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Too much too soon: Teens, sex and cyber bullying

By Angela Reinhardt
Staff writer
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     While I was home sick one day last week I got around to watching a documentary I’ve had in my queue since it was released in September - “Audrie & Daisy,” a Netflix original about teen sex abuse, social media and cyber bullying. As the opening credits rolled I realized this wasn’t the best film to perk up my spirits, but I kept watching anyway.
    The documentary follows the two stories of Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, teen girls from different parts of the country who were sexually assaulted and harassed online and in person by classmates. Explicit photos of the girls taken while they were drunk to the point of unconsciousness circulated in their respective schools. Nasty comments were posted on social media, especially for Daisy after charges were filed against her assaulters. This public shaming - which is done just as much by girls as boys – led Audrie, 15, to take her life and sent Daisy, 14 at the time, into a spiral of depressive, self-destructive behavior. She tried to kill herself several times.
    The sheriff of Daisy’s small town in Missouri made the situation worse; he defended the guys who abused her –– older teens, one of which was a star football player and the grandson of a former state representative. Like a lot of victim-shamers he talks about women as attention seekers; how these boys, the “alleged” rapists, were trying to move on with their lives, implying Daisy wasn’t by dragging out a court case. The charges were dropped, but after public outcry that included the group Anonymous, the case was reopened and the main suspect sentenced to two years probation - a slap on the wrist.
     The film makes it all too clear that this kind of sexual abuse and bullying doesn’t only happen in college, but to kids in high school and even middle school, and can be tragically exacerbated by social media. A friend of Audrie, the girl who killed herself, talks about boys asking the most “developed” girls to text them naked pics in middle school.
    I understand that sexuality starts to blossom during teen years, which is natural, but our girls are way too sexualized way too soon. They’re almost groomed for it. After I finished “Audrie & Daisy,” a documentary about the legal teen amateur porn industry popped up as a suggestion and I watched it, too. Apparently there’s an overwhelming demand; the word “teen” is the most popular word search on porn sites.
    Nancy Jo Sales points out in a Time article Social Media and the Secret Life of Teens: “Accompanying the boom in selfie culture is a rise in competitive spirit, as well as a disturbing trend of sexualization. Likes, hearts, swipes — validation is only a tap away. And one of the easiest ways to get that validation is by looking hot. Sex sells, whether you’re 13 or 35.”
    In a different article she says she spoke to girls who said, “’Social media is destroying our lives, but we can’t go off it, because then we’d have no life.’”
     We’ve all got friends who say things on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram that they’d never say to anyone’s face, which makes those forums frightening when it comes to our hormone-driven teens. Bullies are emboldened because they can hide behind their computer; they can be anonymous; explicit images can go viral; and there can be serious legal consequences if things go wrong.
     By the end of the afternoon I was left speechless, with a punched-in-the-gut feeling thinking about my kids – an eight-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy – and the challenges ahead. I have a newfound resolve to talk to my daughter about how to respect herself, and just as important a resolve to talk to my son about how to be a respectable man. Just like Daisy’s brother had written above his workout station, “Monsters aren’t born, they’re made.” 
    Social media isn’t going away, and as “Audrie & Daisy” shows it can be a vehicle for positive change, connection and healing – but in the words of musician Tori Amos who wrote a song for the documentary, we need to teach our kids emotional intelligence along with tech skills so they can “protect themselves and not hurt each other, and to realize how they’re hurting each other.”