Sexy Social Media. Where Should Parents Draw the Line?
How do you talk to kids about social media postings that might cross a line? What's the best way to start a conversation with your sons and daughters about what's too sexy for public consumption? A parent writes to Lisa and Reena about the suggestive TikTok postings her daughter puts up. Lisa explains how to open up lines of communication and the guidance parents might give about posts that could be seen as provocative. Lisa also shares what she is seeing during the pandemic and details why kids post suggestive content at this age.
April 13, 2021 | 28 min
Transcript | Sexy Social Media. Where Should Parents Draw the Line?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 35: Sexy Social Media: Where Should Parents Draw the Line
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: I got my first vaccine.
LISA: I’m so glad. I’m so glad for you, Reena.
REENA: It is so emotional. I’m so excited, and I want to go somewhere. I’m ready.
LISA: I know. I know. I actually, I often say to my husband I wish we had a place we were going, something we were doing. Because it’s pretty boring still.
REENA: I know, I know, I would love to head over to Ibiza or somewhere in Europe, but rates are pretty high at this point.
LISA: We’ll get there. We’ll get there eventually.
REENA: Looking forward to it, and on the subject of pent up energy that needs to be released, we got this letter from my mom talking about her daughter’s social media, and it says here: ‘Hello, I have a 14-year-old girl, 14 this summer, who during quarantine watched a lot of online YouTube and TikTok and started trying out new clothing styles, dance moves, makeup. She now posts to TikTok where she’s lip syncing to suggestive lyrics, dancing and twerking and showing cleavage. When I tell her that her posts are too sexy she shoots back with, don’t sexualize me. I’ve told her I’m worried about the message he may be sending out and that she doesn’t want the wrong message to go to the wrong people. I tell her I want to keep her safe but she says this is just her style and not to worry. She says that everyone she knows is doing what she’s doing and I’m overreacting. Help.’ Is this common? Do you hear this from other parents?
LISA: All day and all night. It is so common. It is so common right now. I think it was before the pandemic and then in the context of the pandemic TikTok has become, you know, the space where kids spend a huge amount of time doing exactly what this listener describes.
REENA: I remember you once told me, as kids are going through puberty, I was saying one parent told me like it’s just not normal to not be around people you’re attracted to, to actually see them and you said that it does something in the brain, like just when you’re seeing them. Do you think that the fact that we’re so isolated, has this phenomenon of just kind of being on TikTok and wearing suggestive things has gotten worse?
LISA: I do, actually, I do and I’m so cautious, Reena, normally about like blaming social media for everything.
LISA: I usually don’t do it, but I will tell you that this is one of those things I can see so many different sides of this. So, on one side of it is the fact that kids have been away from each other and distanced and they are desperate, they’re addicted to their friends, as we say, and so TikTok becomes like a town square, you know to see other teenagers, to be seen by other teenagers and tweenagers, and it makes so much sense to me. It makes so much sense to me that they would want to spend a lot of time there seeing and being seen. And then on the flip of it TikTok’s complicated. It is a huge platform. As teenagers say to me, TikTok has many sides, right? So there’s sort of the benign, kind of playful, like TikTok dances that are not all sexual or like barely sexual and cute and funny, and then there is a much more, for lack of a better word, provocative side to it, or performative side around kind of mimicking adult sexuality, and then it can, you know, I think it quite a bit, you know, I hate using these sort of sexually judgmental words, but I think what we would often call taudry, you know from there, and so it’s taking up space in kids’ lives that normally would have been filled by seeing real kids in real time, and being in school and getting to and from school and going to after school activities.
LISA: And I don’t think we’ve actually fully wrapped our arms around what that means?
REENA: Why do you think they do it? Is it for attention?
LISA: Yes, actually the answer to that is yes, and I think, again if you walk up to this question as having many sides, there’s the view from the parent’s side and there’s the view from the kid’s side. So, the view from the parents’ side, which comes through in this letter, is you see your kid who may be like 12, 13, 14, so a kid, I mean 12-year-olds are seventh graders, making videos that look to you really, really inappropriate, and really, really sexual, and it’s hugely uncomfortable for most parents to see their daughter, usually it’s the daughter, playing at this adult sexuality, and especially when she’s got a body to match, right? Which definitely can happen by 12, 13, 14. So, that’s the parents’ side. Okay the kid’s side is a very different view of the same behavior. So the kid’s side is everyone I know is doing this, which is really actually in this case not untrue, I mean it really is quite typical that this is how kids are spending time on TikTok and what they’re making on TikTok is stuff in this neighborhood, and I’m 12, 13, 14, my universe is built around worries about being disconnected from kids, wishes to be popular, wishes to have a broad social network. I am watching kids make this stuff and getting lots and lots of attention, or becoming TikTok famous, as they say, you know, somehow making something that catches people’s imaginations, and blows up. I’m watching them do things I could do, so I’m going to try to do the same things to see if I can get a whole lot of attention, a whole lot of likes, and maybe, you know, you can, I don’t know if you remember seventh grade, maybe the seventh graders daydreaming life, and maybe I can become TikTok famous, which if you think about it, like it’s sort of crack for seventh graders, right?
REENA: You’re totally right.
LISA: The fantasy of becoming TikTok famous.
LISA: And they don’t get the sexual piece. They don’t. They have a very thin understanding of what sexuality is.
REENA: Tell me that a little bit more. What is it? The parents get it, we understand what’s happening. Why don’t they get it?
LISA: Because they’re 12 and 13 and they’re really, really concrete in their thinking. You know one of the things that we have, you know , established ages ago in psychology, it’s John Piaget is the psychologist to really lay this out, is that kids thinking develops in a very stepwise fashion, and up until about age 12, 13 and usually maybe even 14, it doesn’t matter how smart they are, they’re really concrete. They really cannot see things from multiple perspectives. They can’t spin ideas around and view them in many ways, and so at 12 and 13 they’re like, no everybody I know is doing it and it looks really cool when they do it, and then you get a lot of attention when they do it, and so I want to do it, and they could be brilliant kids but they still are thinking in that way, and they really, both because of the concrete nature of their thinking and also the lack of life experience, they don’t understand the sexual nuances. They don’t understand the messages that can be picked up from what they are doing. They can’t really, I mean just to put the rubber on the road, they can’t really put themselves in the mind of some creepy teenager or male adult and understand how the messages they’re sending could be read. They don’t have the cognitive capacity to do that, but we parents do, and it really makes us uncomfortable.
REENA: So, what works to get through to them at this point, at this age?
LISA: I think the place to start is to really understand how hugely normed this is. What I mean by that, it is so common for kids to know kids doing it, know, you know, they can literally see millions of these online, and so even though as a parent we might see our kid’s video be like, what the what? Right? At that? If we are like, what are you doing? This is so strange. Honestly, Reena, it would be the equivalent of somebody coming up to you or me and being like, wait you’re drinking coffee? Like really? Like why do you do that? So a behavior that like we don’t even give a second thought to, we do it all day long, everybody we know does it, and so in terms of what works, the first and most critical thing to actually get the ball rolling is to actually try to stand in that kid’s shoes and see it from their perspective because if we roll up with our judgy, horrified, you’re doing this very strange thing perspective, we’ve already lost them. We’ve already tanked the conversation.
REENA: It’s so fascinating. I’m curious about parents of boys. What conversation should we be having about this too, right?
LISA: Okay, this is so complicated, Reena. It gets to an issue that I’d actually almost rather not bring up but we have to, which is the comments. So, one thing that happens when TikToks are public, and if you have a fantasy of becoming TikTok famous, your TikTok is public, is then anyone can comment on the videos. And so one thing that is hugely disturbing and not at all unusual is that girls will put up videos that are either pretty sexy, or the videos may not even be that sexy, but maybe the girl has a really well-developed body, and they will get really, really creepy comments about their bodies, really sexual stuff, really nasty stuff, and it’s not clear who they’re coming from. What I understand from asking teenagers about this is some of it may be guys their age, some of it may be older guys. So, you actually have two things going on here at once. You have an image of a child, or a young teenager, or maybe an older teenager, girl that is potentially able to be seen as sexualized. So, there’s that issue, and then you have an entire narrative of raunchy comments being made about that girl, about that body, about her sexuality, and so I do think, I’m like what does this mean to the 13-, 14-. 15-year-old boy who’s looking at this, or maybe 12-year-old, and what would a parent do with that? So, I think the answer here is again, understand how normed it is, right? That this kid’s probably seen millions of these and the first step always in these conversations is to say, so buddy what do you think of this? And get him talking. What do you think of the video you’re looking at and what do you think of the comments?
REENA: So, don’t go into the lecture. Start off with, hey so what do you think about that? That’s a line I’m going to start using, hey, what do you think about that?
LISA: I do, but actually I love the we’re playing with this because I think I would tweak how you say that. I would have you say like, uh I saw this video on TikTok. What do you think? And what I would do is I would put in a question mark that makes it clear that we as adults are not 100 percent okay with this because if we’re too cool about it, it actually weirds kids out. Like at some level, even if it’s norm, norm, norm like crazy , hey still are like, uh that’s a lot of cleavage and those are usually inappropriate comments from people who may be creepy middle-aged guys. I mean like you know who knows. So, I think we always want to when we open the door to these conversations, we want to walk this line of being curious, like truly curious, like we want to hear what they had to say, but also just inserting a little bit of, as an adult I’ve got my questions.
REENA: So, Lisa, when you talk about starting the conversation is this how you think we should begin, by just saying, hey what do you think about that?
LISA: I do, actually. I do because you want to know what your kid thinks.
REENA: Wow. I’ve got to stop you there for a second. You want to know what your kid thinks. I have never thought, I want to know what my kid thinks. All I know is, I know what I think and I know what needs to be done and end of story.
LISA: I know. I know, and that’s how we do a lot of parenting and actually in a lot of parenting situations that works really well. Like I don’t really care what my kid that’s about whether or not they want to set the dinner table, like not interesting to me, like go set the dinner table, so I’m certainly not on the side of saying like every conversation needs to be like, so tell me how do you feel about doing your chores. But in this one the overarching aim for talking your daughter or son about this, whether they’re making the stuff or just watching it or all of the above, is to try to keep the lines of communication open because it is so complicated you’re going to need to have a lot of conversations about this over time. So, even though you don’t know where the conversation’s going, and even though you may have a giant agenda for this conversation, giant agendas close down lines of communication, and so what you want to do is to just open the line and say, okay so tell me what you think about this? And see yourself as an anthropologist. See yourself as someone who has stepped into the world of TikTok. It is a strange and unfamiliar world, but you’re going to use your good anthropological training to just be curious, and try to see it the way they see it. Try to understand what they make of it. You don’t have to stay there forever, but no guidance you give is going to work if they are like, you don’t understand us, you don’t understand our culture, you don’t care about our culture, you are just writing in with your opinion.
REENA: I never thought about looking at parenting through the lens of anthropologists, like I’m thinking Jane Goodall and all those gorillas and she worked for in understanding them and form a connection and a bond with them.
LISA: Exactly. That’s actually a pretty good model if you think about how we want to enter these things, and it’s not that we stay there indefinitely and are just like, wow it’s fascinating and now tell me about the super raunchy comment. I’m so curious. I mean like we don’t stay there forever, but it’s how we begin and then once we begin that way we’ll get indications about what to do next. So, let’s imagine you say to a 14- 15-year-old boy, wow by like, wow I just saw this TikTok video like what do you think about it? And he says, I’m just going to make up two things he could say, he says, I don’t know. I think it’s kind of sexy but I also think the comments are really inappropriate, you know, like that’s the kind of thing that one could reasonably expect. So now you have two different things you can start to unpack. One is what do we think about girls’ and women’s rights to display and portray themselves any way they like?
REENA: But isn’t that deep? You’re talking to a 12- or 13-year-old. Can you have that conversation now? That’s pretty deep?
LISA: 12- and 13-year-olds? Probably not, Reena, agan, because super concrete. But this is what’s cool. 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds, now you’re in business, and the 14-year-olds are really in a bridging place, so I would say the 15-, 16-, 17-year-old sons and daughters there’s a whole deep conversation, which believe me they are really ready to have, of you know basically what this kid said in the in the letter, like don’t sexualize me, where they’re like, you’re the one who seeing the sexiness, I’m not seeing the sexiness, I’m just having a good time with my friends, and the problem is in the eye of the beholder, not the beheld, right? So, this is a huge complex thing that, again, there is no right answer, there’s no end of this conversation, but it’s a conversation worth having, right?
REENA: Yeah, yeah.
LISA: But then, there’s a second part of the comments. So there’s a concrete version of this and there’s a sophisticated version of this. I think the concrete version, which as the parent of a boy or girl, you can say, whatever else happens, you should never ever comment in a way that is mean, sexualized, cruel, provocative. Like you cannot do that. That is that is a line, like that’s a line I draw, like I don’t care what you see, I don’t care what you think of what you see. You conduct yourself in the comments as though we are watching, as though Grandma and Grandpa are watching, as though the family priest or rabbi is watching. I think that’s a really good line to draw.
REENA: That’s good. Pretend like grandma and grandpa are watching.
REENA: Parents sometimes don’t put the fear of God in them but the grandparents, there’s like a different connection there that changes the scale at some level.
LISA: Absolutely, absolutely.
REENA: Lisa, what do you say is the peak age for this kind of TikTok stuff where you really need to make sure you have this conversation by?
LISA: Certainly it will be informed a little bit by your kids’ habits. You know there are 12-year-olds who are like deep into TikTok, and you want to know what they’re doing there and what it looks like. I would say by 12 or 13 keep a very close eye and you’re probably starting to have this conversation, but again that’s the beauty of saying like, hey tell me what you think, because you’re you’re going to get a barometer of where you are in the conversation. It’s really quite remarkable the bridge that happens from 14 into 15. Having this conversation with 15-year-olds could not be more different than having this conversation with 12-year-olds.
REENA: What do you mean?
LISA: By 15, I mean this is so cool, this is why I’m obsessed with teenagers, by 15 or 16 they’re like, well it’s really complicated. Of course girls are certainly allowed to display their bodies any way they like and that doesn’t mean that people have it within their rights to say things that are inappropriate, and yet at the same time they can seem quite attention seeking. I mean like that is literally how 15- and 16-year-olds can talk about it.
LISA: And so that’s again why the conversation like you need to keep the lines of communication open because you’re going to have one kind of conversation with your 12-year-old about this, another with 13, 14, 15, 16, and you just always want to be coming back and checking in and seeing where they’re thinking is, and I don’t love that so much of kids time is now spent on social media. I really hate that that’s been an upshot of the pandemic, but if you have to make the most of it, which I kind of think you have to make the most of it sometimes, what you’re starting to open up are entire conversations around objectification and questions of self-objectification and if something like that is even possible and who gets to say what to whom and what’s too sexy for public consumption. These are really deep, powerful, important conversations that we need to have with our daughters, that we need to have with our sons and, for better or for worse TikTok serves these conversations up.
REENA: What do you find over the years of dealing with this issue with your patients what really works in getting through to these kids? You talk about that 12, 13 age where cognitive behavior hasn’t really solidified. What works when you’re trying to get them to understand your point of view?
LISA: I think the best thing always is to appeal to them as though they are wise even if they are not always seeming wise. So, if a parent feels the need to limit this, which I could certainly see a parent feeling like, I really do not need my kid with all of this extra time making nonstop sexy videos, that is really not my wish for my kid. So, if a parent needs to say look I’m putting some boundaries around this like you can only be on TikTok X amount and I need to be able to see what you’re making, you know some attempt along those lines. What I think really works is to explain why and to appeal to the most thoughtful mature side of your kid. So, to me what that explanation would look like is to to start with this idea, I think it’s not true that Aristotle said this, but like this idea of something like, we become what we repeatedly do. Have you ever heard that quote?
LISA: Okay, so I think people attribute it to Aristotle. I think people say like, yeah it’s the spirit of what he said, but anyway so just for accuracy on that, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for thinking in that way, that the things we spend tons of time on start to really shape who we are.
LISA: So, what I would say to any kid where you feel like you have to put some parameters around this. I would say, look you become what you repeatedly do, and what you’re doing is, it’s a performance. It is literally superficial, like it is literally your exterior on display for other people for their gratification and attention.
LISA: And I get it that’s a lot of what you and your friends are doing, and I get it that maybe part of how you plug into the social network, but if this is where all of your time is going then your world is being shaped around the most superficial aspect of who you are, and you’re really need an interesting kid. Like you’re really into that book series, or you’re really an incredible big sister, or you’re learning how to knit or do that funny craft that you love, and so I’m going to put some limits on this because it should only be a slice of the part of yourself that you’re developing, and you should really and what I want for you and what I know you want for yourself, right? So d give them the benefit of the doubt, is that you’re developing all of the complex and interesting aspects of yourself that cannot possibly be captured on TikTok.
REENA: I love how you are always advocating to open those lines of communication and not coming down on them hard. Keeping it open, because if I didn’t have you in my life I think I would have probably gotten the handle “momwhocan’tgotoIbiza” and then start wearing suggestive things online and showing them, but that clearly is not a strategy I would assume.
LISA: I don’t think so, but it’s okay. It’s okay. I really, I do believe in open lines of communication. I also believe in you’re still growing up and you still get to say, you know what enough with the TikTok already, like I don’t like what you’re putting up, it’s making me super uncomfortable, like I’m not quite sure what to do with it right this minute but it does feel like we need to have a broader conversation. I’d almost say like think about moving your weight back and forth between two feet and on one foot is the, hey kiddo I’m super curious and I want to understand this the way you see it, and the other foot is at some level we’re going to have to put some some governors around the, some limits around this because it’s not who you are and it’s not the depth and complexity of who you want to be, and so let’s not spend a whole lot of energy on something that is so utterly surface when you’ve got so much depth.
REENA: Yeah. That’s great, that’s great to get the conversation going and keep it going, which is sometimes hard, keeping the conversation going.
REENA: So, we’ve got a fantastic book giveaway that’s just so timely for this topic too.
LISA: Let’s give away a couple copies of “Under Pressure”, which I wrote, and in that book I do spend time thinking about the pressure girls feel to be attractive, be cute, display themselves for the world, and I do think through on the page there how we might talk with them about the inside versus outside of who they are, and so we’ll give away a couple copies. I’ll sign them and send them off to our winners.
REENA: Sounds great, I love it and as always you just have to like the page on Instagram Facebook or LinkedIn and post a comment and tag a friend and two people will be the lucky winners of of a copy. And what do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: One of the most gracious things we can do as parents, and one of the most important things, is to apologize to our kids when we owe them an apology, and I think of this today because it’s not unusual when we first see a kid maybe wearing a really revealing outfit or putting up a post on TikTok that is, whoa, you know kind of catches us off guard, it’s not unusual but like, what have you done? You look like a tramp? You know something like. That’s a very hair trigger reaction in any parent to have that feeling, and that doesn’t get things off to the right start, and it can feel really, really bad to the kid, and so if you have started down this path it’s okay because you can fix it, and the way to fix it is to say, you know I owe you an apology. I had a very strong reaction when I saw your video or that outfit, and I don’t think it helped you and I do want to think this through with you, but I just want to apologize for the fact that I reacted as strongly as I did. I don’t think that was fair to you. It is critical that we model for kids that we make mistakes and we own mistakes and we can step back from them and think about how that mistake landed on the other person and that we can make it right. We do not undermine our authority when we do this. In fact, I am sure that it helps us to maintain our authority for us to say, I was wrong, I made a mistake and I owe you an apology.
REENA: We never think of it as maintaining our authority by saying sorry to your children.
LISA: No, but I think that’s what keeps people from doing it is that they worry that somehow they’ll compromise their authority, and usually it’s the opposite.
REENA: So true. Well, thank you. I’ll see you next week.
LISA: See you next week.