Online, All Teens Have Is Consent
I’ve been trying to get my head around how technology impacts the question of consent. For most of us, by the time our kids are in their early teens, questions about socio-sexual education start evolving past the theory stage into the practical.
“How will she…?” “When will he…?”
We hope the education we’ve been subtly (and overtly) bombarding them with will play a part in keeping them out of physical and emotional harm’s way. We make sure we know who our kids are with 24 hours of the day. We are aware of pretty much everything they do.
But online it is harder to keep up.
For one thing, it seems like every day there is a new social media outlet. At 41, with three children and a reasonably busy freelance career, I stopped paying attention after Pinterest and Tumblr failed to raise even a frisson of overshare-excitement in me. To confound the issue, our teenager has always been the in-house machine head. This has all the potential of a proper kerfuffle. She’s online, dubsmashing, fslsflsae-ing and khlhegoheg-ing and my maternal contribution to her online safety is, “Listen, you can’t Snapchat okay?” She nods yes and then goes ahead and posts to whatever.
As an Apple mother, I’m not very good at manoueveWring around her Android phone and so, bereft of the skills to even snoop on her, I have begun to emphasize consent.
In the real world, consent is the cornerstone of every healthy relationship. But it is particularly important to create a framework for teenagers who may have their first sexual experiences any day now. One proscribed format is to introduce a series of gender neutral questions and statements into teens’ vocabularies, which they can use with themselves and their partners.
“Are you okay?”
“Do you want to slow down or stop?”
“No means no. Even mid-way anything.”
“Boys can say no. Boys don’t have to initiate.”
“You can say no, even if you’ve said yes a hundred times before.”
“If you’re conflicted, then treat it as a no.”
I rehearsed these sentences. I say versions of them to my child. I remind her that even visual and verbal cues can be transgressions on a state of trust.
The problem, however, is what the online dopamine triggers and validations are for these kids. My daughter isn’t on Facebook yet. Banning it until after her board exams was met with zero argument because I suspect the site is losing its relevance to the next generation. We (and I include my dad, who just got a Facebook profile) look for social engagement on social media: comments, replies, quoting and friends forwarding our content; my daughter’s generation just counts Likes. And sometimes, in a hurry to accrue as many as possible, kids will give consent ‘To View’ without thinking it through, and next thing you know, they’re keeping up with the Kardashians.
“All the accounts are private,” my daughter reassures me, when I ask her about her schoolmate’s sexy photos on Instagram. Some of those accounts have as many as a thousand followers — almost none of those followers are mums or responsible adults. Each picture has an average of 100 Likes. The comment columns are full of creative license taken with the spellings of ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ as well as the occasionally innuendo. “Really? So many friends? Are you sure some random can’t screenshot this photo?” I ask my daughter, pointing to the image of a 15-year-old classmate with a blowfish face wearing bum-skimming denim shorts. My daughter shrugs. “They’re mostly her friends.”
Truth is, the word “friend” itself does not mean what it used to. A piece in The Guardian on teen sexting brings up peer pressure to send “dodgy pix” in an attempt to be seen as cool. “Snaking” (when the recipient of a sexy photo then sends it on to a chain of people who were never meant to view it) is where the discussion on what constitutes Online Consent comes in. In many countries, forwarding a photo of someone under the Age of Consent comes with legal implications. But if and when it actually comes to that, it will probably be after a lot of unnecessary ugliness and possible humiliation for the person whose photo is being shared without his/her consent. (A Twitter affair that went sour recently was thrown, bleeding, into a gleeful online arena where people cheered as very private sexts, declarations of love and photos of genitalia were callously made public. Imagine the damage that would do to a teen!)
So, I’ve decided to approach the subject of consent as I would if my child was going away to boarding school or university — part trust, part surveillance, part propaganda. In my opinion, if you stay within a safe perimeter where your autonomy is respected, you will find exercising your right to consent much easier. Creating and nurturing a healthy, supportive social circle is generally a good thing and garlic to the social media vampires. You won’t be egged on to post something you may regret. You look out for your friends; they look out for you.
My kids and I have begun to discuss potentially dangerous behavior that some of their acquaintances indulge in. Sometimes, I ask to be shown around their social media. When in doubt (a.k.a. when I don’t want to follow a boy who has liked Every. Single. Picture.), I set a younger aunt on the trail. I ask my girls for their independent opinions on what I consider risky. I suggest that they bring these topics up in school with friends while I have similar discussions with other mums — not all of whom take me very seriously, but it is still early days.
With this, I thought I was on top of things — until a friend advised me to tell my kids to tape their webcam to prevent hackers taking photos of them surreptitiously. And I realized the limits of part trust, part surveillance, and part propaganda. But I can’t sign up for every single new app our kids are interested in. And I can’t build a wall around our children. So I’m arming them with information and a good dose of wariness. And, apparently, tape.
And I’ve told them if I come across any risky business, I’m sending a screenshot to their Grandpa.W