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Growing up Sexual: Puberty in the Internet Age

Growing up Sexual: Puberty in the Internet Age iStockphotos
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The internet allows people of any age, gender, or sexuality in any location to connect instantly. The information highway is limitless and utterly incredible. But in a world where teenagers must be digitally connected to be "cool" and anonymity is key, what changes can we expect to see in our children? What can we do to help and better understand our children in this unpredictable and challenging cyber universe?

  What It's Like

I was a shy kid growing up. My parents never hid anything from me, but they never went out of their way to explain “sex” to me either. I got my period in fourth grade but I didn’t become sexually aware until several years later. It went something like this:

One day, while changing during my 7th grade gym class, a particularly vulgar tomboy of a girl went around harassing my classmates. I watched her as she darted from popular girl to popular girl, whispered something in their ears, then giggled in delight as they squealed and looked at her, completely aghast. “That’s so gross,” one girl complained loudly. Curious, I hid behind a locker as I saw her make out her next target. I waited anxiously until I heard the taboo word slide from her lips. I leaned closer, aching to hear the sound of such torture... “Masturbation,” she murmured.

Well, that was anti-climactic. I didn’t even know what that meant. It wasn’t the first time it had happened though: when my 6th grade bus driver flipped someone her middle finger, I had no clue why whatever she had done was so blasphemous. So I did the logical thing: pretended that I was above being grossed out by words and that I knew exactly what it meant, then went home and Googled it.

It was the beginning of a new era for me online. By the time I turned 18, I had already been on webcam, faked my identity to have cyber-sex, visited innumerable adult websites, written erotica, and watched far more than my fair share of porn. I’m not the only one, either: many of my friends have very similar stories to mine. The internet was an incredible place where I could do anything I wanted without worrying about “dangers” like STDs or pregnancy. I could be anyone I wanted without worrying about anyone judging me because of my age.

  "Protection" & "Monitoring"

Some of you may be thinking: “Oh my gosh, how could a parent let those things happen? Weren't your parents watching you?” Well, give my parents a little credit: it’s not that they didn’t try. The problem is that when you have an intelligent child, monitoring them online can become something of a hassle. At 10 years old, my parents used AOL Kids to monitor and censor my web usage… Unfortunately, the system blocked almost every website I wanted to access and I ended up sending them hundreds of “unblock this website” requests every week. Within a month, they changed my protection level to the next one down, which was something like “AOL Pre-teen.” This allowed me more freedom, but by the time I was 12 or 13 they had given up and instead switched me over to AOL Teen, which allowed me to access any website I wanted, but sent out a log of my webpage visits every week. This was a great system… Except that I visited thousands of webpages every week and many of them had moderately tame names: there was simply no way for my parents to visit all of them and make sure I wasn’t doing anything bad with my time online. To complicate matters even further, my parents weren't exactly technological gurus: the AOL Parent features were the only real way they knew to keep track of me online. Even if they had found ways to strictly monitor my internet usage at home, I had friends whose families were not so strict and I could easily bypass the firewalls at my high school, where I volunteered as a library aide and had several hours of free time with computers every week.

  The Danger of a Mistake

Thankfully, I never made any gargantuan mistakes growing up online… But I did make mistakes. For example, when I said I had been on webcam before I turned 18? That was a mistake. I got on webcam for someone that had to have known I was underage while I was still chubby and awkward. I had no idea what I was doing staring at some guy’s crotch while he touched himself. He was clearly disappointed when we had finished and it wasn’t a mistake I made twice: I didn’t get back on webcam with anyone for many years after that. After all that time, it stands out to me most that it's no small blessing that the only thing hurt by this was my ego: this man could have easily uploaded my awkward cam session online elsewhere or even tried to track me down.

There’s another lesson to be learned the hard way online, though: heartbreak. I’ve known numerous girls from ages 12 to 17 who have “fallen in love” with someone much older than them online and gotten their hearts broken. I’ve known 13 year old girls who tried desperately to make plans to meet up with 23 year old men. I’ve seen 17 year old girls plan cross-country road trips to go meet the “love of their life.” I’ve even seen teenage girls struggle to maintain relationships with grown men on different continents. I don’t believe that pedophiles that legitimately want to hurt children are as rampant as the media makes them out to be, but rather children themselves are the biggest danger in these situations: I’ve heard these girls talk about their plans and some of them are completely reasonable. “I’ll be at this fair this weekend, it’s a really cool event… You live 5 states away, but you could stay in a hotel and meet me there.” Don't think that the men are always the sweet talkers you see on CSI, either--in most cases, it doesn't take more than a few innocent conversations for a girl to get hooked.

  The Flipside: Legal Issues

Now that I’m older, I can speak from more than one perspective on the subject of sexuality online. At 14 I couldn’t fathom why someone would refuse to cyber with me because I wasn’t 18: I was a good writer, I was witty, and I knew what I was doing. That should have been good enough, right? Wrong, of course. Now I know what it means to turn someone away who is underage and I know what it means to worry about that 13 year old girl that just doesn’t know what she’s getting in to.

It’s important to understand that not everyone that gets involved sexually with an adolescent online is a pedophile. It doesn’t take much to lie online and not every 14 year old looks or sounds 14. As much as it might give some people the creeps to think about it, many people (especially those who frequently cyber or role play) have probably had a few brushes with underage teenagers without knowing it. The laws that define these actions are unclear, however. Is it an adult’s responsibility to drill every erotica partner they’ll have online until they’re 100% sure that they’re over 18? Is a child at “fault” for lying or do we consider them incapable of making responsible decisions about representing themselves online? Or are the parents of the children at fault for not properly monitoring their children’s online interactions? While some people may feel strongly about the answers to some of these questions, there are many factors to consider and these are not simple questions to answer. Is it really fair to put someone in jail for sending some sexy text messages to a minor that told them they were 18?

  The Implications of Growing Up Sexual

The internet allows modern children to have access to more information than ever. As soon as a child has access to the internet, they have access to pornography—and people. Every child reacts different to this: some will look at some porn and then (eventually) go try to have sex. Some will continue looking at porn and not manage to have sex for years. In a world where public and honest talk about sex is often considered taboo, the internet provides an open forum for children and adolescents to learn about and form their own opinions about sex. Although fantasies aren't an end-all-be-all determining factor about whether or not you'll enjoy something, pornography and erotica online provide curious teenagers a decent way to discover what they may or may not like some day. They can also lead kids to have some pretty incorrect assumptions about sex: I know the first time I tried riding my boyfriend cowgirl style was mind-blowing. That position is NOTHING like it is in porn!

Tracking children online is harder than ever--the anonymity of the internet is what makes it so beautiful, but also so dangerous. Anyone you speak with could just as easily be 12 as they could 63... Even webcams aren't always a determining factor, as many people use fake webcam clips to fool those who ask to see them on cam. Children with access to their parent's webcams and microphones will undoubtedly find ways to use them, even if hidden or protected. This means that it's nearly impossible to track our children online without them rebelling against us. Even the most technologically inclined parents often struggle to keep tabs on their kids online. The easiest and best thing we can do is simply to educate our children... Although more than likely, many of them will still make more than a few mistakes online during their time. When those times come, we can only hope to minimize the damage and that those involved keep it on file as a learning experience. As an extra tip, I can also say that as a child growing up, my biggest fault was that I told my parents what I was doing. Of course I wanted to talk about my friends and the 23 year old guy I met who just wanted to talk about politics with me! Perhaps talking openly with children about their online escapades is the easiest way to make sure nothing too shady is going on behind the scenes.

The issue of children online is a heavy one: it opens up a whole new can of worms for their evolving sexualities. The internet presents an educational, exciting, and dangerous world to children that are just coming into themselves. Regardless of how you feel about the hundreds of questions children online raise, one thing is certain... Technology and the internet have changed puberty forever.

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