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What is society really telling our girls? Last week I was thumbing through People magazine when I came upon an ad. It featured a bikini-clad woman standing at the edge of a pool with her legs spread apart while a guy stared straight up at her crotch and smiled.

Then someone sent me two deeply troubling articles. One was about sexting and how you don’t have to literally send pictures to help your partner be aroused. The other was questioning whether porn might be able to actually help people better understand consent. 

You might be questioning where this reading material came from. If I asked you to guess, my gut tells me you probably wouldn’t guess the source: Teen Vogue. No, I am not kidding. Both of these articles, “Sexting Doesn’t Have to Be So Literal” and “Can Porn Help People Understand Consent?” contain content for mature audiences.

These pieces, and others like them, target the curious teens in your life who want to be in the know about today’s culture.

Few parents I know get super excited about having ongoing conversations about sexuality. Even fewer look forward to talking with their middle or high school teen about pornography. But, if you don’t speak into this area of your child’s life, the culture will do so in a very big way, and you might find much of the information disconcerting and inaccurate. It’s so important that your kids get the information they need from you to have healthy relationships now and in the future. Sadly, our kids believe a great deal of what they read online or in print, and it’s so easy to access.

They need guidance to understand whether what they are reading is simply entertainment or helpful information that leads them to make healthy choices.

For example, in the sexting opinion piece, Nona Willis Aronowitz describes graphically photographing herself in order to get comfortable with her own body image before she shares pictures with anybody else. She goes on to say that “if you are texting with someone, sending nudes is unbelievably commonplace.” Additionally, she quotes sex philosopher, Adrienne Maree Brown from her new book, “Pleasure Activism,” which does not appear to be written for a teen audience. 

Now for the recommendations for sexting: She says it’s important to determine that the person who will be receiving the pictures is trustworthy. And, “regardless of how serious or intimate y’all are, any worthwhile boo will appreciate the titillation of a beautiful nude, even if they don’t get to bring the image home with them.” There are plenty of teen girls who believe their “boo” is trustworthy when it comes to not sharing nude pictures of her with his friends, only to find out that wasn’t the case.

At the very end of the article, the author discusses the risk involved in sexting, stating that she is sure parents and others have warned that once you send a nude pic you have no control over where it goes, “so the public embarrassment you worry about could become a reality,” and if you’re under a certain age, sending sexy selfies can count as distributing child pornography. All this comes after a total tutorial on how to take great nudes.

In the second article on porn and consent, the author wonders if explicit verbal consent in more porn could help people understand the concept better. “Imagine this,” says the writer,  “You’re surfing the Internet, looking for some porn to watch (you know why), and after scrolling for what seems like forever, you finally find a video that fits what you’re in the mood for. You click play and after watching the prerequisite awkward intro, you hear one person in the film ask another, ‘Is it okay if I kiss you?’”

The author says that porn shouldn’t be used as sex education, but that young people should be educated on how to consume porn in a healthy way. This is an alarming statement considering the significant amount of research regarding the dangers of porn addiction. 

According to Fight the New Drug, a non-religious and non-legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using only science, facts and personal accounts, porn physically changes the brain over time. When one looks at porn, there is a surge of the chemical dopamine that feels really good. Dopamine helps create new brain pathways that essentially lead the user back to the behavior that triggered the chemical release. Porn users can quickly build up a tolerance as their brains adapt to the high levels of dopamine released by viewing porn.

Even though porn is still releasing dopamine into the brain, the user can’t feel its effects as much.

“It is as though we have devised a form of heroin – usable in the privacy of one’s own home and injected directly to the brain through the eyes,” says Dr. Jeffrey Satinover of Princeton University, describing porn’s effect to a U.S. Senate committee.

Numerous studies indicate that porn is a very significant problem in the U.S. In fact, the Justice Department estimates that 9 out of 10 children between 8 and 16 have seen online porn. Once you have seen porn, the image remains in your brain.

The author of the Teen Vogue article cites research from the UK that 60 percent of students in the survey had turned to porn to learn more about sex, and 40 percent of them said porn colored their understanding of what sex is. Young people in the U.S. also report turning to porn when their school sex ed classes don’t equip them for the realities of sex. 

So, if you think your daughters are purchasing or looking at Teen Vogue online for the fashion, you might want to think again.

Their website says, “Teen Vogue: Fashion, Beauty, Entertainment News for Teens,” and it lists the topics of style, politics, culture and identity. I would strongly encourage you to visit the site and read through the content for yourself.

The middle and high school years are complicated enough for so many reasons, but these articles in Teen Vogue and other publications are troubling for those of us who have been fighting against the sexualization of women. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of advertisements, media and music that sends hypocritical messages about what is acceptable and what is not. What our kids consume shapes the trajectory of their lives. The impact of sexting and looking at porn in their teen years will follow them into adulthood.

Women who don’t want themselves or others to be seen as objects or commodities have a responsibility to call out these overtly sexual messages that undermine the change for which many have advocated. We have made a great deal of progress in the age of #MeToo, but we still have a long way to go. 

It’s coming. You know it’s coming. Eleven is the magic number. By age 11, 93% of boys and 62% of girls have been exposed to pornographic material. Go ahead and get your mind right before you find it. And if you have found something on your teens phone, stick with me.

The moment of truth as a parent hit me like a ton of bricks. Tenth grade boy whom we were serving as custodial guardian had made a mistake. (We’ll call him Jackson.) He’d accidentally left his screen on some cartoon porn. Graphics, animation, sex, all right there behind his glass screen. And that’s when it truly hit me. As a man, as a father, as a teacher, as a mentor.

It didn’t matter that we previously discussed proper use of technology. Or that he told me prior that he did looked at porn, that he was regularly involved in “wholesome” activities. It didn’t matter that he was making the honor roll. Curiosity had caught up to him.

I didn’t want Jackson to be part of 73% of kids under 18 viewing porn.

It was fortunate that he was not present when I saw it. I had some time to gather my thoughts and strategize. I mentally traveled the journey from, “I can’t believe he’s looking at this trash”, to “I’m so disappointed in him” to “What is the end goal that I’m looking for?” to “What is my role in helping him?” to finally, “What worked for me when I got busted?”

This mental journey allowed me to quickly move my thoughts of him from anger that this was in my house – to “This is a mile marker in his journey to adulthood. It is part of growing up that simply has to be addressed.” We want porn to have a minimal effect on him and his ability to have safe and healthy relationships. We don’t want porn to impact how he performs academically. Bottom line, we don’t want pornography to get in the way of being the best person that he could be.

All this was important because it gave me the opportunity to approach him with a peaceful, solution-driven mindset that was not filled with reactions of fear and parental insecurity. To a degree, it was life. And as things happen in life, we look at them head-on and deal with them.

So the next day I approached him. And after a few pleasantries about how things were going, I asked him directly, “Have you been looking at pornography?”

And, as I’m sure the majority of teenagers would do, he stopped, took a deep breath, looked at me, and clearly and succinctly said, “No.” Lying 101. He stayed calm and only answered the questions I asked. Note: He later majored in Theatre.

I responded in as calm a voice as I could muster, If you did, understand that I wouldn’t be upset. It’s something I’ve had to deal with before. And since I’ve dealt with it before, I know better than to assume you haven’t yourself.”

Of course, I thought I was doing well. I had the right mindset. Was in a calm tone. I was in control. Felt like I was focusing on creating an atmosphere for honesty.

Jackson, our future theatre major who was acting a tad irritated because he was feeling accused, without looking at me this time again said, “No. Thanks though. If I ever do I’ll tell you.”

Stay calm Reggie. You are being lied to and patronized.

I looked at him and said, “I saw some cartoon pornography on your screen yesterday. What was that about?” Evidence presented. Solid testimony on my part. Not even the future actor should be able to wiggle out of this one.

His response, which, sad to say, I should’ve seen coming, but I didn’t, “Sometimes these things pop up on my screen and it must have popped up afterwards.”

Impressive. I don’t know if he was just that prepared with his script or if it was all improv.

What I did next was just a gut feel. There are many different opinions and advice on how to move forward. But what I did next worked. I bet you want to know what I did, don’t you…? Check out the next blog, I’ll finish the story. Just kidding.

Seriously though, I put it on him to make a decision.

I said, “Look, I don’t know what kind of person, what kind of man you want to grow up to be. But I think, correct me if I’m wrong, that you want to be a man of integrity, respect, honor, and one who can have amazing sex one day who is not living with shame and guilt from decisions that you have made in your past. If I’m wrong, then it is what it is. But if not, I ask that you don’t let pride, stubbornness or fear of mistakes cause a domino effect. If you did look or ever find yourself looking at porn, talk to me. No judgment, no punishment. I may even be able to help. If not, then keep making wise decisions and you’ll be all the better for it.” I dropped the mic and left the room.

That was risky. I let him lie to me. I let him think he’s getting away with it.

But I challenged his character and called him to greatness. So how do I know it worked? The next day, I get home from work and there’s a letter on my bed explaining that he had been struggling with pornography and that he lied because he thought he could deal with it himself and he wasn’t sure how I’d react. It also said, “I do want your help.”

This led to regular conversations about what he was looking at, safety controls on any technological devices he had access to and boundaries to when he was using any form of technology.  But that’s not how I know it worked. A couple of years later, I get a phone call from a friend of his who I happened to know. He started the conversation with, “I’ve been struggling with pornography, and Jackson told me that when he lived with you he dealt with the same thing and you helped him get through it. He told me that I should call you.”

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As a parent, are you preparing your child for the real world? Many college graduates will soon be joining the workforce, some for the first time. The transition can be a real shocker as they face their new reality of 8-hour days, specific start times, no more spring breaks and a limited amount of time for lunch. Plus, some workplaces expect employees to work at a rigorous pace that is foreign to many college students.

In the adjustment phase, young adults may complain to their parents about workplace practices, demanding bosses, irritating co-workers and deadlines, just to name a few issues. This is nothing new for sure. 

Anybody who has held a job can probably relate, but here’s where things get interesting. Many parents jump right in to deal with the issue at hand. In fact, you might be surprised at just how many parents are quick to take the reins and deal with the issue themselves.

In a recent survey of parents of children ages 18-28 conducted by Morning Consult, 11 percent of the parents surveyed said they would contact an employer if their child was having issues at work. Of the parents surveyed:

  • 76% reminded their adult children of deadlines they need to meet, including for schoolwork. 
  • 74% made appointments for them, including doctor’s appointments. 
  • 42% offered them advice on relationships and romantic life. 
  • 16% helped write all or part of a job or internship application. 
  • 15% told them which career to pursue.
  • 14% helped them get jobs or internships through professional network.
  • 14% gave more than $500 per month for rent or daily expenses.

With the possible exception of giving romantic advice, none of these behaviors on the part of the parent are helpful in preparing a young adult for the real world.

Instead of jumping in to rescue them, it would be helpful to assist them in preparing to deal with real world, real-life work situations. Here’s how you can start:

  • When they encounter a difficult professor, process with them potential ways to approach the professor and have a conversation. 
  • Teach them how to make their own doctor’s appointments. 
  • If they have internship possibilities, rehearse with them how to make the initial phone call or introduction and talk with them about potential interview questions. 

If they believe they are being treated unfairly or inappropriately at work, get a good understanding of what is happening. Then:

  • Attempt to walk through the situation with them, but realize the situation is not yours to handle. 
  • Ask them what they think they need to do besides quit, which sometimes ends up being an option if nothing else works, and then help them figure out an action plan they can execute by discussing the pros and cons of all viable options. 
  • If you don’t think you have the knowledge or skill set required to help them decide how to move forward, connect them with someone you believe has the knowledge to do so. Avoid the temptation to make the call yourself. 

It can be painful to watch your young adult deal with difficult and sometimes very complicated circumstances, especially if they are a hard worker and what they are walking through seems unjust. However, it is not healthy or helpful to jump into circumstances they need to learn how to handle themselves. Life is for sure not fair, and this will likely not be the last time they have to navigate dealing with a difficult situation. 

Whether your adult child is still in college or in the workforce, writing papers for them, calling them to make sure they are awake, reminding them of deadlines or interfering at work does not prepare your child for the reality of living an independent, productive life. Doing these things will make them more dependent on you and less prepared for dealing with what life hands them on their own.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on March 31, 2019.

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Looking for more resources? Watch this episode of JulieB TV for an in-depth look on this topic!

Do you remember those lively dodgeball games during recess? What about freeze tag, kickball, Four Square or climbing on the jungle gym? Many parents today probably have great memories of running around outdoors during recess. And, chances are pretty good that after school, you played outside after you finished your homework. However, that’s not the case for many kids, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is concerned about how a lack of play is affecting them.

The AAP states that the most powerful way children learn isn’t only in the classroom or libraries, but rather on playgrounds and in playrooms.

The importance of playful learning for kids cannot be overemphasized.

Experts define play as an activity that is fun and engaging, which could define a number of activities. But the difference in play and other activities is that play has no set outcome. There’s no score to achieve and nothing to produce. It’s just good, old-fashioned fun.

“We’re recommending that doctors write a prescription for play, because it’s so important,” says pediatrician Michael Yogman, M.D., lead author of the AAP report. “Play with parents and peers is fundamentally important for developing a suite of 21st-century skills, including social, emotional, language and cognitive skills, all needed by the next generation in an economically competitive world that requires collaboration and innovation. The benefits of play are HUGE in terms of mitigating stress, improving academic skills and helping to build the safe, stable and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress and build social-emotional resilience.”

Research indicates that family playtime enhances communication and tends to create a positive environment.

Letting the child direct the playtime is also a benefit. In fact, it can help parents learn their child’s areas of interest.

Through the years, children’s playtime has been threatened, especially as schools have removed recess from the schedule to focus more on academics. A national survey of 8,950 preschool children and parents found that only 51 percent of children walked or played outside once a day with a parent. Additionally, surveys have found that as many as 94 percent of parents have safety concerns about outdoor play.

It’s not surprising that technology also impacts play. According to media research, the average preschooler watches 4.5 hours of television a day. This trend is associated with greater risks of obesity. Factor in the time that kids of all ages spend on their personal devices and it’s easy to see that screen time has replaced playing outdoors. And if we’re honest, it’s not just preschoolers who are living a sedentary lifestyle.

“Media use such as television, video games, smartphone and tablet apps are increasingly distracting children from play. It’s concerning when immersion in electronic media takes away time for real play, either outdoors or indoors,” says pediatrician Jeffrey Hutchinson, M.D., report co-author.

The report encourages educators, pediatricians and families to advocate for and protect unstructured play and playful learning in preschools and schools because of the numerous benefits it offers in all areas of life and development.

If play isn’t something that comes naturally to you, that’s ok! These 9 ways to play with your kids can get the ball rolling:

  • Have a water fight with buckets, squirt guns and the hose.
  • Build a fort in your back yard or with the furniture and sheets in your family room.
  • Blow bubbles.
  • Visit a children’s museum.
  • Make chalk drawings on the sidewalk.
  • Rake the leaves into big piles and jump in them.
  • Go for a walk in the rain and stomp in the mud puddles.
  • Play with Play-Doh.
  • Build something out of Legos.

“The next time your child wants to play with you, say yes. It’s one of the best parts of being a parent, and one of the best things you can do for your child,” Dr. Yogman says. “Play helps children learn language, math and social skills, and lowers stress. Play is important both for children and their parents since sharing joyful moments together during play can only enhance their relationship.”

In Dr. Phil Zimbardo’s TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk about the demise of guys, he states that boys are flaming out academically and wiping out socially with girls and sexually with women.

In response to Zimbardo’s talk, Dr. Gary Wilson explains why guys are flaming out and what we can do about it. He bases his reasoning on years of research concerning the neuroscience of reward, sex and bonding.

According to Wilson, most boys seek porn by age 10. At that age, a brain that is suddenly fascinated by sex drives the boys. Thanks to high-speed internet, boys have access to unending novelty. The boy’s brain releases dopamine with each new image, and he will keep going as long as he can keep clicking.

Eventually, the brain wires itself to everything associated with porn such as: being alone, constant clicking, voyeurism, shock and surprise – instead of learning about real sex, which involves interaction with a real person, courtship, commitment, touching, being touched and emotional connection.

Porn Is A Serious Addiction for Boys

In 2009, a Canadian researcher attempting to study the impact of porn could not find any college males who weren’t using porn, so he had no control group for his research. He asked 20 male students who had been using porn for at least a decade if they thought porn was affecting them or their relationships with women. All of them said they didn’t think so. However, many of these males were dealing with social anxiety, performance anxiety, depression and concentration problems.

“Of all the activities on the internet, porn has the most potential to be addictive,” says Wilson. “Everything in the porn user’s life is boring except porn.”

Interestingly, there are thousands of men, young and old, who are giving up porn. Why? Because it is killing their sexual performance.

A guy in his 20s reports, “I have been to psychologists and psychiatrists off and on for the last eight years. I was diagnosed with depression, social anxiety, severe memory impairment, tried numerous medications, dropped out of college twice, have been fired twice, used pot to calm my nerves, and have been approached by women but they quickly left because of my weirdness.

“I have been a hardcore porn addict since age 14.” He says, “I stopped porn completely two months ago. It has been hard. I have quit all of the medication I was taking. My anxiety is nonexistent… My memory and focus are sharper than they have ever been and my erectile dysfunction is gone. I feel like I have a second chance at life.”

“Widespread youthful erectile dysfunction has never been seen before,” Wilson says. “This is the only symptom that gets their attention.”

The high-speed internet has taken porn to a new level and it is messing with our children. Watching porn digitally rewires boys’ brains in a totally new way for change, constant arousal, novelty and excitement. This creates real issues when it comes to romantic relationships that grow gradually and subtly.

Do your children know what healthy relationships look like? Have you taught them about the perils of the internet? Are you paying attention to their computer use?

It’s time to take back our boys. Their health and future relationships are hanging in the balance.

They say that our scars are our stories. If this is true, then Jude, my 12-year-old son, now has this story to tell: “I was playing Fortnite, and I tried this new exploit I saw in a YouTube video, and it worked! I was so excited, I jumped off my bed and busted my lip on the corner of a shelf and had to go to the emergency room and get stitches.” That’s right, we had a video game injury in my house today.

Something about my son getting hurt playing video games made me stop and think. It wasn’t just what he was doing when he got hurt, but I was bothered by what he wasn’t doing. He didn’t get hurt jumping his bike off a homemade ramp, or falling out of a treehouse he was building, or even the ridiculous rock fights that characterized my youth. He got hurt in his bedroom all by himself, playing Fortnite…

Boyhood has changed.

It’s the confluence of two things I’ve observed increasingly in the past few years. First, there seems to be real societal pressure to tame boys – to keep them from playing rough, to rein in their impulse to explore, their need to test themselves against the heights of a tall tree, or even to rise to the challenge of a mouthy friend. We don’t let them wrestle or climb or ride off on their bikes, but we neuter any hint of wildness. We tell them to get down, to settle down, sit down and sit still.

Secondly, because of technology like video games, tablets, and smartphones, our kids are perfectly fine with sitting down and sitting still inside where it is safe and secure. Boys fire up a game console, put on their headset, turn on their flatscreen and tune out the whole wild world. They don’t even know what they’re missing.

Now the only world that boys explore is digital.

Imagination is no longer required – just good Wi-Fi. The challenges of boyhood today mainly involve leveling up. Boys engage their rivals in hand to controller combat. And because the risks aren’t real, neither are the rewards. There may be fewer trips to the emergency room but there are less adventures and far fewer stories to tell.

Scars represent life lived. My son will have a Fortnite scar going forward. I suppose there are worse ways to get a scar, but there are also so many better ways.

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Are you a technology-distracted parent? The little girl was playing in the playground area of a fast food restaurant, yelling at her mom, “Watch me, Mama! Watch me!” Consumed by her cell phone, her mom did not hear her daughter calling to her. The child came down the slide, went over to her mom and started tugging on her arm, saying, “Mommy, Mommy, watch me.” At this point the mother looked at her daughter, seemingly irritated at the interruption, and said, “What?”

Perhaps you’ve been that mom at one point or another, and chances are good you’ve witnessed that mom. For some, that moment when a child is occupied on the safe playground is the opportunity to take a little break. For others, constant distractions keep parents from engaging with their kids.

Dr. Jenny Radesky is a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. She and a team of researchers observed 55 caregivers, usually a parent, eating and interacting with one or more children, from infants to 10-year-olds, in fast-food restaurants. 

Out of 55 caregivers, 40 were involved with their phones during the meal. Sixteen of these adults used the mobile device throughout the meal. The researchers referred to this as “absorption with the mobile device.”

Three adults gave a device to a child to keep them occupied. One adult with a little girl picked up her phone as soon as she sat down, and she used it throughout the entire meal.

“The girl keeps eating, then gets up to cross the room to get more ketchup. Caregiver is not watching her do this; she is looking down at the phone…,” the notes showed. “Still no conversation… Now girl’s head appears to be looking right at caregiver, and caregiver looks up but not at girl…”

How much screen time is too much screen time when it comes to being an engaged parent? Perhaps the better question is, are you frequently distracted by your phone or some other device when your child is trying to get your attention?

If you aren’t sure if you’re a technology-distracted parent, The Gottman Institute encourages you to consider these questions:

  • When was the last time you played with your child or teenager?
  • What was the last conversation you shared as a family?
  • Ask your kids if they feel you are distracted. Honesty can go a long way in opening up communication. Just avoid responding defensively and ask more about what they need from you.
  • Think about the last conversation you had with an adult. Were they on their phone? Did you make eye contact? Did you feel heard?
  • What makes you feel heard? The same things that make you feel heard probably apply to the children and teens in your life. Have an open conversation about what listening looks like in different settings.

Many young people complain that their parents nag at them for always being on their phone, yet they believe their parents are as consumed by technology as they are.

Perhaps one of the most important things for parents to remember is that children are very good at copying the behavior that parents model for them. 

Technology isn’t going away. When parents decide to put down the cell phone, turn off the game, and walk away from the emails on the computer to focus on their children, it sends a significant message: You matter. You are more important than the screen. I value you. 

Face-to-face relationships beat technology any day of the week.

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Me: “Hey, dude. Let me check your phone.

My son is 12 and recently got an iPhone. Among the many stressful thoughts I’ve had to entertain because of this new and very significant development was this doozy: “Great, one more thing for me to police.

Me: “Here. While I’m checking your phone, I want you to check my phone.”

Parents checking phones seems like a great recipe for family conflict. The experts debate children’s expectations of privacy, perceptions of mistrust, and voice concerns about how parents searching through phones affect the overall health of the parent-child relationship.

Me: “We’ll check each other’s phones for twenty minutes and then ask each other whatever questions we have. Text messages, social media, browsing history – anything. Okay?”

A few years ago, I conducted an anonymous survey with my high school students about their experiences with their phones and social media. The survey was a tool to help me better understand and serve my students, but I definitely had ulterior parenting motives. So I asked them, “What helps you make good choices online?” The number one answer was immediately surprising to me, but really shouldn’t have been: “Knowing that my parents will check my phone.”

Me: “Listen, we both need to make good choices with our phones. Let’s help each other and keep each other accountable. You can check my phone whenever you want and ask me anything. Deal?”

There are ways to check a child’s phone that move us from confrontation to conversation.

Him: “Sounds good, Dad.”

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