I don't envy parents. Don't get me wrong; teens regularly amaze me with their vitality, passion, intelligence and insight. I feel reassured about our future whenever I spend time with them. I also become acutely aware of just how quickly I am becoming "old".
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At 26, teens likely think I have one foot in the grave. Thankfully, however, as one of the original digital natives, the teen world is not entirely foreign. I too grew up chatting to my friends online, posting photos on social media and texting until my thumbs hurt. I too was pressured to send sexy selfies, knew exactly where to find porn in my early teens and knew a lot more about sex than my poor parents would ever have suspected.
Back then we knew how to beat any web nanny, how to hide our geographical location to access whatever we wanted, how to create fake accounts with fake names and burner email addresses to roam around the web virtually invisible. That was in 2005. Imagine what teens have access to now.
When I started a little thing called #MyBodyMyTerms last year, I became aware that many parents have no idea what their kids are getting up to online. I had taken for granted that people knew what the term "revenge porn" meant. I thought that all Kiwi students had access to decent sexuality education. I thought that most parents knew that online porn is as easy to find as typing "porn" into Google.
I was wrong on all counts.
It sounds like a scary state of affairs, and in a sense, it is. But it needn't be. Knowledge, after all, is power, and communication is the simplest way to impart knowledge. If we join the dots and face reality, we can empower teens and keep them safe.
As uncomfortable as this may sound, giving teens comprehensive information about sex and sexuality is far better than trying to shelter them. Researchers have built a body of proof that comprehensive sexuality education is correlated with better outcomes for young people, including the interesting finding that students who receive expansive sexuality education are more likely to delay their first sexual encounters. As tempting as it may be to cling to denial or wilful ignorance about teens and sex, it won't do teens any favours.
As basic as it seems, actually chatting with teens is a great place to start.
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It's not as simple as teaching teens about contraception, avoiding pregnancy and STIs (and I'm not even going to address the idea of teaching abstinence-until-marriage because it is laughable and arguably dangerous). It blows my mind that we first think to teach teens about the biological and medical aspects of sexuality when sex is almost always inherently social. Teaching teens how to correctly use a condom is important, but it doesn't give them any insights into how to build a healthy and fulfilling relationship.
It also doesn't begin to deconstruct the porn-informed notions that anal sex is an expectation, that girls should give oral sex as par for the course, that male pleasure is more important than female pleasure, or that hitting and slapping your partner is commonly acceptable. It does nothing to address the vital, basic fact that consent is not the absence of a "no". As much as society doesn't want to think about the mechanics of teens having sex, how can we expect them to instinctively figure out what is and isn't okay in a sexual relationship when their most easily accessible (and most-viewed) reference is online pornography?
If you're reading that last paragraph in a state of shock, you're likely not alone. The reason that I don't envy parents of teens is that the world young people live in today is so different to the world parents grew up in. Add the prevalence of alcohol and drugs into the equation and it may as well be a different planet.
Teens will always be teens, and curiosity is an entirely normal part of growing up. But the environmental influences today's young people absorb on a daily basis are hugely different to those past generations have faced. Young people don't become "predators" in a vacuum.
When it comes to online media, many parents frankly have no idea how parts of the internet work, let alone what can be accessed if you know where to find it.
The solution? It's not to wage futile campaigns to abolish pornography, nor to attempt to wrap teens in technological cotton wool. Neither is it to leave it to schools to decide which parts of the voluntary sexuality education curriculum they are brave enough to teach.
Until our Government musters the courage to implement compulsory comprehensive sexuality education - which, given we have the worst sexual violence statistics in the OECD, you'd think would be a no-brainer - parents need to step up. It's time to shatter the rose-tinted glasses. Teens are watching porn and having sex. I know, I was one of them.
Empowering young people with the skills; social, practical, psychological and emotional, to navigate sex, sexuality and relationships, no matter how awkward it might be, is a vital part of keeping them safe.
As basic as it seems, actually chatting with teens is a great place to start - just don't sit them down for "the talk" (omg mortifying). Create an environment where they feel comfortable asking questions without fear of judgment or punishment. Engage with them regularly about what's happening in their lives and you'll likely find ample opportunities for discussion.
As for the awkwardness, if you don't make it a big deal, they won't make it a big deal. And what's worse: confronting an uncomfortable subject or sending your teens into the world without knowing what consent means? I know which I'd choose.