Dr. Kris Gowen was lovely enough to take some time to talk with me last week about teenagers and the Internet – particularly YouTube.

Kris modestly describes herself: I have been a sexuality educator for 14 years and I have spoken nationally on teens, the Internet, and sexuality at conferences and at public, community-based venues.

What she fails to mention is that she is a dynamic and passionate educator and researcher.  Kris is one of the people that makes me feel lucky to be in this field because it means I get to meet her!  (Okay, so I haven’t met her In Real Life yet, but maybe someday…)

I asked Kris to talk with me because a parent who relies on me for advice and information about adolescent sexuality came to me with questions about how to respond to her son’s video on YouTube.  It was a very harmless video of him and a few friends lip singing to a comedy song.  I told her not to worry about it.  But the conversation got me thinking about YouTube and how parents should think about and interact with the medium when the video is not so innocent.  Naturally, I called on Kris, my resident expert on all things that reside at the meeting point of sexuality, the Internet, and teenagers.

Karen: Thank you for answering my questions, Kris!  First, what should parents of teenagers know about YouTube?

Kris: That it is not just about watching videos. It is a place where teens can upload videos, and form communities. People can contact each other through this site — it’s really a video-based social networking site that is used by everyone from youth to non-profit organizations to the federal government! It’s for all these reasons that it is one of the most popular sites on the web. I suggest everyone go on YouTube and check it out for themselves!!

Karen: In general, should parents be concerned if their teenage son or daughter has a video up on YouTube?

Kris: Short answer, no. I know some teens who put up final school projects on YouTube. I just saw a great one on the importance of the HPV vaccine that was created by a teen local to Portland, OR (where I am). What parents should be concerned about is the content of any video that is up — especially if it contains illegal behavior or an activity that can get the youth in trouble with the school. Also important is to know whether the video contains anything that speaks ill of another person. Parents might be concerned if the video a teen makes violates copyright laws by containing unoriginal work (e.g., some people put up unauthorized clips of their favorite TV shows — that is illegal). But so many videos are fun, creative, and exciting without being harmful, illegal, or dangerous.

Karen: So what are topics/information/content, etc that parents of teenagers should be particularly concerned about, or should watch for?

Kris: Depends on the parents. Some parents like it when their teen seeks out good, reliable, information about certain health issues (sex, drug use, etc). So simply looking at keywords is not really going to help. There are some very good condom demonstrations on YouTube for example. To me, that might be a signal that a youth is taking responsibility (or is just curious). But if youth are watching videos about suicide, are checking out fights, or things like that — I would be concerned. If youth are cleaning out their cache and/or cookies, though, it is going to be hard to really find out what their kids are watching, since you don’t have to download anything onto the computer itself, and a person’s favorite video section is protected via username and password.

Karen: How should parents respond if their teenagers are cleaning their cache/cookies/history?  Is that a sign that parents should be concerned or should they understand it as an age-appropriate need for privacy?

Kris: I think it’s natural for a teen to clean out his or her computer. Cleaning out one’s history could be a sign that the teen is hiding something “bad,” or it could simply be that the teen doesn’t want the parent to find out about something — maybe the teen is helping out a friend and looked up information on eating disorders. Maybe the teen simply doesn’t want his or her parents to know everything. It’s like not wanting a parent to read a diary — there might not be anything bad in it per se, but it’s still personal. The main message here is that parents have to learn to trust, work with, and communicate with their teens. They can’t rely on spying and software to do the parenting for them. There are so many workarounds — some simple, some complex — but there is always a way around any gadget a parent uses to try to figure out what a teen is doing online. The solution to dangerous and unhealthy online behavior lies in communication and the parent-child relationship. Setting guidelines sends a message, but aren’t things that an adult can fall back on and rely on completely.

Karen: How should parents react if they find out their teenager has a video on YouTube from a third party – say, a friend or teacher?

Kris: Again, it depends on the video. In my example of the student project, the parent should be proud! If it is a video of their child in a fight, or doing something illegal or immoral, the first talk needs to be about the action itself. Only after that, can there be dialog about how posting things on the Internet that are usually very private, allow those very same actions to become public property. Those videos can be used in court testimony, by future employees as “character references,” etc. If a youth says “they will never find it,” you can calmly point out that you did….

Karen: Can you speak, very briefly, to child pornography distribution?  Please explain why it is a problem for teenagers and where parents can learn more about it.

Kris: It’s a problem because it is not unheard of for teens to take pictures of themselves naked and send them (or sometimes post them) to a loved one or to someone whose attention they hope to gain. The simple act of taking a naked picture of oneself, if that person is under 18, is creating child pornography. Sending it to a friend is child pornography distribution. These are federal offenses. If caught, in some states, it is possible that the teen will be tried as a felon, and if found guilty, it is possible that the child may have to register as a sex offender! Teens REALLY need to know this and NOT take these types of pictures of themselves, no matter how great they think it is. And if they happen to receive one, they must NEVER forward it or continue its distribution. Serious trouble can result. Not sure where to send parents to for more information, as it is not widely studied. There are news stories about it here and there, some of which I cover in my blog (not nearly as current as yours, but I do post there). The biggest issue, IMO, is not having teens being accused of child porn related felonies, as it is going to drive it further underground. Meanwhile, the pictures can easily end up in the hands of someone the teen does not want them in — a teacher, a molester (true sex offender), a rival/enemy who might think it is funny to send it to everyone in their contact list….

Karen: Thank you so much, Kris!

If you’d like to read more from Kris, take a look at her blog: Virtual Mystery Tour.  Everything else she does is also linked from there.  Hopefully I’ll get around to interviewing Kris again soon about cyberbullying.