Published in the Bay Area Health & Wellness Magazine, Houston. Visit us at txhwmagazines.com
Adolescence is often described as a period of storm and stress – where children begin separating from parents, establishing their own identities, and discovering their sexuality. This development into junior adulthood coincides with myriad hormonal, physical, and emotional changes. In short, adolescence is difficult, overwhelming, and taxing. The fact that most kids make it through this critically important developmental period to be better human beings than when they entered is remarkable.
The fact that parents of adolescents make it through this period is nothing short of miraculous. And as if this period wasn’t hard enough, we now have to deal with smartphones – at the dinner table, on vacation, while they’re sleeping. Now we worry about cyberbullying, online predators, hundreds of dollars of in-app purchases from Clash of Clans to…SEXTING.
Sexting is defined as sending or receiving sexually explicit messages or images/video via electronic means (usually phones). My team at the University of Texas Medical Branch published some of the first studies on this relatively new behavior. While research in this area is still new, we and others have consistently shown that teen sexting is common and that it is often associated with real life sexual behavior.
Between 15% and 30% of adolescents have participated in sexting, with higher rates reported by older adolescents or when the sext is limited to just messages (no images). In my study of nearly 1000 teens, 28% of boys and 28% of girls had sent a naked picture of themselves to another teen. Nearly 70% of girls had been asked to send a naked picture.
Like all studies published on the topic, my research also shows that teens who sext are substantially more likely to be sexually active. Indeed, in a study published in the journal Pediatrics, my colleague and I recently found that teens who sexted were more likely to be sexually active over the next year, regardless of prior sexual history.
These statistics will alarm any parent. But should they? The short answer is “maybe.”
Let me begin by saying that I don’t want my kids sexting. That being said, most sexts are harmless in that they are seen only by the intended recipient and not the entire school, they do not end up on the internet, and they do not land the teen in jail. “Normal,” well-behaved kids sext, and accumulating evidence suggests that, when not coerced, sexting is not likely to have psychological consequences.
Furthermore, more teens are having real sex than are sexting. Thus, our priority should be promoting healthy relationships and teaching teens evidence-based and comprehensive sex education. Sexting education should be a part of this, but not at the expense of valuable information on the importance of delaying sex, and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
However, sexting can have disastrous consequences. So what should we do? Most importantly, we should talk to our kids and we should do so in a fully informed and honest manner. Approach this like you would a conversation about something as mundane as seatbelts. You probably would not tell your children that if they don’t wear their seatbelt they will likely die the next time they drive. You would probably say something like, “You’ll probably be fine if you choose to not wear a seat belt, but ‘what if?’” or “It only takes one time.” Similarly, we should not tell teens that their future is ruined if they sext. Instead, we can say, What if it does end up on the internet; what if someone forwards it to your teachers; what if your coach finds out; what if the college you’re applying for learns of this?” Adolescents are impulsive and moody and irritable and weird; but they are smart. We should treat them as such.
But what do I know? I have a 12 year old at home who knows everything and thinks I’m stupid. Wish me luck.
About the Author: Dr. Temple, a licensed clinical psychologist, completed his undergraduate degree at the University ofTexas-San Antonio and his Ph.D. at the University of North Texas. In 2007, he completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Brown Medical School. Dr.Temple is an Associate Professor and Director of Behavioral Health and Research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UTMB Galveston. He is a nationally recognized expert in interpersonal relationships, with a focus on intimate partner violence.
Families and Cellphones: Technology has brought some amazing things into our family lives. We are connected in ways that we never imagined when we were kids. Paradoxically, we are often more disconnected as families than ever before, as our time and attention is increasingly absorbed by electronic media. There is a concept in physical/organic systems called “disentropy,” which is the idea that living systems tend to fall into a state of disorder or disorganization without constant action or forces to keep them together. Think of a family being in a boat together trying to row upstream on a river with a strong current. Without constant effort to maintain position or move forward, the strong current will quickly move the boat downstream. Even more insidious are the quiet and slowly moving currents beneath the surface that are almost undetectable but are carefully leading us away from our goals as families.
As a mom, I’ve watched the tides shift in my family as our kids have grown and been increasingly exposed to the pressures and expectations of being fully “plugged in.” While certainly helpful in many respects, the strong effects and pull on our kids (and others) to spend more and more time in front of a screen has been alarming. At the risk of sounding old fashioned (I never thought I would say that about myself), there is a need for a “call to arms” to confront some of the risks inherent in the currents of electronic media that are moving our kids into dangerous waters. With 91% of adults and 60% of teens reporting owning cell phones (Pew Internet & American Life Project Survey), it isn’t likely that we will avoid these challenges in our families, in some form. Medical and social/behavioral sciences are finally catching up to our kids and reporting some concerning effects.
In a recent Baylor University study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, James Roberts (study co-author) reported that “cell phone and instant messaging addictions are similar to compulsive buying or substance addiction and are driven by materialism and impulsiveness.” He further explained that “technologic addictions (a subset of behavioral addictions) are no different from substance addictions in that users get some kind of reward from cell phone use, resulting in pleasure. Cell phones are a part of our consumer culture, as both a tool and status symbol. They’re also eroding our personal relationships. A majority of young people claim that losing their cell phone would be disastrous to their social lives.” (http://www.news-medical.net) This is just one example among studies that have reported “side-effects” of constant use including: 1) generating negative feelings during face-to-face conversations when the device is visible/present, 2) increasing stress levels, (constant ringing, vibrating, alerts, reminders, etc.) insomnia and depression, 3) increasing risk of chronic pain (pain and inflammation in joints including fingers/hands, neck, shoulders, and back), 4) increasing risk of digital eye strain, among others.
Perhaps one of the most harmful effects is the way that cell phones, texting, and social media interrupt the flow of our time together as families and the opportunity to have face-to-face, meaningful time and contact with each other. Hence, the “tail wagging the dog:” something that is a minor or secondary part of something controlling the whole.
Putting things back in place:
The most important principle of change is to start where you are! One of the first challenges is to be willing to unplug, as the parent, and make time for the family. If you are willing to do that, everyone else may be more willing to follow your example. Another guiding principle of change is to understand the “why” of change. If your family understands the risks, the consequences, and the benefits of making time for each other and “parking” electronics during set times, they will be more willing to follow along. Particularly if you are using the black-out time to actually enjoy quality time together. One suggestion is to “dock at dinner” so that, as your family comes together at the end of a day, everyone shuts off, unplugs, etc. and is present with each other. The phones stay
Camille Olson is the marketing director at the Center for Couples and Families. She is also the editor of the Bay Area Health & Wellness Magazine in South Houston, TX.
Seeking couples counseling can be an emotionally draining process for both spouses. Initially couples may experience a sense of hope followed by acute episodes of anxiety and depression. It is normal to feel more distant after sessions. Each spouse may experience feelings of anger, guilt and shame. Depending on each person’s past experience with therapy, couples vary in their ability to communicate and problem solve. Many couples give up before seeing results. Typically this is the time that core issues come to the surface. This is also a time when couples feel most vulnerable. There is something comforting about what feels “normal” and for some this means tolerating the problems instead of taking risks.
1. What are some common interventions in couples counseling?
Couples counseling involves emotion focused therapy, communication skills training, problem solving strategies, and exploring emotional patterns and values that impact the couple dynamics. The role of the therapist is to mediate and coach each spouse to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and productive manner.
2. What is the duration of counseling?
Couples should expect to meet 2-4 times per month for the initial 6 months. As each spouse becomes more equipped to problem solve, session can be reduced to 1-2 times per month. For real change, couples should expect to be in treatment between 6-18 months. Solution focused interventions are helpful for some couples with acute distress and do not yield the same results for couples with more chronic issues. There are individual differences in how we benefit from therapy. Some of us are more prone to resist change and may feel forced into the process.
3. What are some common issues that bring couples to seek counseling?
Communication problems, parenting conflict, in-law issues, blended family issues, lack of intimacy, infidelity, conflict in values, financial in-equality, alcoholism, substance abuse, and abuse are common reasons couples seek counseling.
4. What couples do in between sessions?
It is recommended that each spouse does their best to maintain normalcy between sessions. Couples should avoid letting marital issues dictate their lives. This is especially important for couples with small children. The purpose of marital counseling is to allocate that time to those core issues. Discussing difficult topics outside of sessions is not recommended especially in the initial 2-4 months of therapy. This is because change takes time. Some therapists recommend no discussions while others give specific guidelines and homework assignments targeted at practicing communication skills. It’s important to communicate your needs to your therapist. Some of us do better with structure and having something to do in between sessions and for others this time can be utilized to exercise self-reflection.
5. When are couples vulnerable for marital distress?
It is best to seek help before problems dominate our relationship. Couples are most vulnerable for marital distress during life transitions. Couples who have small children under the age of 5 are at highest risk due to the challenges of becoming new parents and role changes.
6. Who benefits from couples counseling?
Couples who have equal investment in staying married have the best chance of recovering. It’s important to communicate ground rules before beginning the process. This includes, both spouses making a commitment to invest their energy into making changes and refrain from making threats of divorce or separation while seeking help. Many therapists also implement a “no secrets” clause during this process to promote mutual trust. Couples who take the team approach are also more likely to take responsibility for their actions, offer support, and embrace the idea of change.
7. What are some tips to surviving couples counseling?
- Pick a therapist you trust and is competent in their work.
- Be kind and forgiving to yourself during this process.Let a trusting friend and family member know you are seeking help without sharing details.
- Be mindful of how the process may be impacting you (e.g. noted signs of depression, poor self- esteem, negative self-talk, symptoms of anxiety). Ask for help if you need support or referral for individual therapy.
- Avoid isolating
- Be present with your spouse. Acknowledge that both of you are going through this process together. Show support and respect your spouse’s need for personal space and emotional reflection.
- Be aware of your language and avoid taking your frustrations out on family members
- Make it a point to create a positive outlet to your emotions. Show gratitude for having the opportunity to get help and re-evaluate your relationship.
- Plan a vacation. Give yourself permission to take a break.
About the Author: Mahtab had earned her Masters in Psychology (Marriage and Family Therapy) at University of Houston – Clear Lake and an undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. She completed a postgraduate fellowship at UTMB in Behavioral Medicine and Medical Family Therapy. Her work currently focuses on severe mental illness and helping young adults cope with schizophrenia, bipolar and recovery. She helps families embrace change, identify core issues and explore opportunities for growth.
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