A few recently released studies on teens, sex, and technology have some folks all a-flutter. ZOMG! Teh sex! Before any of us use the results to defend our hard line on MySpace or cell phones in libraries, though, we should look a little bit more closely at what these studies–and so many like them–can really tell us about our teens.

A nationwide survey commissioned by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com of teens (13-19) and young adults (20-26; in case you were wondering, fewer than 700 members of each group participated) found, among other ZOMG! results, that one in five teens are using technology (like Teh Internets and cell phones) to send “sexually explicit” pictures of themselves to others. Two studies that appeared in the January issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, meanwhile, show that half of teens who are MySpace users have posted information about sexual behavior, substance abuse or violence.

So let’s break this down, shall we?

My first reaction: none of these behaviors are really all that new. Just as face-to-face bullying was well established before cyber-bullying was even a blip on the horizon, teens have been having sex since sex was invented. We can (and should) certainly have a conversation about whether these actions in themselves are healthy, but let’s not pretend that the availability of the internet or camera phones necessarily makes teens any less healthy. I’m particularly inclined to cut Teh Internets some slack since a Pew Institute Report found that teens are actually more likely than their older adult counterparts to restrict access to their online photos.

I also think it’s important to note that access to social media might actually mean that some teens are more openly and honestly discussing topics that have long been considered taboo. A study released last June by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital showed that adolescents were more likely to report “high-risk” behaviors when they were given the means for electronic entry than they were either on paper or in face-to-face interviews with physicians.’  Now, this isn’t to say that teens are completely averse to interacting with doctors or other adults. In the MySpace studies, some teens who divulged high-risk behaviors in their profiles were emailed by a doctor, who highlighted the importance of online privacy and provided information on how to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. 15% of the teens who were emailed took down some of the sensitive information, compared with 5% of the teens who never received such an email.

(As a side note–would you be a little creeped out if some random physician emailed you based on your MySpace profile? I think I would. But that’s just me…)

So what does this all mean for libraries?

I fear that some librarians, sadly, will use these studies as ammunition in trying to further marginalize social media in their libraries. Many school districts already block social networking sites and ban cell phones in school buildings. Because blocking websites (which teens know how to circumvent, just by the way–and often better than a lot of adults) is so much easier than, you know, providing access to balanced information or having open conversations about tricky topics.

Maybe I’m not being fair. I do like to think that librarians, parents and other adults really have their teens’ best interests in mind, even if I don’t agree with the means they use–particularly when those means involve banning certain materials from libraries. And I know I’m lucky. Yesterday a student in my library asked if we had any books about sex (actually, he tried to pretend his friend wanted to know, but she very quickly cleared that up), and once we got over our initial case of the nervous giggles, we were able to talk about what he really wanted, and I sent him off with a copy of Hoodwinked–a book (and a publishing house) many YA collections can’t or won’t circulate.

For me, this is the bottom line: I’d rather talk to my students about Quentin Carter or Good Girls than trust a random survey of MySpace profiles. I’d rather see Body Drama in heavy circulation than believe that CosmoGirl really has the best interests of young women in mind. And I’d rather have to police the very occasional misuse of YouTube or cellphones in my library than know my teens think they can’t talk to me about a subject we adults have declared off-limits.

About mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.

3 Thoughts on “Risky Business

  1. I think you’re absolutely right about the ‘legacy’ of these behaviors. For the most part, the only thing that’s new is the vehicle in which bullying or explicit-picture sharing is done. The internet is quickly bringing on an age where these is very, very little privacy. I think these things are just getting more exposure on myspace and livejournal than in their original forms. I hope other librarians like yourself will respond to this not with an iron, limiting fist but a discerning caring openness.

  2. Megan Moreno on March 11, 2009 at 10:37 am said:

    Hello, I came across your blog and really enjoyed reading it.

    You are right, none of these adolescent risky behaviors are new, but the ability to publish these behaviors in an online format that is globally accessible and permanently archived does raise some new risks for teens. I have had a few patients who have applied for jobs and been turned down due to the content of their MySpace profiles. You mentioned that you felt the email sent in my research study was creepy, I can understand that might be the case for you. I might argue that finding out your child’s babysitter has a nude photo on her Facebook page is also a bit creepy, a colleague of mine had that experience. I think it is all a bit creepy because it is all new, and we are all in this together to try to figure out how to provide appropriate guidance and support to adolescents. Knowing that this topic is being considered by Youth Librarians makes me quite optimistic for the future.

    Thanks again.

  3. Thanks for joining the conversation, Megan!

    I do want to take issue with one of your points–social networking profiles are not “globally accessible.” Aside from issues of filtering and blocking around the world, all the major networking sites offer privacy settings–which, as I mentioned in the post, teens are actually More likely to use than their older adult counterparts. Part of our job as librarians (and as adults in general) is to make sure teens know about these options and learn how to create an online presence that will help rather than hinder their future success.

    I think Emily’s point above is also a great one. Sure, now you might find out that a babysitter has a nude photo on Facebook–but decades ago you might have found out that she posed nude for Playboy. (The question of whether this makes her an unsuitable babysitter is, I think, a different discussion.)

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