Substance abuse among tweens is sky-rocketing across the country. It’s not just media hype– experimentation with drugs and alcohol is no longer just for kids on the fringes and is regularly occurring earlier than most parents realize.
Unlike most parents’ middle school experiences, experimenting with substances in 7th or 8th grade is not uncommon. I work strictly with tweens and teens who share stories with me that their parents would never imagine to be real. In fact, many who begin to dabble with substance use in high school report that they feel they “started late” when compared to their peers.
What’s a parent to do?
First it is important to recognize the science. There is no argument that the human brain continues to develop well into the mid-20s. In fact, some report that the tween brain develops at a pace so rapid that the only more dramatic period of growth is during infancy.
Scientifically speaking it makes sense to take a hard-line on substance abuse, especially during the tween years. Studies are routinely showing that the longer a kid stays away from substance use (and the longer their brain can therefore develop without exposure to drugs or alcohol), the less likely they are to develop a substance addiction in their lifetime.
Second, stay on top of what is trending. For parents today, it requires a serious effort to stay informed about the drug scene. While alcohol and marijuana are still the most popular and drugs like ecstasy are quite prevalent, it’s also worth noting that tweens often abuse easy-to-find OTC cough suppressants such as Robotusin or Coricidin for quick highs. Others will raid their parents’ medical cabinet to experiment with prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, Xanax, Vicodin and ADHD drugs like Ritalin.
The emergence of “designer drugs ” which produce significant highs, are largely legal, and go undetected on drug tests are presenting a new sort of challenge for even the most diligent parents. Substances like synthetic marijuana (known commonly as Spice or K2), salvia (famously used by Miley Cyrus), and even bath salts are as easy to obtain as a pack of cigarettes in many states and are quite popular among the tween population.
Finally, try to understand why substance abuse is becoming more common during these formative tween years and discuss it with your kids. Sometimes it’s as simple as a tween modeling the behavior of their older siblings. The majority of tweens want to be perceived as mature and participating is their attempt to be cool. Many tweens are struggling socially. For some kids, becoming a partier gives them an immediate group to belong to. Other tweens are self-medicating for depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
I cannot covey how many highly-invested, highly-educated parents I’ve worked with who had no clue that their tween was experimenting with drugs or alcohol until something serious occurred.
Here are some tips to help you navigate this slippery slope with your tween:
- Drug test and breathalyze intermittently but regularly. If your kid knows you are testing, they will often think twice. This also allows your kid an easy excuse to say no when facing tough peer pressure from friends.
- Take a zero tolerance stance. Tweens don’t typically practice anything in moderation. Think along the terms of red light or green light.
- Do not tell your tween of your substance use history until they are through high school. Yes, it will be tempting to open up and share with a curious tween, but try to avoid it. While you may be stating, “Yes, but…” all your tween hears is, “Yes!” After all, you turned out okay so how bad could it be?
- Monitor your tweens cell phone and Internet use. Tweens discuss their interest in substance use with their peers. This is a great way to catch issues either before it occurs or at least before it becomes a serious problem.
- Have tangible and immediate consequences if you catch your tween experimenting. Yelling or lecturing at your tween is a meaningless annoyance to them. By calmly issuing the consequence for their choice and by following through on your discipline, you set a clear standard.
- Keep your tween busy. Although you do not want to overload your kids, the more structure they have, the less down time they will have to experiment. After all, bored kids tend to find their way to trouble faster.
- Know the key terms. Kids have created an alternate vocabulary for drugs and alcohol so that parents do not pick up on their discussions. Visit my websitewww.drjerryweichman.com to learn these terms or follow me on Twitter using the handle @drjerryweichman for additional ways you can help your child.
A few years ago I asked my twentysomething son why he avoided attending my public lectures on the effects of porn on our culture. He looked me in the eye and responded “mom, nobody wants to have the word mom, and the word porn in the same sentence.” He was right. And this makes it especially difficult for mothers – and indeed fathers also – to bring up the topic of porn with our sons, but if we avoid this discussion then we leave our boys vulnerable to a predatory industry that spends millions of dollars on researching how to attract younger and younger consumers. The average age of first viewing porn is 11, and given that the majority of boys at this age have little prior experience of sex, porn is most likely the first time boys get to see what “sex” actually looks like.
But sex in porn is not about making love. The feelings and emotions we normally associate with such an act – connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection – are missing, and in their place are those we normally associate with hate – fear, disgust, anger, loathing, and contempt. In porn, the man “makes hate” to the woman, as each sex act is designed to deliver the maximum amount of degradation. Slapping, spitting, choking, and vile name calling are commonplace in porn today, and no act is too painful or demeaning for women, since according to porn, the greater the abuse, the hotter the sex.
Defenders of porn say that it is just harmless fantasy and anyone who criticizes porn is an anti-sex prude. The reality is that porn, like all media images, has an effect on the way we think about the world, and while it won’t turn the average boy or man into a rapist, it will help shape the way he thinks about women, sexuality and intimacy. Indeed, it will impact on how he thinks about his own sexuality. To think for a moment that boys can masturbate to these images and not be affected is to ignore how we, as social beings, learn what it means to be human from the cultural messages that surround us.
From an early age boys are bombarded with messages about what it means to be a “real man,” and any deviation from this leaves a boy open to humiliation and ridicule. As boys get older, there is tremendous peer pressure to look at porn since this is seen as a rite of passage into manhood. Just take a quick look at the enormously popular adolescent boy movies of Judd Apatow, or listen to Howard Stern, or play any bestselling video games, to see how porn use is seamlessly packaged as an integral part of being a man. The end result is that rather than developing a sexual identity that is authentic, affirming, and in keeping with their own developmental time clock, boys are bullied into a sexuality that is created by a bunch of predatory businessmen whose goal is to maximize profits, not nurture the wellbeing of our sons.
After twenty years of traveling the country giving lectures on porn, I have spoken to thousands of men and while it is clear that not all are affected in the same way, affected they are. Remember, this is the generation that grew up with Internet porn, and unlike previous generations these boys and men have an unlimited supply to hardcore porn 24 hours a day.
These young men have become so accustomed to porn sex that some are disappointed by their own sexual performance. When they compare themselves to the male porn actors, who can sustain Viagra-fortified erections for long periods of time, the guys I talk to often admit to feeling like sexual losers, and worry that something is wrong with them. Adam grew up watching his father’s porn and felt that “porn taught me all I know about sex. My parents never mentioned the word sex at home, and sex ed in school was a … joke. I had this image of how great sex would be, both of us going at it for hours. So it was kind of a shock the way the real thing turned out…”
What troubles many of these young men most is that they need to pull up the porn images in their head in order to have an orgasm with their partner. They replay porn scenes in their minds, or think about having sex with their favorite porn star when they are with their partners. Dan was concerned about his sexual performance with women. He told me that “I can’t get the pictures … out of my head when having sex, and I am not really focusing on the girl but on the last scene I watched.” I asked him if he thought porn had in any way affected his sexuality. He said, “I don’t know. I started looking at porn before I had sex, so porn is pretty much how I learned about sex. It can be a kind of problem to think about porn as much as I do, especially when I’m with my girlfriend. It means I’m not really present with her. My head is somewhere else.”
What is new over the last five years or so is college-age men admitting their addiction to pornography, and I am not the only one to hear this. Sex and relationship therapists Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz discuss in their book “The Porn Trap” how therapists are seeing a rising wave of porn addicts looking for help. They found both in their practice and from interviewing other therapists that “what used to be a small problem for relatively few people had grown to a societal issue that was spilling over and causing problems in the lives of countless everyday people.”
The men at colleges I speak to who are addicted do indeed end up in serious trouble; they neglect their school work, spend huge amounts of money they don’t have, they become isolated from others and often suffer depression. They know that something is wrong, feel out of control and don’t know how to stop. While men may share their favorite porn stories, they don’t tend to talk to each other about their addictive behavior, which further adds to their feelings of isolation. Ted described his addiction in this way: “I never thought I would become so dependent on porn for sex. I can’t get away from it, even though I know that this is no longer just a phase in my life. I don’t know how to stop it.”
Never before have we brought up a generation of boys on hardcore porn so we are actually in the midst of a massive social experiment. The only problem here is that most of us did not sign up to be participants. What can we do about this? Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets. Education can help people open their eyes to the issue, and can move people to start taking control of their lives. I recommend that parents read all they can about porn so they feel comfortable about opening up a dialogue with their children.
I have been on many talk shows where someone invariably says that it is up to the parents to keep their kids away from porn. Certainly we have a part to play but the reality is that the culture should be helping us to raise our kids, not undermining us at every turn. The pornographers have done a stealth attack and it is now time to fight back. We can’t do this only on an individual level so we need to build a movement that empowers parents and children to resist the porn culture. The first step is a grass roots education campaign aimed at raising consciousness to the harms of porn as a way to build a community of like-minded people.
One tool in this battle is an anti-porn slide show developed by the founders (including me) of the activist group called Stop Porn Culture (stoppornculture.org). This show is now being given in homes, community centers, colleges, schools and anti-violence organizations across the country. It is a way to start the discussion and to encourage people to become active. It is important to build a network in your area because your children need the support of a peer group if they are to stand outside the porn culture. Ultimately this movement is based on the belief that the culture belongs to us, not the pornographers, and they have no right to rob our children of an authentic and life-loving sexuality that is based on connection, intimacy and equality.
As parents of a tween, it’s always helpful to try to stay ahead of the curve so that you can understand what your child is getting involved in and be prepared to determine it’s appropriateness. If you’re like many, your pre-teen probably knows more about social networking than you do (the first clue to the technology fast track was when your tween changed your settings on your cell phone). If you already have a Facebook account and want to get a better understanding of how to use Facebook effectively (and how your tween might use Facebook), an important step is to gain a solid understanding of the various settings you can choose as a part of your profile. The settings are, in essence, the boundaries that you choose to define your “appearance” on Facebook. If you don’t already have a Facebook account and would like to see what the buzz is about, check outFacebook 101 for Parents of Tweens for information on how to get started.
One of the best pieces of advice we can offer to a new Facebook user is to test the waters (once you’ve friended someone who will act as your guinea pig!). Get a good sense of what happens when you take certain actions. As long as you’re interacting with a trusted friend, you’ll begin to see how the communications flow works. This kind of understanding will give you some good information to make informed settings decisions that will meet your needs.
Not surprising, the most often cited reason for people not participating inFacebook is that they have privacy concerns. When it comes to privacy, you have a few philosophical decisions to make. Either you limit the information you post, or you include a good amount of information and utilize Facebook’s privacy preferences. Or you could do some of both. Not unlike getting comfortable paying your bills online, there’s a leap of faith to entrust Facebook with your personal information. Since trust and integrity are integral to Facebook’s reputation, the company puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of both.
Once signed in, click Settings in the upper right hand corner and select Privacy Settings. Virtually every aspect of the information you provided about yourself and what you post becomes your choice of whether it can be viewed by others. This includes: Profile, Basic Info, Personal Info, Status and Links, Photos Tagged of You, Videos Tagged of You, Walls Posts, Education Info and Work Info. You can also select who gets to view any of this information from your profile, including: Everyone, My Network and Friends, Friends of Friends, and Only Friends. Further, you can customize your profile to exclude specific people (this is the setting you don’t want your tween to select, i.e., excluding you!) from various aspects of your profile and postings. While making a determination of who sees what, think about all of the potential viewers before selecting “everyone” from the menu (i.e., child, spouse, employer, potential friends, search engines…literally, everyone!).
The more information you include in your public profile, the greater the chance of being “found” (great if you’re trying to connect with old friends, not-so-great if you want to stay incognito!). It’s helpful that you can check to see how you appear to others by typing in a friend’s name in the indicated box on the same page; you’ll then be able to view what they see about you.
It’s important to note that you have, through the Settings and Privacy path, the ability to block specific people from finding/seeing you on Facebook. When someone is on your Block list, they can’t search for you on Facebook (and therefore can’t friend you); they can’t write on your wall and they can’t write a message to you. And, they won’t be able to see what you’ve written on someone’s wall or anywhere else on the site.
Setting Tween Boundaries
Once you’re up-to-speed, in thinking through your comfort level with your tween’s use of Facebook, there are several factors that you’ll want to consider and be prepared to address with your pre-teen, such as:
- If your pre-teen is under 13, he/she will have to falsely claim to be at least 13 to get an account. This is important because, if you’re OK with letting your tween confirm an older age during the sign-up process, it’s worth a discussion about when it’s OK and when it’s not OK to falsely state information (which, of course, opens up a whole can of worms, doesn’t it?!?)
- Will you require your pre-teen to friend you so that you can see the type of communication taking place among his/her friends? If you believe this is important, and many people do, you need to decide how firm you’ll be with your “request.” Friending your tween will enable you to access their profile, photo albums and wall (where others post comments). Some parents require being friended as a quid pro quo for their pre-teen’s opportunity to have a Facebook account. Your tween may heartily resist friending you, claiming that other kids don’t need to. Be prepared. FYI, once your tween becomes proficient on Facebook, they’ll likely discover that they can limit the data you see from their profile (just as you can limit theirs); hopefully they won’t figure this part out too soon. By the way, you should also know that you can be “un-friended” without notification. All you need to do is: click on the person’s profile, go toward the bottom of the page (left column) and click “Remove from Friends.” If you are friended with your tween, you might want to check periodically to make sure you haven’t been un-friended!
- Will you allow your tween to post (and tag) photos? Putting a name with a picture is a scary idea for many parents. All you need is an address or a commonplace location and there could be an element of familiarity that makes someone seem harmless to an unsuspecting tween. In actuality, however, privacy settings can ensure that only friends can see the details of yours/their tagged photos. It depends on your level of comfort.
- How much time will you allow your pre-teen to spend on Facebook each day/week? This can be tricky. Some pre-teens have to carefully manage overall technology screen time. Others have a brief fascination and move on. It’s an individual tween/family decision of course, but might be addressed under the broader consideration that includes all technology. As one parent pointed out, “I don’t mind that my tween has a DS, a Wii, and participates in social networking…at least I have a carrot or stick to get them to follow the rules!”
- Who will you friend among your tween’s peers? The expert consensus is to let your tween’s friends and children of your friends send you the “friending” invitations. That way, except for your own child, you won’t be interfering (and heaven forbid, cause your tween embarrassment!). Also, of note, once you have your tween and his/her friends in your circle, you can no longer “speak” without a filter. So, keep that in mind as you post your quips!
Features and Jargon
Newsfeed – the Newsfeed is located on the home page of your profile. It updates you about your friends‘ activities via their postings and profile changes. You can also have a chance to comment on your friends‘ activities. Others can comment on your comments, and so on! There are several settings options related to the Newsfeed that can again be accessed through Settings and Privacy Settings.
Wall Posting – think of wall posting as the sharing of public comments that you might post on a bulletin board. They’re also helpful for sharing links and videos appropriate for a broad audience. Many of us have experienced the misfortune of sending an email that was misinterpreted; perhaps something you thought was funny was interpreted as angry or your wording was too bossy or worse! The same can happen with Facebook. Keep in mind that changes to your profile picture, edits to your information and uploaded pictures, links and videos will often prompt comments to your wall from your friends. Generally, in your communications, be careful about how you “sound” and, whatever you do, don’t write anything that would embarrass your tween!
Sending Messages and Chat – the Message and Chat features functions much the same way as email and instant messaging in general. It’s between you and yourfriend.
Groups – Facebook users can choose to join any number of Facebook groups. Some may choose groups that are silly (fans of a YouTube Video), others may chose groups based upon an affiliation (fans of Abercrombie). Some may be chosen based on reality and others may be chosen based on aspiration. If you don’t like the group your tween has chosen to be a part of, it might be worth a conversation to understand his/her interest that particular group.
Pokes – “You’ve been poked. Do you want to poke back?” Pokes are silly gestures that really do nothing except point out to the Pokee that you’re connecting.
Quizzes – some people are prolific quiz takers. Are you really interested to share, “What famous literary character are you most like?” or “Which college stereotype are you”? If you like the quizzes, just be sure that you don’t include a quiz like “What’s Your Kissing Style”? It’s probably too much information and will surely embarrass your tween!
Don’t Wave Your “Freak Flag”
A big parent no-no is to express too much on Facebook! For example, photos of yourself or embarrassing photos of your tween (at any point in his/her life!) will likely put your pre-teen over the top. If you do choose to let photos be tagged, your tween’s friends will get notice that there’s a new photo of him/her online. Likewise, too much information on walls and other postings could not only cause your pre-teen to shudder, you may have professional connections that would be awkward!
One way to stay abreast of issues that arise and new updates on Facebook is to periodically search on Google or another search engine if you have any questions. You’d be surprised what a search such as “Facebook privacy” can reveal. Or if you have a concern about an issue in the news, just search it online and get some more information. Also, the Help Center along the bottom of the page is a great tool to learn more about functionality.
And, don’t forget to enjoy the fun part of social networking!
Last week, a Long Island high school senior committed suicide, and the website Formspring.me is suspected as a cause. Yet most parents don’t even know it exists. Formspring is the latest cyberscourge for teens. It lets you open an account and allows your anonymous audience – usually your classmates – to communicate with brutal honesty. By which I mean breathtaking cruelty.
Formspring takes cybercruelty to a new low by making it appear consensual. You sign up for your own account, literally inviting others to bash you with their “honest” opinions. Because it appears consensual, it no longer seems like cybercruelty at all. It just becomes another avenue for teens to communicate, and it desensitizes them to what they’re doing.
“I hate you,” writes one peer.
“You’re slutty,” opines another.
Account holders are always able to respond, and most act as if they don’t care.
“I’d f*** you,” muses one.
“thanks I mean very blunt but still flattering,” responds the account holder.
Remember, these are often friends writing the comments. To wit:
“I’ve known you for a long time. you’re not even that good at soccer. you just had one really good season…”
As you might expect, cyberbombs like this usually launch the account holder into an extended freak out about who could have written it. Imagine walking the halls or sitting in class, never knowing who is saying what on your Formspring. Not exactly conducive to good focus on your studies, if you get my drift.
I suspect girls are especially vulnerable to Formspring for several reasons:
- Most girls are passionately invested in their friendships and what others think of them. At the same time, they constantly second guess their peers about what they really think and mean. As I showed in The Curse of the Good Girl, the ubiquity of “just kidding” and the pressure to keep friendships conflict-free force lots of truth underground. Girls know it. Formspring gives you a perverse chance to “really find out what others think of you.”
- Many girls define social success as being liked by everyone. Despite my best efforts as a speaker, educator and mentor to tell girls that it just ain’t gonna happen, Formspring lets hope spring eternal: you can open an account and maybe, just maybe, you won’t get a mean comment. You’ll be that girl who everyone really loves!
There is zero, and I mean zero, value in this website and no girl or boy should spend a minute on it. Formspring creates unnecessary emotional risks. It legitimizes cybercruelty and divorces kids from responsibility for their words. You can pretty much file Formspring along with wouldn’t-it-be-fun-to-stand-on the-railroad-tracks-and-jump-right-before-the-train-comes and I’m-sure-no-one-will-notice-if-I-just-pocket-this-one-mascara.
So what to do? Here’s what I suggest. Start a conversation with your daughter about Formspring. Ask her if people at school use it (don’t start off by grilling her about what she does or she may scare and fly away). Ask her what she thinks of it. Then ask her if she uses it.
If she says yes, tell her she’s banned for life from the website. Period. Here’s what I tell kids when I suggest they stop using it:
- It’s an invitation for people to be evil to each other without taking responsibility, which means people will exaggerate and even outright lie just to hurt you.
- By inviting people to say harmful things to you, and spending time reading about it, you disrespect yourself.
- There will always be haters. You will never be someone who is 100% liked by everyone. That doesn’t mean you need to set up a website to catalog who those people are. Focus on the relationships that bring you happiness and security, not people who tear you down.
Even if your daughter says no one has ever said anything mean to her, hold your ground. It’s only a matter of time.
If your daughter denies having an account, open your own account here (it’s very easy) and begin searching for your daughter by her name. Most kids include their full names in their accounts.
If you know me, you know I’m not in the habit of telling you to go behind your kid’s back. You can imagine how dangerous I find this website if I’m urging you to do it at all.
The only thing moving faster than tweens growing up is the ever-changing technology landscape! It’s hard enough, as adults, to stay abreast of moving-at-the-speed-of-light technology, but in order to offer guidance, we need to try to stay one step ahead (or at least a half of a step!).
There is no doubt that online social networking is here to stay – it’s one of the hottest, evolving trends for people who share similar interests. New social networking websites are being introduced all the time. In addition to the teen/adult focused sites that, not surprisingly, some tweens use (such as facebook, myspace and bebo), the more popular tween-focused social networking sites include: allykatzz, imbee, stardoll, whyville. clubpenguin, and webkinz, to name a handful. Each site has some basic similarities, but each also has it’s own “personality.”
When you think about it, there’s always been some form of communication that preteens overused to keep in touch with their peers. In the early 1900s, it was letter writing. Then, it was the phone. So, now it’s the internet — the bottom line is, kids have a strong need to socialize with each other!
Development Stage Impacts on Tweens’ Social Networking Needs
When considering approaches for parental involvement, it’s important to understand your tween’s position on the development continuum. According to the Byron Review, “Children and New Technology,” young tweens…are still immature at self-regulation, and their ability to inhibit and control impulses and emotions is still well below that observed in adults. This is the time when children begin exploring websites beyond the boundaries originally set for them by their parents.” Management of their “media diet” should begin to move from heavy control to supervision and increased discussion about online behavior. The goal is to support your tween to develop critical evaluation and self-management skills.
With older tweens, according to the Byron Review, they’re experiencing “a significant drive for social interactions. The focus of the child’s social world changes from the home and family to the external world, to peers and idols as individuation (the process of disengaging from the family unit, and beginning to become an autonomous, independent adult) begins.” It’s a time “to move towards collaborative management…empower them by discussing risk and mediate interpretation of challenging content.”
From a preteen’s perspective, social networking can be an exciting experience and a wonderful learning opportunity. The chance to share, learn and compare with another peer can be fascinating. But, as parents, we need to provide our preteens with insights and tools to be aware of basic safety precautions, online etiquette, and an appropriate amount of screen time.
Social Networking Isn’t All Bad!
Once safey, appropriateness and commercialism are addressed, used effectively, social networking sites can offer benefits for tweens:
- Gives preteens an opportunity to interact with friends (both “real world” friends that they convene with online as well as “cyber” friends that they meet through low-risk socializing).
- Allows tweens to distance themselves from real time, in-person interactions, to effectively take a break. While a steady diet of only this type of interaction would be too much, it offers a complement to school, where children interact with each other every day, throughout the day.
- Enables tweens to construct their thoughts in a written format, giving them a chance to edit before they share their ideas.
- Offers a means to gain basic computer literacy experience. As homework demands increase and use of the computer and internet become tools to help support learning, having keyboarding and general usage skills can be of value.
- Provides a way to share creative works. This could also be an opportunity to become familiar with document software and 21st century journaling!
- Promotes familiarity with marketplace activities. Some of the sites offer educational potential in the form of introducing earning opportunities and strategies for gaming success.
Safe Online Social Networking
First and foremost, educate yourself. You can hear about sites from your tween and their friends in addition to doing your own research (do a search for “top tween social networking sites” to find out the most recent additions to the mix). Read about these sites and visit them to get the most comprehensive picture.
In addition, consider some basic social networking tips and suggestions as you help your preteen navigate online social networks safely and effectively:
- Keep the computer out of private spaces, so you can always take a look at what sites your child is visiting (and they’ll know you’re nearby while they’re socializing).
- Join your child’s online groups, either via sites that require your permission to join or by adding your own profile and insisting that your child “friend” you.
- Share your thoughts about communications etiquette with your child. Ensure your preteen thinks about the impact of words (without body language) in the form of written communications. Words can be misinterpreted.
- Ensure that your tween understands the need for privacy and not sharing personal information on line.
- Finally, reinforce the importance of telling you when something doesn’t feel right about an online interaction.