THE BLOG
02/25/2016 01:42 pm ET | Updated Feb 25, 2016

Teens, Cyberbullying, Sexual Harassment and Social Media: The New Normal?

From slut shaming to sexual harassment in the workplace, we aren't immune to headlines of sexual misconduct from adults -- even professionals such as former Rep. Anthony Weiner.

The real growing concern is the online sexual harassment facing our youth, especially teenage girls.

Is social media ruining the lives of teenagers?

Nancy Jo Sales, award winning author of The Bling Ring and of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Lives of Teenagers, said in a recent NY Post article:

"I spoke to girls who said, 'social media is destroying our lives,' " Sales says. " 'But we can't go off it, because then we'd have no life.' There's this whole perception that [teenage girls] love social media, but in many ways they hate it. But they don't stop, because that's where teen culture is happening."

Her latest book explores how teenagers' lives revolve around social media and how social media is the center of many of their emotions, activities, relationships, and possibly their futures.

"Sex sells, whether your 13 or 35." - Nancy Jo Sales

Our grandparents' generation blushed when the word sex was even spoken.

Now sexting is the new form of flirting, and sending sexual images or comments has become the new normal for teenagers. But that doesn't make it right, especially when it comes to unwelcome sext messages.

Today our teen's playgrounds involve apps and sites called Snapchat, Kik, Twitter, Instagram, Whisper, Tumblr, YouTube, Vine etc. This isn't about the apps or sites -- which can't seem to monitor their platforms 100% -- this is about online social behavior and parenting. This is about your teenager making appropriate decisions, which isn't easy when they're being influenced by digital peer pressure. It's why parents must be involved in their children's lives -- both offline and online.

Teens aren't the only ones playing with fire: a PRIMUS/PrevNet 2015 study shared that one in five parents admitted to digitally sharing intimate photos and/or sexual messages. That's disturbing when you consider the divorce rate is currently at 41% for a first marriage and 60% for a second marriage. Parents (and everyone else, for that matter) need to pause before sending sex-related texts and/or pictures -- you need to consider the potential consequences of a relationship going sour. Revenge porn has become a major issue, but no one believes it could happen to them when a relationship is going well. And with teens it can quickly turn to sexual harassment and cyberbullying.

It's fair to say that there should be a healthy balance when it comes to sex, however teens sexting or posting sexual images and comments online is simply not acceptable and could potentially have legal consequences.

As Sales pointed out in her recent TIME article, Social Media and the Secret Life of Teens:

"Accompanying the boom in selfie culture is a rise in competitive spirit, as well as a disturbing trend of sexualization. Likes, hearts, swipes -- ¬validation is only a tap away. And one of the easiest ways to get that validation is by looking hot. Sex sells, whether you're 13 or 35."

In a recent study in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, they surveyed 1015 students between the ages of 11 and 19. Over 300 had experienced sexual harassment through social media within the previous six months. The study defined harassment as unwelcome or graphic "sexual and gender-degrading comments." Only 60% reported the abuse to social media providers and only half of them responded -- while the offending content was removed in only 18 cases.

Are teens smarter than we think?

Why aren't teens reporting online sexual harassment?

As adults, we know never to engage with online bullies, or people that cyber-stalk us. We know to report them online, we preach to our children, "please tell an adult if you are being harassed or bullied online."

The survey revealed that some students said they were concerned that complaining would make their situation worse.

This is exactly why your offline conversations are so critical. Teenagers who still believe that it will only create more trouble if they report even a minor incident of sexual harassment (or any harassment), also say there's a parent or adult in their life that isn't teaching them enough about boundaries. Your teen needs to understand that they can come to you for support no matter how small (or big) the issue is (whether online or offline).

Other surveyed students were convinced that reporting wasn't going to make a difference. Again, what happened to the offline conversations with your teenager?

Sadly, the students might have a point; however, it should make a difference to the adults in his/her life. As far as social media is concerned, adults need to start stepping up to the plate and paying attention to the experiences of these youth who are being "stripped-down" online.

The co-author of the survey, Kathleen Van Royen, told the Washington Post, "The results suggest there is room for improvement for providers to deal with harassment reports ... It is important for providers to actually do something with these reports."

The survey concluded that teens rarely report when they are being sexually harassed online, and when they do, they hardly ever get help from social media providers. Adults, you can turn this around by letting your children know they can report any type of harassment to you, and you will be there for them. Maybe social media platforms will start to pay attention if parents get involved.

Whether or not social media platforms begin to take appropriate measures to protect teens, the most important thing you can do as a parent is to let your teen know you are their advocate.

Takeaway tips:

• Occasionally ask your teen if they're being harassed online. Remind them you are always there for them.
• Start a conversation with your teen about social media life and Nancy Jo Sales research.
• Take time to sign up for any apps your teen is on. Learn about them.
• Never stop your offline conversations or going online with your teen. Keep learning from each other.

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