Boys have always had secret lives. It’s part of growing up. That’s why boys love cyberspace and new technologies. They’re beyond the reach of parents, and they offer boys endless ways to hang out with peers, to explore, to push their boundaries, to belong.
Boys also enjoy being free of the pressure of face-to-face encounters when texting, emailing or in chat rooms. They relish the opportunity to assume other identities at will. It’s very appealing to be someone else for a while when you’re unsure of who you are, but it’s not without risk. A major American study of online teens revealed that over half had more than one email address and screen name. Just under a quarter of these teenagers had secret online names unknown to everyone including their friends. That study is now several years old. The new technologies and teen responses to them have come a long way since then.
With Facebook, Friendster, 12Seconds, MySpace, Flickr, and all the other sites on tap, it’s easy for boys to become lost in shadowy virtual worlds. The desire to be popular and the speed with which relationships can get personal online, can make a boy vulnerable to sexual predators and dysfunctional peers. And growing up in a world of badly behaved celebrities and reality TV means that for many boys, risky behavior is no longer a big deal.
These are the boys, who like Californian Justin Berry end up a long way from where they meant to be. Justin got into deep water at 13 when he bought a webcam. While keen to meet other kids on the net, he became yet another camkid turning tricks for online ’friends’ in his bedroom instead. Through his online home business he progressed to lucrative often violent real life encounters with adult men, drug-taking and procuring minors for sex. Luckily Justin’s last meeting was with journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who persuaded the then eighteen-year-old to come clean and make a fresh start.
The thing about gaming
Gaming is another area that’s more fraught than it appears. While it provides an outlet for boys, few parents have any idea of the content of many of these games. In Grand Theft Auto (one of the most popular games available) boys progress through the world of organised crime by stealing cars, killing cops and getting involved in prostitution.
Their appeal is easy to understand – it’s a chance for boys to be everything in these games they’re not in real life - but their value is questionable at best. As international expert on video violence Professor Craig Anderson points out, active participation increases learning, as does repetition. A growing number of professional bodies from the Australian College of Paediatrics to the American Psychological Association state that kids who play violent games are more likely to be aggressive and act out the behaviour they experience in these games. Or as Flynn 16 puts it, ‘The experience is really attractive. Like the thought of shooting people. It does make you feel powerful.’
Boys can also take part in virtual sex in these online games. Cybering or mudsex as it’s also known, takes place between consenting avatars. Boys in the know can also highjack someone else’s avatar and use them in violent or sexual ways. There’s also thousands of sex workers in virtual worlds such as Second Life, who perform virtual sex for Second Life currency or real money. A recent Stanford University study shows avatars can influence attitudes and behavior, including those towards women. Both the male and female participants exposed to suggestively dressed female avatars were more likely to agree that skimpily dressed women or those out late at night deserved to be raped, for example.
One of the greatest concerns is the growing numbers of boys, some still at primary school, now accessing porn. Kids no longer have to wait till they get home to access this material. Their phones and other devices can deliver porn live to boys within minutes and in real time. And they do.
With the increased availability of online porn, and pornographic dvds in the home, whether or not parents hide their porn, boys are accessing it and viewing it with their mates. In the 2007 Canadian study of boys aged 13 to 14, more than a third viewed porn movies and dvds ‘too many times to count’. Just over seven out of ten boys accessed porn on the net, while twenty percent viewed it at a friend’s place.
There’s nothing glamorous about this sordid, often violent world. Studies indicate how desensitising and addictive it can be for young boys. ‘Boys regularly exposed to pornography run the risk of developing pro-sexual-offending attitudes,’ confirms psychologist Dr Robi Sonderegger, whose work focuses on rehabilitating young people affected by war, sexual exploitation and natural disaster. ‘Some researchers report a direct link between pornography and sexual assault. Images of sexually explicit activity are luring younger participants. Not only are more young people consuming pornography online, police data reveals more children and adolescents are starting to produce and file-share paedophilic content.’ Concerns are also growing over the role pornography plays in grooming next-generation sexual offenders. It’s interesting to see how conflicted boys can be about this material. Jacob 17 sums it up well when he says, ‘Porn kind of stays in a boy’s head.’
Hacking for fun
As kids become more sophisticated internet users, they find new ways to test their skills. A growing number of teens are altering Facebook or MySpace sites just for a laugh, or to hurt. This was evident when twelve-year-old Brisbane boy Elliott Fletcher died in an alleged schoolyard knifing, his Facebook tribute page was defaced with pornographic and other disturbing material. The same thing happened a week later after eight-year-old Trinity Bates was found murdered in Bundaberg.
Teen forums are full of distressed victims desperate to remove the graphic content posted on their site for the whole world to see. The victims are then faced with the impossibly hard task of trying to get this material removed ‘Recently discover a profile that someone has make using my pics and myspace. i have reported it but nothing has been done,’ one traumatized teenager posts online, ‘this is very upseting and honestly to god am tired of all the harassment, i feel like just ending my life to get rid of all this humilation.’
Some thrill-seekers prefer to hack into other people’s websites to steal their identities. Others are recruited by cyber gangs, who work together and compete with each other as to what they can pull off. While boys mightn’t have thought things through, they can end up with hefty fines, if not jail sentences. With some help one fifteen-year-old Michigan boy found his way into NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Californian Jet Propulsion Lab websites.
While he didn’t access sensitive information, the police found 76,000 passwords on his computer.
More teens are also struggling with gambling addiction, now that virtual poker is readily available online, and viewed on cable TV. Teenagers with gambling issues often start playing around ten. ‘(Gambling) was everywhere,’ explains Dustin, teen gambler. ‘If friends weren’t playing it, it was on TV. If it wasn’t on TV, it was on the computer.’ A 2009 Central Coast Problem Gambling Service study revealed 62 percent of under-fourteens and 77 per cent of under-seventeens had taken part in gambling for money, or such items as MP3 players or mobile phones. While one girl bet and lost her virginity.
This is a worrying trend as underage gamblers are three times more likely to be addicted to gambling, according to J Michael Farragher, of the University of Denver Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center. Breaking the addiction is often made harder as once identified, these teenage gamblers are targeted by their email with offers free poker tournaments and free spins.
Narrowing the generation gap
How to help your teenager:
- Stay well informed about new technologies.
- http://isafe.org and www.wiredsafety.org are excellent parental resources.
- Encourage your son to play It’s Your Call on www.webwisekidsorg as it covers the consequences of decisions made on the net.
- Be creative about making real life more enticing than virtual life.
- filtering services are important for children and young teens, but ultimately kids have to be self-regulating as there’s so many ways they can access inappropriate material.
- Make sure your son knows never to reveal personal details online.
- Have ongoing discussions about boundaries, appropriate material and online behavior.
- Be clear about the consequences if he doesn’t abide by the family’s online ‘policy’.
- Encourage him to be the family’s online expert, as open informed communication helps prevent risky online behavior and keeps everyone in the loop.
- Ensure he’s aware of grooming techniques - flattery, offers of friendship, gifts, access to inappropriate material, feigned interest in teen activities and blackmail.
- Take an interest in your child’s online friends, and ensure you are balanced in the attitudes you express about teen life. The new technologies are stretching, but are by no means all bad.
Maggie Hamilton is author of What’s Happening to Our Boys, What’s Happening to Our Girls? and Secret Girls’ Business all published by Penguin, www.maggiehamilton.org