Almost a decade ago, I attended a seminar on human trafficking, and was astounded to find out that it happens here…in America…to vulnerable teens. It could happen to your neighbor’s child, or your child’s schoolmate or friend. The Daily Herald, in an article about a newly opened home for those rescued from sex trafficking, said: “The average age of entry into the life of trafficking is 12-14 years of age, and recruitment of these young girls and boys often happens through social media and online grooming tactics.”
Geoff Rogers, co-founder of the United States Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT) said in an interview that the U.S. is the biggest consumer of sex in the world, and that “We’re also driving the demand with our own people, with our own kids.” Rogers noted that “there are tremendous numbers of kids, a multitude of kids that are being sold as sex slaves today in America…50 percent to 60 percent of them coming out of the foster care industry.” The State Department in 2017 reported that children who are at special risk include those in foster care, homeless youth, undocumented immigrant children and those with substance abuse problems. This article includes real stories of trafficked youth (it’s from a faith-based site, but is still informative for all audiences). The article talks about how we can be alert to situations that might be going on in front of our eyes, and also includes information on a film on human trafficking that will be in limited release in theaters January 23.
As the head of Teen Decision, and an adult who cares about teens, I was part of a group of citizens that helped convince my aldermen to vote to opt out of allowing recreational marijuana dispensaries in my town. But even if they’re not coming to my town, or yours, they WILL be in the suburb next door as of January 1. We need to be vigilant as parents to send a clear message that marijuana use hurts the teen brain, even if our state government has deemed it safe for adults. Teens have gotten their hands on marijuana even while illegal in Illinois to be sure, but permissive attitudes among those in the marijuana industry contributes to a rise in selling marijuana to minors (studies from Washington State and Oregon). A Colorado study found that about half of youth in outpatient substance-abuse treatment reported using diverted “legal” marijuana.
Besides negative affects on the teen brain, according to a CDC fact sheet, “studies show that sexual risk behaviors increase in adolescents who use alcohol, and are highest among students who use marijuana, cocaine, prescription drugs (such as sedatives, opioids, and stimulants), and other illicit drugs. Adolescents who reported no substance use are the least likely to engage in sexual risk-taking.” Oh, and the CDC fact sheet says one risk factor might be YOU: “Favorable parental attitudes towards the problem behavior and/orparental involvement in the problem behavior.” Yet another reason to make it clear that you expect your child to make wise choices, and say NO to drugs, and maybe set the example by opting out yourself (at least for now) for the sake of your teen.
A recent University of Buffalo study discovered that even when there is conflict in the home, a mother’s warmth and acceptance can act as a “buffer” and reduce the chance of teens ending up in abusive dating relationships. Said lead investigator Jennifer Livingston, “Children form internal working models about themselves and others based on the quality of their relationship with their parents,” Livingston explains. “If the primary caretaker is abusive or inconsistent, children learn to view themselves as unlovable and others as hostile and untrustworthy. But positive parenting behaviors characterized by acceptance and warmth help children form positive internal working models of themselves as lovable and worthy of respect.” As we parent, even though we certainly must be firm and at times even mete out consequences…it’s important we do it from a place of love, and express this in our actions and words: “I have to take away the car keys for the next two weeks because of your ticket for texting while driving, but I want you to know that I love you and I know you feel bad about it because you’re a great kid, and you usually make good choices.”
Just when we think we’ve learned the latest teen trends, our kids and their peers reinvent themselves yet again online. If you don’t know what a VSCO girl is (but you’ve been asked to buy a $40 Hydro Flask® for your teen), you’re hopelessly behind, for instance. I happen to have a teen in my home that educates me about the latest teen trends, but it’s never enough to keep up. So I’ve connected HERE to a site that has short descriptions of popular apps, including which apps are appropriate and safe, which you should be concerned about, and which the site warns against.
The app overtaking others in popularity right now is Tic Tok (formerly musical.ly). Tic Tok is mostly used by teens to post short-form videos of themselves lip synching, singing, dancing, and doing comedy. Concerns have to do with privacy, inappropriate content, and potential predator contact. Kidsnclicks shows with screen shots how to set your child’s Tik Tok to “private” which is probably the most important thing you can do to protect them on the app. Now, our government is even looking into national security issues with Tik Tok (it is Chinese-owned). As always, we suggest you educate yourself, and be aware as a parent.
“Kids spend more time with media and technology than they do with their parents, time in school, or any other thing. They are literally living in a 24/7 media and technology world,” says James Steyer, founder and CEO of Commonsense Media about a 2019 survey of (non-homework) teen screen use. The number 1 activity is watching videos, with YouTube being their first choice, and actual TV watching dropping dramatically in even just the last 4 years. This means that families are not watching together, you can’t walk into the room and see what TV show your kids are watching, and therefore you probably have no clue WHAT they’re watching.
Wouldn’t you LIKE to know what your child is filling their eyes and mind with all those hours every day? Commonsense Media has a great place to start getting educated with their Parents’ Ultimate Guide to YouTube .
If you discover that some things they’re accessing (or that they could access) are troublesome, you may want to check out this parental control guide to setting restrictions using YouTube settings.
My first serious relationship in high school ended after a year-and-a-half when my boyfriend verbally abused me and then kicked me a few weeks later. The verbal abuse should have been my “aha” moment, but I was too bonded to the guy (we were “in love” and having sex) to see it for what it was. When I discuss healthy vs. unhealthy relationships in the classroom, I use my own story as a jumping off point to discuss how to avoid (or get out of) unhealthy or abusive relationships, and how to build healthy dating habits instead. Sexual harassment and dating violence aren’t new, but what IS new is how much the #MeToo movement has brought these issues into the light. The things we are talking about in society now are things I’ve been talking to teens about for almost 20 years, so I’m happy to see this issue getting the attention it deserves.
What do we know about teen dating violence? Well, it’s prevalent. From Ascend (which promotes sexual risk avoidance education), we find out that:
• 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) shows that 7.4% of high school students report having been forced to have sex
• Nearly 12% of high school females reported physical violence from a dating partner in the 12 months before they were surveyed. For high school males, more than 7% reported physical violence and about 5% reported sexual violence from a dating partner.
The risk of having unhealthy relationships increases for teens who:
• Believe that dating violence is acceptable
• Are depressed, anxious, or have other symptoms of trauma
• Use drugs or illegal substances
• Engage in early sexual activity and have multiple sexual partners
• Have a friend involved in teen dating violence
• Witness or experience violence in the home
If your child is dating, or just beginning to think about and talk about dating, the best preparation you can give your teen is lots of conversation, based around questions such as these:
What does a healthy relationship look like? Unhealthy? How do you want to be treated in a relationship? Where do your peers get their ideas about dating from? Where do they get their ideas about sex from? Are these sources reliable? Realistic? Respectful? What are the warning signs that a relationship is abusive? (Take them to this article, and go over the questions to help them recognize an abusive relationship). How much should you know someone before you even start the physical (even a kiss can bond you to someone, and bring on the “love is blind” syndome)? What would it look like to build a friendship first? How can your family help you determine if your date is a good person for you? How can you help a friend who you suspect is in an abusive relationship?
Some school districts, according to one article on teens and the neuroscience of risky behavior, have taken to heart studies that connect sleep deprivation to teen risk-taking–such as drug and alcohol use, and risky sexual behaviors: “Dozens of studies on the effects of increasing sleep by delaying school start times—a move endorsed by bodies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics—suggest that many of these problems, including risky behaviors, improve when schools start later.” But even if you’re lucky enough to live in such a district, that that still doesn’t mean your child is getting enough sleep…they may just be staying up later. Many of us are worried about the late night Netflix binging, the social media surfing, and the general tendency of teens to stay up too late. And there’s reason to worry! This article on sleep-deprived teens (those who don’t get the recommended 8-10 hours), states that “researchers found that adolescents who were short weekday and short weekend sleepers (i.e., those who consistently did not get enough sleep) were nearly two times more likely to engage in unsafe sex than those who slept in, on average, an extra 3.5 hours on weekends.” Said the researchers: “Our recommendation is for parents and teens to find a middle ground, which allows for some weekend catch-up sleep, while maintaining some level of consistency in sleep-wake patterns.”
Besides letting them catch up on the weekends, wouldn’t it be better to send your child to school well-rested every day? Why not have some parental backbone, set some bedtime rules, and stick to them. In my home, I’ve for 6 years filled my empty nest with foreign students going to high school in America. This year I have four of them! The international program at the school has rules that I’m expected to enforce as a host parent. One of them is that studying happens in a study area downstairs, and bedrooms are device free. If that seems impossible to imagine implementing without all-out mutity, what about “Devices on the hall table by 10:30.” If you’re tech savvy you can do what my husband did…turn off the wifi at a certain hour at night, and don’t get an unlimited data plan for the cell phone.
If you need fortification to be tough…remember, it’s for their own good!
Boredom can drive a teen to creativity…or to his or her devices for countless hours of mindless (or, worse, mind-polluting) media. Why not post on the refrigerator, or inside of a door, a list of ideas for teens to have on hand to fill their empty summer hours? Here’s a ready list of activities that can be not only fun, but also character-building, or mind-growing!
A while ago, I had a teen living in my home for a few months who engaged in self-harm behavior…in this case, scratching her arms with her fingernails until she bled. She revealed it the first time it happened, and got help from a counselor. But most parents don’t find out as quickly as I did, and most teens hide their behavior.
Who self-harms? The behavior is more common among girls than boys, and among adolescents (17% say they’ve self-harmed at least once) than adults (only 5%). The American Psychological Association says it is “characterized by deliberate self-inflicted harm that isn’t intended to be suicidal. People who self-harm may carve or cut their skin, burn themselves, bang or punch objects or themselves, embed objects under their skin, or engage in myriad other behaviors that are intended to cause themselves pain but not end their lives…. The most frequent sites of self-injury are the hands, wrists, stomach and thighs.” Teens are not seeking attention, but relief from emotional pain, and will hide their injuries…by wearing long sleeves, even in hot weather, for instance. NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness) has more information about self-harming HERE, and a Psychology Today article discusses it as well, with 10 tips for reducing self injury.
I recently came across the OK, Inc. YouTube channel, with dozens of videos on topics teens say they want addressed…things such as date rape, bullying, sexting, abusive relationships, substance abuse, etc. These videos use high school students as actors and portray realistic scenarios. I watched several that have been viewed by millions, and can recommend them as excellent tools for parents and teachers.
These short story videos help teens recognize risky situations, make good choices, deal with consequences, and see a way forward even after making a poor choice. Every video has an example of friends who help their friends along the way. Parents, don’t we want to see our child learn now how to have good relationships, choose well when faced with negative pressures, and to BE a good, supportive friend to others who are caught in bad decisions, or bad relationships? Sometimes, all the good advice we know we could give is better received coming from peers. These videos provide a creative way to open conversations with our children about the pressures and problems they face in everyday life, without coming across as too “preachy.” I urge you to watch and discuss as many of these videos with your teens as possible.