there mentioned the internet as a factor in conceptualizing adolescent sexual, intimate, or romantic relationships.

OK, I said, I still have several sessions to go. I took a look at the program. The terms "internet" and "online" were not in the index. Some computer-related studies were found under "technology" but none addressed socialization. Finally, after scouring the pages of this program, I found THREE papers related to teens, sex, and the internet. OK, I really only found ONE, as the other two were simply related to teen internet usage and family structure and the relationship between internet use and self-injurious behavior. The one study that actually examined teens using the internet for sexual expression was conducted by researchers in the Czech Republic. The study on teen internet usage and family came from Berlin.

Why is America so behind the times?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Online Dating

Hot off the press! (OK, it was released March 5, but close enough, right?). Pew Internet and American Life release a report on online dating:

Although this study polled adults, it's got some interesting tidbits on the online world's perception about meeting people online. What it points out is a bit of paradoxical thinking.
About a third of respondents know someone who has used online dating -- only 10% have copped to it themselves.
Two thirds say that internet dating is dangerous.
Half agree that a lot of people lie about their marital status online
Most (61%) say that the internet is not a "last resort" way to find romance

Or maybe this isn't so much paradoxical as it is an example of how the public isn't really sure what to think of all of this. They know people who use the service, but they think it is dangerous and a place of deceit -- yet it's not a "desperate" way to find love, just an alternative way.

Not surprisingly, younger people are more likely to use online dating than older people by about two-fold (10% vs almost 20%). So, the idea of making first contact onlne is becoming more common and seems to be more accepted among younger adults (under 30).

What was surprising to me was this stat: 45% of "single and looking" online users think internet dating is easier than looking IRL, but 45% don't think it is any easier. I would love to know why. Is it because people thought it would be a piece of cake and realized it takes effort? Did people not really think about what it would be like to be attracted to someone in the cyberworld and then potentially make the leap into the world of the physical?

I know a lot of people who have tried the online dating scene. I did so myself, and dated someone I first met online for about a year. But I have also known friends who have horror stories. Not the kind that make the papers, but I know about times when dates show up hammered and beligerent, dates who don't know when the evening is not going well and will not leave. But I am not sure how these situations are unique to online dating. My hunch is that they are not and that, unfortunately, these things happen on dates in general.

I hope I don't sound like a Johnny One-Note, but to me a lot of this comes back to fear of the unknown. We don't get internet dating, don't understand the cyber-social world, so it becomes a bad and scary place.

I just wish some of these studies would actually compare online to IRL instead of giving us numbers in a vaccuum.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Jokes for the times

I had to post this simply because it's about sex, the internet, and children. It also represents how some parents need speak in euphamisms when talking about sex with their children. I do like the fact that the boy goes to his dad, though. IRL, moms are the ones that usually get stuck giving "the talk."

Where Micros Come From

A little boy goes to his father and asks "Daddy, how was I born?"

The father answers: "Well, son, I guess one day you will need to find out anyway!

Your Mom and I first got together in a chat room on Yahoo.

Then I set up a date via e-mail with your Mom and we met at a cyber-cafe.

We sneaked into a secluded room, where your mother agreed to do a download from my hard drive.

As soon as I was ready to upload, we discovered that neither one of us had used a firewall, and since it was too late to hit the delete button.....

Nine months later a blessed little Pop-Up appeared and said:

"You've Got Male!"

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Dealing with "Generation"

In 2001, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report called "Generation How Young People Use the Internet for Health Information." Though the report is a bit out of date (one might call it ancient using the WWW calendar), but it's the best information we have about teens and their online health information seeking habits.

Back then, 75% of online youth looked up health information (compare that to 80% who got information about TV, music, or movies and 72% of youth who downloaded music). About 1/4 of 15-24 year-olds got "a lot" of information about health on the internet. One can assume that these numbers are increasing as the Internet becomes a more common source of all sorts of information.

Lots of adults look up health information online too. In fact, the percentage of online adults looking up health information is about the same as the percentage of online youth -- 75-80% depending on the source.

What IS different is the percentage of health information seekers who look up sexual health information. In the adult world, the percentage is about 10%; for youth, it vaults to 44%.

This vast difference in the health concerns of younger vs. older people may not be a surprise, but it is not without its implications. Searching for information on health can be a tricky business. Youth need to be savvy internet searchers, able to come up with "safe" search terms that do not result in links that, while sexual, may not contain the information they seek. In my experience, learning how to search online has been a trial-and-error ordeal. We should make sure people actually learn how to look up information online. The basics are easy to learn; to become a master at finding exactly what you are looking for takes skill and instruction.

Even if someone manages to find an "answer" to their question about sex, the information is not necessarily accurate. Inaccurate information on the internet abounds. Inaccurate information about sexual health is everywhere. Put the two together and odds are it is likely that the sexual health information someone finds on the web may not be quality information. Again, we need to educate our youth -- and everyone -- how to identify quality health information.

Problem is, there is no set definition of what quality health information is. There are several organizations that provide guidelines or lists to help an online health information seeker determine the quality of the information they read.

For some of the courses I teach, I have come up with a very basic model to assess quality health information. I call it the ABCs Model of Quality. To judge the quality of online health information, ask yourself about

A: the Author. Who wrote the information you are reading? Is the author even identified? See whether a doctor, journalist, or layman is behind those words.
B: the Business model. How is the site being funded? By a drug company? A church? The government? Funding sources bias content.
C: Whether the information Current? What is the date on the article? When was the site last updated? Information changes quickly. Get the latest facts related to your question.
S: The Sources that are quoted in the article you are reading. Do they come from reputable journals, the wisdom of someone's grandfather or the Bible?

I am not going to say which sources are the best. Different people will have different opinions there. The trick is to be aware of the "who" behind the information you read. That way you can think about their biases, motivations, and likely sources. Then you can judge for yourself whether you want to believe what you read.

It would be nice if we taught our youth how to be critical internet consumers. Their health may depend on it.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

MySpace in trouble -- but will the charges hold?

We all know about the news that speaks of the evils of MySpace, the dangers that lurk in that mysterious world. Slowly, cases are cropping up in which people are blaming MySpace for illicit encounters involving minors. MySpace has become a scapegoat for all the horrible things done to teens. While I understand the concerns and appreciate that people are looking for someone (or something) to blame when their children are sexually violated, I am very interested to see what level of liability will be attributed to MySpace in the courts.

If MySpace is found guilty of aiding in sexual abuse of a minor, where does the slippery slope end? Will a mall be held responsible if a child is abducted there? Will parents of a house party be blamed if a 15 year-old hooks up with a 19-year old during a party? When is the location to blame for the incident? When do we start blaming the car manufacturers for making a vehicle used in an abduction?

There are already some parallels in the legal world about who to blame when something bad happens. You can sue the bar that served a drunk person who was later involved in an accident while DUI. You can sue a school for creating a hostile environment in a sexual abuse case as long as you can prove the school knew about the incidents and did nothing. So, one could argue that MySpace is liable, as they are now aware of the environment they are creating (people who work at MySpace read the news too, unless they are managed by GW), and are not preventing "bad people" from interacting with minors.

But for now, there is only speculation. Court decisions will begin to define web sites as communities, physical spaces, or whatever when considering legal responsibilities. All we can do is wait to see how the law defines a virtual space when the only laws they have apply to the physical.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Finding Quality Sex Information

One would hope that finding trustworthy answers to your sex questions would be easy. It's not. Given our country's important emphasis on free speech, incorrect "factoids" about sex and other health issues (and heck, any issue for that matter) are abundant.

The preponderance of advice boards adds to the foray. In many places, anyone can post a question, and anyone can respond to said question. Even if these responses are well-intentioned, it doesn't mean they are accurate.

To take things further, sometimes professionals don't always agree on the facts of sexual health. Just today, on one of my listservs which is made up of sex therapists, educators, and health care professionals, there was high disagreement as to whether the herpes virus could be contracted via a vibrator. Some said never, some said only if shared with a person with active infections within mintues of viral contact, some said the virus could potentially live on the device for up to two weeks, using an analogy that some viruses can live in dried blood for that long, and if there was blood on the vibrator...

I can't give you the answer to this question, as it remained relatively unresolved. A medical professional consulted with an STD expert, but I am hesitant to say what she said in case it is not the correct response. In short, hundreds of "sexperts" could not come up with a difinitive answer to this question after debating it for several days. If that happens to us, imagine how a teen feels trying to find out the answer to her question about how to find out if she is pregnant or not? How does a guy even begin to sift through the information he finds about the relative safety of a particular sexual act (providing he even tries to go to more than one source)?

We need to educate EVERYONE about how to sift through all the crap on the web to find quality information. And then, we simply hope that that quality information is actually right.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The MySpace Trend

MySpace has been the target of a lot of bad press recently -- some of it rightly so, given the news about how a child molester used this site to assault young girls. Unfortunately, MySpace is not the only website used in this manner. So why pick on it more than the others? Simple: MySpace is huge. It was the 8th most visited site in January 2006 (comScore Media Metrix).

MySpace allows anyone 14 and over to post a profile. In just over two years, it has over 54 million viewers with 150,000 signing up every day. About 1 in 4 are minors, according to the New York Sun (Wall Street Journal reports that 19% of users are under 17).

So, what you have essentially is a community of 54 million people -- some adults, some children. Some good people, some not so good people, some bad people. In a virtual city with a population of California and Texas combined, there are bound to be bad people. While it's important to emphasize internet safety, we should also remember that cyberspace is just one place where the bad guys hang out. It's also a place where some good people hang out too.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Our three biggest fears

I think one of the reasons there is so much sensationalism around teen internet use is because this phenomenon touches on three of our society's biggest mysteries: teens, sex, and technology. Thus, I have renamed my blog "The Virtual Mystery Tour."

I think it's important for us adults to understand the teen cyberworld without infringing upon it. Teen cyberspace is precious to them because it is relatively confidential and it's been primarily their domain -- it's the secret clubhouse, or the big homemade "do not disturb" sign hung outside their bedroom doors. Teens are the first generation who have grown up with the World Wide Web as an everyday part of their lives. They still deserve some privacy, but that shouldn't stop us from understanding it a little better so that we can understand its appeal.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Advice boards

I don't want to knock all advice boards. Some of them are good -- damn good. The one at Sex, Etc. is closely monitored and often has health experts answering questions. You will also get a lot of good information on Planned Parenthood's, and then there is, which usually provides good information, but is less consistent.

Then, you go to larger web sites with more generalized discussion boards and get stuff like this:

Infection (3 replies) 02/03/2006
I think I might have a yeast infection. Can somebody tell me some symptoms to this and what exactly it is so I know if I should ask my doctor for help??

RE: Infection 02/03/2006
no, but it just is really itchy all the time.

RE: Infection 02/03/2006
a yeast infection is when ther e is somthing odd (normally food) down there, and ussually bugs come down there (eww, i know..) so think about it: have u been puttin stuff down there u shouldn't be?

RE: Infection 02/03/2006
if it hurts to pee and is itchy down there then it might be one. if you think you have one go to the drugstore and buy a box of monostat or whatever it's called. it will be gone in a couple days....

How is a teen supposed to know which advice to follow? What is good and what is bad information? And wouldn't you think that these larger, for-profit web sites with tons of advertising dollars would care enough to invest in a board moderator?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

An experiment

I went to to see how teens present themselves to the world. Since I am interested in sex and relationships, I browsed women, aged 18-19 who were single and looking for dating or a relationship. Some of the screen names on the first page were:

Love Me
Tequilia Makes My Clothes Fall Off
Baby Girl

PriceLess Beauty is wearing a fur coat and lingerie. When you click on her link, her website states that she is "the best thing that NEVER happened to you."

xUrBaNxFanTasY doesn't have much information in her space, but her entire "About Me" section consists of a single phrase:


Two women are in bikinis -- one didn't even bother to include her face.

These are the ways that young women choose to represent themselves to the online community in hopes of finding a relationship.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Is cybersex so bad?

Despite the popularity of the online sex industry, when experts talk about it -- cybersex, online porn -- it's always cast negatively. Most of the books and psychological literature focus on addiction, harm, and ruined lives. While I would be totally naive to deny this point of view, it’s possible – and probably more likely – that online sexual activities are quickly becoming a normal aspect of one’s sexual identity development and discovery.

Think about it. According to comScore Media Metrix, 71.9 million people visited adult sites in August 2005, reaching 42.7 percent of the Internet audience. A survey conducted by MSNBC and Elle magazine found that 81% of men and 53% of women have used the Internet to look at erotic images or engage in “sexy talk.” Although the representativeness of a poll sponsored by the mass media has its limitations, the large percentages make it seem likely that several persons within a counselor’s client base are using the Internet for sexual purposes.

There is no way there are that many sex addicts amongst us. It sounds more like there are just a lot of people who are curious about sex.