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Sometimes I hear our parents talk about the St. James Bubble. Honestly, there are many things I love about our St. James Bubble— children are allowed to grow up at their own pace; parents are protective regarding outside influences and take an active role in screening any potentially toxic or destructive external impacts; parents believe in the importance of character education that starts at home; just to name a few. On the flip-side, the pursuit of the Bubble Life gives us the false sense that we are safe, that cultural influences are impacting only folks outside the bubble and that we can control completely our children and their experiences. We believe that we are rewarded for the pursuit of the Bubble Life by enjoying the illusion of a comfortable and safe environment and perfect children. When we hear about things that make us feel uncomfortable, we want to become an ostrich and bury our heads in the sand or retreat into our own false utopias. So, here’s the warning: this post may make you feel uncomfortable, but if you are a parent of a high/middle schooler, pay attention. If you are a parent of a younger child, become aware of the issues that may be coming your way in a few short years.

Recently I was having a dinner with a high school girl (who in my mind has been significantly sheltered and one of the most innocent girls I have ever met). We got into a conversation about boys, social media, and other realities associated with the current adolescent experience. Given her upbringing and her sweet nature, I really did not anticipate for this conversation to take a different turn. In a matter-of-fact way, she was telling me how boys in her high school text/Snapchat her and her friends asking for nudes (or bra and underwear) photos. I was speechless. Of course, I have read and heard about sexting, always portrayed as something rather abnormal and sleezy, but here I was hearing from someone much closer to home referring to this as a common request with much casualness that used to belong to the category “can I copy your homework?” So, what has gone wrong? The short answer is–a lot. It has started with giving our children (with underdeveloped, impulsive, pleasure-seeking prefrontal cortex), electronic devices that can essentially unlock the virtual sewer of the cyberspace. Giving our children a smartphone is like putting our 5-year-old in the driver’s seat and handing them the car keys–without education, preparedness or mental capacity to use it as a means for transportation, but rather as a vehicle with the potential to cause injury, possibly fatal, to self or others. While you and I are fully aware that the cyber world can be a cesspool of information, our naive, uneducated, undiscerning children treat the internet as the classroom, the lab, the fountain of enlightenment. In their mind, if it’s on the internet, it must be true and good.  To put it bluntly, pornography is just a click away. This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that our children can easily outsmart us with their tech savviness. When you question the practice of sending nudes, the response is “everyone is doing it so it can’t be that bad.” Given the amount of exposure to social media, our digital natives have become bombarded with information, news, opinions resulting in a gradual numbing, which unfortunately includes the numbing of the conscience. As I was talking to my high school friend, I realized that it was my chance to help her unpack these requests (often pressured ones) as I was asking her questions: “Why are they asking? What do you think they do with these pictures? Are they asking other girls? How do you feel about this?, etc.” I realized that this represented an opportunity to extend both understanding and a courage- filled pep talk. So as we hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, here are a few simple suggestions:

  1. Keep the lines of communication open with your child by not acting shocked or shaming them. Instead, seek to understand their thoughts, feelings, and the context. It’s easy to jump into quick judgments. Before losing your mind in a heated screaming match, talk to a trusted friend, confidant that can help you to calm down and talk you off the ledge.
  2. Some parents feel uncomfortable checking their children’s devices feeling that it is an invasion of privacy. If your child needed a life-saving medicine, would you not give it to them because it tastes bad? Or would you tell them to get over themselves because you are saving their life? Yes, your vigilant and consistent monitoring of your child’s electronics may preserve your child’s emotional, social and mental wellbeing.  And of course, if there is any possibility of harm or abuse, be aware of the laws and legal requirements.
  3. If your child has been receiving requests for inappropriate pictures, formulate a plan (e.g. create a script, if appropriate, talk to the other child’s parent).
  4. If your child has disclosed sending pictures of themselves to others, talk about ways that your child (with your help if needed) can have those pictures erased. Explore whether your child should be trusted with electronics.
  5. If your child has been asking for inappropriate pictures, explore the underlying thinking and the impact not only on their own self-concept but also on the other person. A conversation regarding respect, dignity, and personal boundaries are necessary. Perhaps, taking away the electronic device or instituting more stringent online monitoring may be necessary.

Finally, don’t be an ostrich.  While it is tempting and much easier to bury your head in the sand, deep down inside we know when we’re trying to avoid reality. Let’s live in the St. James Bubble because we believe in the developmental benefits of protecting (not over protecting) our children and letting them mature on their own timetables, not because we are driven by fear to face the outside world. In fact, you don’t have to be an ostrich, because hopefully all along you have been teaching values. Teaching internalized values, instead of behavioral modification or policing, presents the child with a roadmap, the bird’s eye view. According to Dr. Sax in his book Why Gender Matters, instead of wagging your finger at your children with “don’t sext” message you will be much more effective by teaching your children how to be gentlemen and ladies of moral character. Instilling in them ideas of self-worth, dignity, and self-respect is like teaching them to fish instead of simply catching fish for them. They will not sext, not because they shouldn’t, but because they don’t want to. They are simply destined for far greater things.