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Research Reveals How Kids Learn From ‘Sex-Saturated’ Online Culture

by Kurt Wagner

Article and Image from Mashable

Is YouTube America’s new sex-ed teacher? It’s starting to look that way.

New research from author and clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair has found many teens are turning to Internet videos to educate themselves on topics relating to sexual health, including sexuality, dating, and gender stereotypes.

Societal norms around sex and dating — especially among teens — have changed dramatically in the last few years, says Steiner-Adair, and most of the change can be chalked up to a “sex-saturated culture” and the technology used to propagate it.

SEE ALSO: Keep It Clean: 8 Tools to Block Porn and Sexting

Teens may not even realize they are learning when they log in to social media sites or watch viral videos on YouTube. Often they are simply observing a sexually-charged culture that society has numbed to, says Steiner-Adair.

Steiner-Adair’s research is highlighted in her new book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, which hit shelves Tuesday. The project started four years ago when she became concerned with how people were relating to one another through technology and social media.

She has since interviewed over 1,000 children between the ages of 4 and 18, plus 1,000 parents and teachers.

Without parents monitoring what their children view online, Internet access provides teens and children with content that can be confusing, including porn or other graphic images that can create a false understanding of appropriate sexual behavior.

This confusion encourages teens in particular to behave a particular way online that they never would in face-to-face interactions, says Stenier-Adair. “[There is] a disconnect between who kids are in their heart of hearts and who they are online,” she explains. “It’s as if kids have two different selves.”

Today’s youth hasn’t simply grown up with technology at its fingertips, it turns out. They have used technology to expedite the growth process. A 2010 Pew Internet study [PDF] found that 17% of teens went to the Internet to gather sexual health information that was “hard to discuss with others.”

The result of this unintended online education and increase in social media use has been inappropriate sexual behavior among children, even as young as elementary school.

“Flirting” has transformed from a harmless note in class (“Do you like me: yes or no?”) to more aggressive texts or social media messages, in some cases even explicit photos, says Steiner-Adair.

A February report from the Urban Institute [PDF] found that 25% of dating teens have been abused or harassed online or in text messages by their partner — not including cases where harassment came from someone not involved in the relationship.

In one focus group during her research, Steiner-Adair met a 13-year-old who asked why women like being choked while having sex. The boy was basing his question on a YouTube video he’d seen. In other instances, children as young as 8 years old have imitated pornography at school, again prompted by online videos. “There’s been really radical change in the last couple years with how boys and girls are flirting and courting,” says Steiner-Adair. “We have lost the barriers to protect childhood.”

One of the more surprising elements of Steiner-Adair’s research is that boys often fail to realize they are acting inappropriately when they are degrading to girls or use abusive language — they think they’re flirting.Too often, “you grow up and join the dominant culture,” she says — a culture that YouTube mirrors, warts and all.

SEE ALSO: Ad Illustrates How Sexting Can Ruin a Teen’s Life

The negative impact this type of behavior has on girls is often studied. But Steiner-Adair says that boys are hurt by it, too, feeling trapped and pressured to behave in ways that rid them of their natural sweetness.”[Simply] saying ‘boys will be boys’ is abandoning the rich, inner lives of young men,” she says.

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