People born before the age of social media grew up largely offline, experiencing coming-of-age milestones like school dances and first kisses without the presence of smart phones.
But things are very different now, and kids’ lives are incredibly intertwined with social media. And as a result of this cultural shift, more and more kids are sharing provocative images of themselves online.
According to Dr. Jillian Roberts, a registered psychologist and associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Victoria, an increasing amount of youth between the ages of nine and 11 are posting suggestive pictures on apps like Instagram.
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“It’s happening with an alarming increase and frequency,” Roberts told Global News. “A lot of kids are just at the [age] where they’re exploring their own sexuality, and they’re also able to navigate the internet with more freedom.”
Roberts, who authored the upcoming book Kids, Sex & Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Children in the Sexualized Digital Age, said she sees a spike in sexually suggestive online behaviour during the summer between grades five and six. This is particularly true in parts of Canada like B.C., where students transition to middle school at this age.
Adolescence paired with the fact that explicit content is found on many celebrities’ social media accounts has an effect on tweens’ behaviour.
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“How many likes, shares and comments you get on an Instagram post is how students are judging their own popularity against other people,” Roberts explained. “You can get a lot of likes if you post something that’s more provocative than if you don’t.”
What to do if your kid posts suggestive pictures online
While most parents hope their tweens aren’t posting provocative content, if you do discover that your child has shared suggestive photos, directly addressing the issue with them in a supportive way is the first step.
“Respond in an unconditional, loving way,” Roberts said. “Do not get angry, do not shame your child. Note that this is not appropriate, but it’s a completely understandable stage for your child to go through as they explore their own sexuality.”
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When talking to your child, it’s important to explain that while sharing sexual images is not age-appropriate, you understand where they’re coming from. Roberts suggests a “hamburger” approach where you pad the important message with softer language.
Roberts suggests saying something along the lines of, “I know you really wanted to share that picture because you look older in it, however what concerns me is X, Y and Z.”
“Explain there are other ways you would like them to reach out to friends, and that you have no issue with them exploring social media, but that they need to make sure they’re exploring social media appropriately,” she said.
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“If you deal with anything about sex in a shaming way, your kid will never want to talk to you about sexuality again.”
How to talk to your kids about posting on social media
Research shows that sexting — sending sexual images via text or messaging apps — is becoming more prevalent among youth. Kids are also exposed to more pornography on the internet, as stats reveal that 90 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls have seen porn before the age of 18, with boys seeing porn by the age of 12, on average.
Because of easy exposure to explicit content online, Roberts said it’s vital that parents have open and honest conversations with their kids about navigating social media before they start using it. This will help them learn proper behaviour, and in turn reduce the chances that they’ll post inappropriate content.
“The moment that a child is given their own device, or the moment when they have unlimited access to the online world, there should be a conversation and a family social media plan,” Roberts said.
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This plan should include what apps are OK to use, a discussion about what is appropriate to post and what’s not, as well as a conversation around empathy, Roberts said. For example, “don’t like or share an embarrassing photo of someone else that they didn’t give permission to be put online,” she said.
Roberts said it’s also important to teach kids about pop-up ads and downloading from unfamiliar sites, and encourage them not to visit unknown pages.
Lastly, it’s critical that parents themselves are familiar with the apps their kids are on.
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“What I encourage parents to do is not monitor [their kids] so much as to be a social media participant with them,” Robers said. “If a child is on Snapchat, parents need to get on Snapchat, too.”
“I think it’s important for parents to stay current, and be aware of what the different platforms are and how they are used.”