Tuesday 20 February 2018

Do you know what your teenagers are up to?

Celine Naughton

A risque ad campaign by a mobile network has outraged some parents, writes Celine Naughton

'I will flirt, kiss, date and dump. I'll even break your heart. I'll give guys my number, knowing it's a digit short. I'll go out for an hour and sneak in the next morning. I will wake up on your couch and have no clue who you are, and if you don't like it, go f**k yourself. Things happen when you turn 18."

This is the wording of one TV and radio advert in a campaign series run by a company called 48 Months, selling mobile phone sim cards to 18-22 year olds.

Another, this time with a male voiceover, runs: "I will think with my pants, heart and head, in that order. At least once I'll spend the weekend spanking some MILF. I'll tell girls whatever lies they want to hear as long as we both get what we want. I don't care if it's bad for me. I'll do it again, as long as I don't get caught."

And if you haven't come across the word 'MILF', it stands for 'Mother I'd like to f**k'.

The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland has received a number of complaints about the 48 Months advertisements and at the time of writing, no decision had yet been reached on whether to uphold those complaints, although a response from the company was under consideration.

Linda McGuire, Programme Leader with PCI College, found the content of the ads shocking. Having recently completed a paper on psychosexual teenage life, examining sexual exploration in the teenage fast lane of the 21st Century, she is not easily shocked.

"Such sexually explicit ads send out the message that anything goes and that's a dangerous message, because young people are so influenced by the media," she says.

Sex sells and it's not just advertising that taps into the currency -- we can all think of music videos, movies, magazines and song lyrics that have upped the ante in terms of their graphic sexual content -- but new technology brings opportunities, temptations and dangers never experienced by previous generations.

Sexting -- sending sexual messages or images on mobile phones -- has become a common form of communication and children as young as 13 are taking part. "The tweenies are a particularly vulnerable age group, because they don't realise the long-term consequences of their actions," says Linda.

"They sometimes don't know when a pose is inappropriate and once it's out there on the ether, it's gone.

"I know of one pair of 13-14 year olds who were boyfriend and girlfriend for a short while and sent private images of themselves for each other to view. Then they fell out and he sent her picture to his friends, who forwarded it to their friends and so on until it went viral. It was only when one boy told his parents that they got in touch with the parents of the children at the centre of it all and disclosed what had happened. Naturally, they were horrified.

"Issues like this have to be handled with great sensitivity. Young teenagers are at a very impressionable stage, and even older teens are often not as clued in as they'd like to think. Having worked as a school counsellor for 12 years, I know how important it is to communicate clearly with young people. Once they have the full facts, it can change their understanding and the way they might react to inappropriate imagery."

In the UK, a report carried out by Reg Bailey of the Mothers' Union into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood called for a clampdown on the sexualised 'wallpaper' surrounding children.

His recommendations included cracking down on pre-watershed sexual content on television, sexually suggestive clothes, sexual content in advertising and internet pornography.

Linda McGuire says that education for parents and teachers is key to dealing with the impact that technology is having on children and teenagers.

"The problem is that kids can run rings around us in knowing how to use technology, but they're not emotionally equipped to be responsible in their behaviour," she says.

'Tweens and teens need to know the hidden dangers of using the internet, for instance. If a young girl comes across John, who says he's 14 and goes to school in a neighbouring county, she doesn't know him from Adam and may share things with somebody who is not who he claims to be.

"Parents also need support. I would like to see schools run information evenings for parents on how to use technology and help guide their children through its potential hazards. The internet has some fabulous characteristics, but likewise it can pose difficulties.

"As Programme Leader with PCI College, which provides training in counselling and psychotherapy for mature students, I would be interested in promoting courses in schools, so if parents or educators would like to get in touch with me, they can email me at lmcguire@pcicollege.ie"

Mother-of-three Abby Langtry took a year-long evening course on cyber psychology to keep up with her children's internet skills and learn about the potential hazards they could face.

"I was pretty clueless and wanted to inform myself in using all forms of social media," says Abby, a hospice and general practice nurse and mother of Ciara (13), Christopher (10) and Rebecca (8).

"I learnt that sex offenders target children who display risky behaviour, so it's important to educate children that the online world is not the place to take risks.

"Younger children will sometimes post images which they think are fine, but they aren't. When my daughter Ciara heard of a girl who found herself in trouble over an image she had put up online, I used the opportunity to talk to her about what is and is not appropriate. I think it's important to keep the lines of communication open.

"We can't control everything our children do and with the pace at which technology is growing, we're always playing catch-up, but as a parent, I try to be as responsible as I can be.

"For instance, when Ciara set up a Facebook account, one of our conditions was that her dad would be her friend. Somebody suggested this was akin to reading her diary, but if it's on Facebook, it's already been made public, so it's not the same thing.

"We set boundaries for our children, including access to the internet. They cannot get on to sites with violence or pornography, and we insist that Ciara's mobile phone stays downstairs at night. If a child gets a text which is upsetting late at night in their room, parents won't know.

"When a young person takes a risk these days, the consequences are more severe than when we were growing up. I remember getting ready for teen discos back in my day when we had no camera phones, but if we had I'm sure I'd have been posing and sending pictures to my friends asking, 'What do you think of this dress?' And what may seem like an innocent photograph can be used for more sinister purposes if it ends up in the wrong hands.

"I have warned Ciara to never have an online conversation with somebody she has never met in real life. My husband and I also set up a false page to show her how unsafe it is to do something ad hoc on the internet. We were able to show her that a conversation she'd had a few months earlier was still available online. There was nothing of concern in that conversation, but the exercise served to show her that if she didn't set up privacy settings, the whole world could read what she wrote.

"It's certainly challenging to guide children through the teen years in the 21st Century, but I believe that core values and self-respect have not changed since I was a teenager. We'll never keep up with our kids, but I think it helps to inform ourselves as parents, set house rules, keep the lines of communication open and then hope for the best."

Irish Independent

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