Sexuality Online

How Does the Sexualization of Teens on Social Media Impact Our Children?

The history of sexualisation in the media

If you think that the media’s influence on society is a new development, you might want to think again. The media’s iron-tight grip on society has moulded our every move since before ‘the media’ had its name. The media has decided for centuries how we as individuals act, dress, perceive the world and perceive ourselves. Just look at the power of propaganda — whether it’s advocating war in the 1940s or it’s a major broadcasting network pushing its agenda, propaganda calls the tune of anyone who’ll listen.

It might have manifested differently over the years, but sexualisation in the media is nothing new either. Think back to the 1980s and 1990s — the age of the size 0 model. And at the same time, pornography and adult content became widely accessible. With the boom of the digital era and social media, we’re bound to see some drastic changes in society.

What’s different about the media today?

While sexualisation is just as prevalent in the media today, there’s one essential difference — media is now handed to children on a silver platter in the form of social media networks. And like all media, it’s not immune to sexualisation. Teens as young as 13 (and even younger, as some children lie about their age) are drawn to these social apps like moths to a flame and are exposed to the deepest, darkest corners of the media that no child should see.

We’re seeing that inside popular culture, from a very early age, children are encouraged to show as much skin as possible, be as provocative as possible — in their movements, gestures, content and more. Children are pressured into showing themselves off, focusing on their exterior self and silencing their inner identity.

How does sexuality fit into all of this?

So what are we missing? Well, we’re missing an essential piece of the puzzle, namely sexuality — we can’t talk about sexualisation without talking about sexuality. We seem to have forgotten that sexuality is not a purely outward gesture, it doesn’t just focus on the exterior self.

Sexuality is largely inward — built of a brilliant mosaic of defined and interlinking parts, namely: 

  • Orientation: Where do you identify on the gender spectrum?
  • Sexual preference: Who are you attracted to, what are your sexual preferences, what type of things are you into?
  • More importantly, what your sexuality represents: Who are you in this world?

This fundamental view of sexuality lends itself to the idea that each and every one of us arrives in this world with, at least to some degree, some sort of purpose or opportunity to discover, embrace and share our true selves with the world.

These essential aspects of sexuality are completely and utterly overlooked, leading to an entirely misconstrued conception of sexuality and sexualisation brought upon our youth.

What does the sexualization of teens on social media mean for our children?

Instead of gaining a deeper, balanced view of sexuality, focusing on orientation, preference, purpose; our children:

  • Are trained by sexualised media into thinking that this is how they should be, this is what makes them successful, this is what makes them attractive
  • Are taught that they are only who they appear on social media
  • Judge and evaluate themselves against an outward, superficial metric

If we’re only invested in these perceptions of sexuality, it becomes very complicated, leading to some damaging effects on our youth’s mental health. Teens are experiencing overwhelming anxiety and an erosion of their self-esteem — all because they feel judged on purely how they appear.

So how can we, as their guardians and protectors, prevent this?

How can we turn the media’s tides?

Here’s the million-dollar question:

“What if we taught our children the digital life skills of sexuality, what it is to be a human in this world and all the wonderful and diverse dimensions that make up who we are?”

We can teach them about the influence of sexuality online and how it can very easily overwhelm who we really are, to the point where we’re acting as some sort of social-media-born character. While it’s normal and age-appropriate for teens to try on different identities at different stages in their development, teens today no longer know that they’re only trying them on. With some guidance, they may learn to discern whether this personality they picked from social media actually works and serves them, or whether it’s just a facade with the goal of chasing followers.

If we work together to educate our children, we can help loosen the grip that the media has on our youth and society. We can raise a generation that’s balanced and healthy in their view of sexuality and confident in who they are as an individual in this world.

Equip your teen with the digital life skills that need with our student programs at MySociaLife.

The effect of social media on the subconscious mind

We’re seen as social media and online safety experts, and we also help kids to move into exploration and excellence online. And in order to do that, we need to get them to understand what the media does to them, what impact it has on them, and what this visual world imprints into their consciousness.

This is quite profound because when you think about the life that we have on smart devices and particularly social media, we are spending so much of our day on YouTube and Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and we are scrolling all the time… we are looking at and consuming media and content through our eyes. Once it gets processed in our brain, it then gets stored in our own operating system – in our own iOS. And of course, if there is something that is either really exciting or really, really disturbing, then that, of course, can get more deeply entrenched in that iOS. It can change the perspective of the way in which we see the world.

For example, If you keep scrolling through content that has some influence about the way in which people look – that could be body shape, or it could be how wealthy they are or what clothes they have, or what privilege they have. And when you repeatedly look at that content, it shapes your view of both yourself and that type of stereotyped image or group. And yet, we all know that what you see online is not necessarily true – however, it still has a psychological effect on us.

It all started by a visual representation, which we consumed, processed and stored. And of course, if the memory isn’t a strong one, then it just gets shelved, or archived and slowly fades away. But for kids, they are a little bit more vulnerable than that. They’re in a very interesting stage of their neuro-biological development. We need to understand their increasing life online. They’re reporting that they are using YouTube and Netflix and social media channels as their news services, as the inspiration, and if that content and stimulus doesn’t have the right influence, then it’s going to change the lens through which they look at life and other people.

Now, what can we do about that? Well, we need to talk to them about it.

Are they going to get offline because of this information – in fact, is that even the goal? That’s up to the principal and the teachers during school time or break time, and the parents while at home. But one guarantee is that they will be using devices for the rest of their lives and now is the time to entrench foundational critical thinking with regards to all types of content, influence, fraud, misinformation. This isn’t fear-mongering against social media, these are just the absolute basics which have been missed. And it starts with understanding what we’re doing as human beings when we’re consuming all of this visual content.

They do need to be able to stop, to turn a device over, and to take a break, to ask questions, to be media literate, to find out whether “is this fake news? I wonder…, I mean, maybe I’ll ask some friends… or maybe I’ll ask a parent, or I’ll ask an adult, is this true?” And if the content in which they’re seeing is not making them feel good… to stop. Just something as simple as that – just stop and ask a question. “Actually, I’m not sure if this is making me feel so good”.

These are things that happen invisibly. They happen automatically, to both adults and children. It’s simply because we don’t understand that we are consuming visual stimulus, processing it, and in some cases, storing it. And if we do that repeatedly, then that starts to change the way we view things around us, and the way we see the world. And that is something which is incredibly important and worth playing for.