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Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 12:01 am

Teen risk-taking is nothing new

History can help parents deal with sexting

A while back, a friend’s 14-year-old daughter sent inappropriate images and texts of herself to her boyfriend. The images were not the worst one might imagine – she was clothed – but her mother was horrified nonetheless.

As a parent myself, I was shocked with what she had done, not just because I felt she was, er, exposing herself to someone who would end up hurting her, but also because I was deeply concerned at how children think doing such a thing is OK, and at how sexualized children are without their really knowing it. 

This concern about children’s exposure to sex and sexuality – and danger – is nothing new. As renowned historians Dr. John D’Emilio and Dr. Estelle B. Freedman explain in their outstanding book, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, “single unsupervised men” were suddenly everywhere after the Civil War. These young men were up to no good – barhopping, soliciting prostitutes and purchasing pornographic material off the street. 

The YMCA was apoplectic. 

So much so that in 1866 it published a report that “bemoaned the decline of paternalistic supervision over the morals of young [male] workers. Employers no longer took notice of the ‘social and moral interests of young men.’” In other words, masses of young men had access to published material, as well as means to purchase other, um, goods and services, which was a real change in established decorum.

D’Emilio and Freedman explain that this new wave of sexuality – outside of marriage, in public and by, especially, young white working and middle class men – gave rise to a new (though not the first) anti-obscenity campaign. D’Emilio and Freedman further explain that Anthony Comstock, an important YMCA board member and a Connecticut dry-goods salesman, “adopted as his life’s work the task of combating sex in print, art or private correspondence.” He felt that “story papers and pulp novels bred ‘vulgarity, profanity, loose ideas of life, impurity of thought and deed.” He further worried that, in reading these vulgar, profane and impure publications, young people might act out their “‘plots of seduction, theft, and murder.’” 

According to D’Emilio and Freedman, Comstock “implored parents to monitor their children’s reading and boycott news dealers who sold” such publications. 

Sound familiar? 

Obviously, the technology was different in the 19th century. Today, we view the availability of printed pornographic lithographs sold by street news vendors as quaint; but at the time, that kind of availability of illicit material was every bit as concerning as adolescent girls sexting their boyfriends today. But young people, especially adolescents, are risk-takers. Whether buying illicit material from a news vendor or sending nude photos of themselves to their boyfriends, they are agents in the world who make decisions and take actions, if not always good ones. 

Not only do they enjoy taking risks, though, they need to take risks. In fact, some researchers have come to the conclusion that adolescents are “hard-wired” or “programmed” to take risks. The combination of risk-taking with our long history of exposing young people to sex and violence results in adolescent risk-taking that is based on images of humanity that are sensationalized, objectified and sexualized.

We know that television programming and advertising is riddled with violence and inappropriate sexual content, even in children’s programming. Countless studies have demonstrated a link between “positive” idealizing and acquired behavior. In other words, if the material children watch or absorb is largely violent or largely sexual, the behavior will be imitated. Tens of thousands of articles have been written about the effects of media of all kinds on our children’s development. 

How do we as parents combat the media boogeyman?

First we recognize that not all risk-taking is bad, not all adolescents take unhealthy risks, and taking healthy risks is a positive and exciting part of growing up. In other words, the healthy risk-taking results in real accomplishments and even happiness. When a child wants to try out for the basketball team and risks failing in front of his peers, risks rejection and, ultimately, risks his manhood in trying such a thing – that is a healthy risk. Even if he doesn’t make the basketball team, the point is he was interested in going for an outcome that wasn’t guaranteed. He will learn something and gain valuable experience, even in his “failure.”

Now let’s think about a healthy online risk. How about risking rejection by submitting an original graphic design to a big contest? Or risking failure by setting up a website to raise money for a project or newly founded organization? Or even risking being made an outcast by peers to defend someone else? These are positive, healthy, growth-inducing risks, too.

Second, consider the benefits of using social media and the Internet, even for children. Critical reading, evaluation and thinking skills, research skills and access to worlds of information are all derived from recognizing and using the Internet as a tool. 

Third, everyone, including you and your children, has opportunities to make all kinds of decisions in a relatively safe and low-impact environment. 

Everyone can do good in the real world by advocating online for those less fortunate, raising money, or spreading awareness about injustices. Practicing critical research and reading, making decisions and doing good result in a sense of confidence and competence that are as important as risk-taking in an adolescent’s self-esteem.

These “horrible” social media applications, websites and technologies are flashes in the pan. The frenzy over Instagram will go the way of the pornography-selling news vendors of 1866. Of course there will be something else to take their place. In order to deal with that something else, both children and adults need to know that risks can and do mean growth, and exploration is safe, particularly when critical thinking and good decision-making are at the core of actions taken. 


Amy Spies of Chatham raises two millennials, teaches and writes. An itinerant history and culture buff, she especially enjoys exploring how history repeats itself.

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