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Young people’s views about sexual content online

As the 12- and 13-year-old girls tell New York magazine writer Alex Morris how they use Omegle, another ChatRoulette-type site (in groups with fake names and disconnecting often and fast when the chat gets “perverted”), they describe how differently boys handle sexual content online. It reminds me of a thought-provoking 2005 Boston Globe article, “The Secret Life of Boys” (that I blogged about here). In this year’s piece, the girls make it clear they can handle this stuff – they toy with the people who start doing “disgusting” things and hit Disconnect, they tell Morris. “The girls know to be wary of strangers on the Internet – but they’re also wary of how the web is affecting the boys they might actually want to date.” They liken the gender difference to how, when kids are little, girls avoid mud puddles so they won’t get their clothes dirty, while boys jump right in. Then the girls say exposure to Net porn can make boys “kind of, like, inappropriate” … “perverts at a younger age” but (maybe hopefully?) they add, “it’s just a stage in middle school … once they get older, they’ll grow out of it.” Though suggesting it would never happen to them, they tell Morris that sometimes boys want their girlfriends to do what they see in online porn. But Morris leads the article with the story of a 14-year-old posting non-nude but highly suggestive photos online to get reactions (see this about online attention-getting), especially from her boyfriend. [She apparently loves his protectiveness but refuses to delete the photos when he suggests she do that because of the content of other boys’ comments (but she also tells Morris she’d never post nude photos, just suggestive ones).]

So this is what sounds just like back in 2005, pre-social networking: “This is the paradoxical fear of many heterosexual 14-year-olds girls: that the Internet is making boys more aggressive sexually – more accepting of graphic images or violence toward women – but also … less interested in the standard-issue, flesh-and-bone girls they encounter in real life…. This puts young women in the sometimes uncomfortable position of trying to bridge the gap.” Is that why the 14-year-old above was posting suggestive photos? There are more questions than answers, but Pew/Internet turned up some reasons – see their findings on sexting, the taking and sending of nude photos on phones in which – it’s important to remember – 96% of youth surveyed do not engage, Pew said. And Morris writes, “While it’s not surprising that adults believe today’s youth are navigating a brave new world, what is surprising is that the kids themselves – who’ve never known anything different – feel that way, too. They get that they are in a strange, uncharted place.”

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