The Shadow Side of Technology and Teen Love
Dr. Brenda Schaeffer

Adapted from
Love or Addiction?   The Power and Peril of Teen Sex and Romance
As seen in "Edge Life"   August, 2006

Modern day technology can be credited for amazing feats unimaginable when I was in high school and college. It is a good thing, and most days I love it. Today we have private cell phones with us twenty-four hours a day; we communicate via email or instant messaging; we research virtually anything on the Internet, including sex; we find romantic interests in chat rooms; we buy unseen everything online; and we listen to music on iPods. The digital revolution has changed our lives and the way we communicate forever. Electronic media are a part of life and love relationships. And, much of it can be done in our own private world. Techno literacy is becoming synonymous with a successful life, and adolescence is a prime time for mastering the skills.

The flow of information today is mind-blowing. It defies all boundaries--family, religion, communities, and even nations. Youth today have amazing options: hundreds of broadcast channels on satellite radio and television, huge DVD and video libraries, computers that give high speed admittance to world wide information, email communication and chatting, access to hundreds of video games, cell phones that give instant messaging or photos and can be used as a computer, specialized websites, blogs, and MP3s and iPods. Virtual reality is here.

Information is flowing faster than research can assess its impact or the brain can fully comprehend. We can only guess, as well we do, and how the lightening fast information exchange will influence the future of sex, love, and romance on young minds. We know the power of being read the story of Cinderella over and over again as children. We grow up to be either Cinderella or the one looking to be her rescuer. The adolescent brain is wide open and hugely sensitive to images--visual, auditory, and sensory--that pertain to relationships, communication, and impulse control.

Twenty years ago the Internet was primarily for the haughty and heady scientists. With the introduction of the PC and the World Wide Web, all of that changed. The young entering relationships today are groomed on the computer. It is important to understand the impact of this fingertip technology. Three out of four adolescents use the Internet to connect with friends, do research, and learn about the global village. Great! But for many, the Internet can too easily become an insane world that negatively impacts attitudes about sex, love, and romance. It can be culture shock.

For the shy and depressed or just plain bored adolescent, cyber connections are easy to maintain or hide behind. The fantasy world substitutes for the real world. It is like being a three-to seven-year-old again. Make believe and magic and all of it at one's finger tips. Cyber love relationships become highly charged and addictive. Talking for hours on the Internet, quick involvement and abrupt endings, and the euphoria of romantic fantasy create a use and crash cycle that can be devastating and lead to depression and suicidal ideation. Cyber relationships carry as much emotional weight and pain as real ones, and their impact should never be underestimated. And then there is sex.

There are many great sites that give important information on sexuality. But there is a downside to the cyber world when the young are learning how to explore sexuality and love relationships and that is cyber sex. For some, the Internet has become a place where the gap between fantasy and reality becomes wider. The cyber world of sex can result in isolation, fantasy, objectifying people, and an invitation to use sex like a drug. For some adolescents it is sex talk with friends online that progressively escalates.

Pornography is everywhere on the Internet. If you are not out looking for it, it will find you. A study released by the US Justice Department discovered that one in four children online are exposed to unwanted sexual images. The average age a child is exposed to pornography is age six and a half. And for those who seek it, pornography is far easier to find than Napster or researching for a homework assignment. Think of any sexual slang word and add .com and you will find pornography. Take normal curiosity, an increase in hormones, the sheer amount of time young people spend on the Internet, throw in unsolicited instant messages with massive pop ups of seductive sexual images, add a dose of immature impulse control, low esteem, shyness, or anything else going on in the adolescent mind, and you have a recipe for compulsive use of sexual imagery.

The Internet itself is not the problem. It is how it is used and how long it is used. However, it can lead to the progression of sexually compulsive behavior. The fact is that sexual images hit a part of the brain that can begin cravings for more and more arousal images and research is showing that a person can become addicted to pornography on the Internet in as short a period as six weeks, when used consistently. Cyber sex is anonymous, affordable, and easily accessible. 5 Adults are fully responsible for their cyber sex use, the ensuing consequences of that behavior and self-censorship via use of personal software. Adolescents are not as liable for their cyber sex use and for the many reasons already explained many times over. In adolescence, we simply do not have the brain or emotional development to limit sexually compulsive behaviors without support. If adult sex addicts rely on a strong support system to get through the pull of strong urges, certainly adolescents need the same or more support and guidance of wise mentors.

An even sicker problem, experts say, are the chat rooms and instant messaging, known as "IMing," which allows sexual predators direct contact with you. Instant messaging is used like a phone line today. Though mostly innocent, a youth can spend hours chatting online with friends and even strangers who lurk in the dark and secret underworld that has appeal to those wanting to explore everything. It feels safe when sitting in your room and behind a closed door with friends or family in the other room. But beware.

According to an MSNBC report, dated February 4, 2005, a Los Angeles police detective passed as a thirteen-year-old girl in chat rooms to track down predators, and in less than five minutes the chat took a direct turn to having sex with the underage person. Young teens, especially those lonely and depressed, are vulnerable to finding someone who is special to them, and the chats get longer and more personal. Estimates are that a sexual predator solicits one out of five young people online. A Dateline NBC hidden camera investigation found men of all ages and backgrounds ready to have sex with an underage girl. Virtual crime and vice exist. If you are a troubled adolescent, male or female, becoming a streetwalker online is a sure way to make quick money. As one undercover decoy posing as a fifteen-year-old girl said, "I can count to ten, and by that time I'm being hit on.... You can almost have an auction." 6

But there is another, more positive, side to sex, love, and the Internet. Twenty percent of teens said they received information about sexuality from the Web. I think it is much higher. In addition, there are legitimate sites that talk about everything from birth control, abstinence, sexually transmitted disease, debunking sex myths, love advice, sex advice, personal health, as well as special interest chat groups that allow a young person to learn more about who they are separate from family and without taking too much of a risk. The Internet can be a place to practice sharing one's self, learning more about communication and relationships--all important developmental tasks of the merging adolescent.

Emma's Story

Emma felt unpopular and unattractive. Deeply depressed, she turned to the use of the Internet and chat rooms to meet people. At first this was innocent. Emma felt a kinship with the people she was meeting online. As she continued to explore chat rooms, she came to sites where the vibe was more sexual in nature. She felt animated and began to frequent the sites that raised her excitement level. More and more time was spent in Emma's fantasy world of new friends behind closed doors.

Conversations in open chat rooms led to private online chats with guys she was drawn to. The chats became more intimate and sexual in content. She would chat late into the night and would neglect her schoolwork. In addition, she often felt exhausted in the mornings and would dose off in class. Emma's after-school job suffered as well. Her pattern mushroomed. Emma was becoming addicted to the intense arousal and rich fantasy life she was having.

To increase chemically induced exhilaration, she set up online affairs with three men at the same time. She felt powerful having three guys in her life and keeping each a secret from the other. But the out-of-control behavior finally caught up with Emma. Her parents, suspicious because of her increased irritability and tiredness, poor grades, and loss of job, questioned her use of time and the Internet. She lied. The evidence was there, however, and her parents got her to therapy where she worked to stop the compulsive behavior. As important as changing her behavior was, the work she did on her depression and low self-esteem--the culprits that led her to the risky behavior--was of equal importance.



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