Researcher: Kids' Courting Behavior Increasingly Explicit, Unhealthy

Aug 16, 2013

New research shows that boys are increasingly using sexually explicit social media messages to flirt, and it may be hurting them, as much as the girls who receive it.

We’ve long known about sexting: when kids use sexually provocative language and pictures.

But after four years of collecting interviews from students ages 4 to 18, their parents and their teachers, clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard instructor, has concluded that the courting behavior children now use is much more aggressive and sexual than it used to be.

“Boys are getting horrible messages today about how one makes an overture to a girl you have a crush on,” Steiner-Adair told Here & Now. “The ethos today is a kind of crude, sexually aggressive overture is the way to proceed.”

The irony, she says is that boys don’t want to be this way. Rather, they are mimicking what they see in a “misogynistic” culture.

We’re a sex saturated culture, yet we are a country that has a gag rule on teaching healthy sexuality.
–Catherine Steiner-Adair

Steiner-Adair found that, “kids were often thoughtful and apologetic,” through the course of her research.

The problem, Steiner-Adair says, is that there is no acceptable or healthy outlet to talk about sexuality.

“We’re a sex saturated culture, yet we are a country that has a gag rule on teaching healthy sexuality,” she said.

Steiner-Adair says the way boys learn about treating girls has long-lasting impacts as boys become men. She sites research that one in six women report unwanted sexual contact–whether rape or assault–on college campuses.

“For me one of the most moving comments I heard over and over and over from 18 to 25 year olds was ‘We’re the most connected generation history, and yet we are the worst at real love,’” Steiner-Adair said.


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It's HERE AND NOW. And it once was, you knew a boy liked you if he pulled your hair. Well, new research shows that today, many boys are sending incredibly sexually explicit social media messages instead, and it's harming them as much as the recipients.

Now, we've long known about sexting, but psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair spent four years interviewing 1,000 kids from fourth grade up, and she says with smartphones, sexting is now the new flirting. One result, she said: Boys aren't learning the cues you'd get in normal conversations, how to read faces, how to interact socially.

But she says we also caricature boys as sexual aggressors and in so doing, we neglect their emotional lives. We're going to have a conversation about this. Her book is "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age." She's an instructor at Harvard Medical School and an associate psychologist at McLean Hospital.

So Dr. Steiner-Adair, I'm no prude, but some of these texts you show us are stunning. Unfortunately, we can't be specific because of SEC regulations, and we want to be careful of tender ears, so I will paraphrase. You cite a boy who texts a girl he doesn't know, says: Can we hook up because I - and then a crude request for oral sex. That's casual?

CATHERINE STEINER-ADAIR: Not only is it casual but it was done - and I heard from other kids as well - it's frequently done while texting across the room from one another, sitting in math class.

YOUNG: Well, tell us more about why that's damaging.

STEINER-ADAIR: Well, there's damage to boys, and there's damage to girls. I think boys are getting horrible messages today about how one makes an overture to a girl you have a crush on. And there's a real gotcha sort of shock-and-awe way of going about seeing if you can, as boys would say, get with a girl, which can mean anything from be her friend to, quote, "hook up," or actually maybe even have a nice romance. But the ethos today is a kind of crude, sexually aggressive overture is the way to proceed.

YOUNG: But do they mean it in a mean, attacking way?

STEINER-ADAIR: Most of the boys I spoke with really don't. They are just mimicking what is around in our sexually aggressive and misogynistic-saturated culture. They really often feel creepy themselves, and they'll debate, you know, how far can we go? And it's somewhat thrilling, it's certainly titillating. But they don't mean it to be cruel or harassing although they also often know that what they're doing crosses a line.

And when I challenged it with some, you know, they say, well, it's not nasty, it's not mean. So there's a lot of confusion, and it's very hard for boys to understand what it's like to be a girl receiving this text in math class or doing homework.

YOUNG: Well, you talk about a case of a boy who sent a naked snapshot of himself to his girlfriend, far more common with these new phones than it might have been three to five years ago. She was shocked. She'd never seen that before. And you say she felt the relationship suddenly lost its innocence, which hurt her. But her reaction surprised him. He really liked her.

STEINER-ADAIR: Absolutely. And this is what I mean when I say we're neglecting our boys if we don't talk to them about the fact that even though you might hear doing that in a TV commercial or a rap song - "send me a dirty picture of yourself" is a cool thing to do - in real life, it plays out very differently.

The girl was devastated. Her heart was broken. She felt so demeaned. She couldn't believe he would expose himself to her in this way. And she couldn't believe that he didn't think what it meant to her.

YOUNG: Well, you mentioned messaging. It's in the news - politicians in New York. It's online. Now, parents know their kids can access porn sites, but you give an example - and again, this may be graphic for some - a puzzled, young boy asks you, why would a woman like being choked? Now, that told you that he'd seen pornography.

STEINER-ADAIR: Absolutely. Beginning around the age of 12, quite tragically, boys as well as girls, many of them getting their sex education from YouTube and some very crass and sadistic and misogynistic material. It's ironic. We're a sex-saturated culture, yet we're also a country that has a gag rule on really teaching healthy sexuality.

YOUNG: Look, expound more on why this is as unhealthy for boys as it is for the girls. There's research that shows that they actually really do want love and not sex.

STEINER-ADAIR: They do, although boys certainly do experience their bodies, you know, differently than girls do. I think it would be horrible to assume that they, too, don't long for a really loving, kind relationship. And when they are only given role models that are pretty crass and disrespectful - you know, all kids want to join the dominant culture; that's what growing up means. And the dominant culture, unfortunately, has some pretty ugly role models.

It's very hard sometimes for boys to really feel comfortable even with each other, their friends, talking about how being the dude, being the man, is - actually feels really bad. And what I also found, though, in doing these focus groups all over the country was when given the opportunity to reflect, to think, to talk, even students in fourth, fifth and sixth grade were very thoughtful, were often apologetic.

YOUNG: Well, your book is called - again - "The Big Disconnect." The disconnect between what young men really want and how they are now acting through these texts, that's part of the disconnect, but also a lot of parents are too busy working and also, maybe don't even understand it's a disconnect.

STEINER-ADAIR: It is a disconnect, and there is a big disconnect, according to research. MacAfee just did a great study on teens' use of technology and what parents are aware of, or think they know. And there is a big gap between what parents actually know about what their kids are doing and what, in fact, their kids are doing.

And just in the last two years, we've seen an uptick of about - from 25 percent now to 43 percent of teenagers - 16, 17 on up - who lie very clearly; not only hide what they are doing - which is pretty easy, by high school, for most kids to know how to do - but then in fact when asked what to do, they lie. So it's really challenging. This is not easy.

And once you reach a certain point, you cannot know what your kids are doing. So then what becomes most important is how you react, how you react to the stories they talk about other kids, what other kids are doing, because if you get really judgmental or too intense or oh, my God, we'd die if you did that, your kids won't come to you when they're in trouble. Good kids, really good kids - probably your kids, perhaps, at some time - are getting in some tricky spots or bad trouble.

It's really important that you be approachable and calm when they come to you because if we can't prevent it, then the next most important thing is how we respond - it's the first-responder principle - when your children are in trouble.

YOUNG: Yeah, or you come across these texts.


YOUNG: I mean, they're - we again, we're trying to be aware of tender ears, but it's pretty stunning to see. And again, what's the danger of young men thinking that that's the thing to say to young women? What does it do to them emotionally?

STEINER-ADAIR: It hurts them. It hurts their understanding of what love is about, what women are about, how we treat each other as human beings. And if it goes on, I mean, we have a very serious problem in our college campuses right now. You know, one out of six women have unwanted sexual attack or assault or rape by a male. We have a hook-up culture that we all know is pretty damaging for kids.

And for me, one of the most moving comments I heard over and over and over from 18- to 25-year-olds is, you know, it's a real paradox because we're the most connected generation history, and yet we are the worst at real love.

YOUNG: Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age." Thanks so much.

STEINER-ADAIR: You're welcome, thank you for having me.

YOUNG: And I also asked Dr. Steiner-Adair what's a parent to do, and she said ask, ask to see texts, especially with young kids. They will show you, then let the conversation begin. And you can continue at By the way, on Monday, sexual abuse in the military. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.