Clark Kent Syndrome: When Boys Are Social Media Supermen

Why boys possess so much power in social media

Posted Jun 24, 2016

Sergey Peterman/istock
Source: Sergey Peterman/istock

There is a disturbing trend that seems to be whispered about in the hallways of middle school and high school. Tweens and teens alike seem well aware and even complacent about the fact that a request for nudes via social media and text is not only occurring but it is quite common. Perhaps most perplexing is that so many boys seem so comfortable making such requests.  

In the recent New York Times’ bestseller by Vanity Fair editor Nancy Jo Sales, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, Sales highlights social media interactions between boys and girls. In interview after interview she discovers that boys are not shy about requesting naked pictures and even sexual favors from girls through social media. Even more surprising is the responses Sales got about these practices from girls who submit. Too many of them reported they felt compelled to comply lest face severe social media consequences. Many of the girls acknowledged they felt held hostage in a no win situation when these requests arose. Too often they reasoned that any response as well as no response came with damaging, shameful, and embarrassing consequences. Many of them indicated that girls who do comply are called ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ while their pictures and videos go viral among peers. Girls refusing to comply may be called ‘prudes’ and/or be the targets of vicious outlandish and unfounded rumors started by the boys whose requests they rejected.

It would be easy to dismiss this situation by simply saying that such incidences are few and far between, exceptions to a rule. Unfortunately, too many parents and school professionals around the country are now noting this disturbing phenomenon. In addition to making these requests, it is not uncommon to hear that these same boys often proudly send unprompted penis pictures as if this is something the unsuspecting recipients would look forward to viewing.

This leaves one wondering, why do so many boys believe such requests are not only acceptable, but in some cases, as Sales alludes to, among certain peer groups, required? In order to try to answer such a complex query, it is important to look at how boys and girls negotiate the world.

Boys vs. Girls

Boys are taught from a young age that the strongest boy is the leader, the alpha male. Girls alternatively are taught to negotiate the world through relationships. Females who are most skilled in this arena tend to be the leaders of their pack regardless of whether they do this nicely or in a more threatening manner, as is the case with queen bees.

Because boys are often judged on the outward appearance of strength and physical ability social media has actually opened a new door for many of them especially less aggressive boys. Social media affords anyone the ability to present differently. A shy less aggressive boy can create a persona that suggests he is strong, manly, and aggressive. Hence we have Clark Kent syndrome; a mild mannered boy in person and at school can become a Superman in social media.

It is empowering to have others listen to what you have to say. In the same way social media gives boys an advantage, it actually puts many girls at a disadvantage. Girls are programmed to win over the alpha males, in social media this means complying with their requests. Girls who fail to do this can find themselves committing social suicide because they run the risk of being shunned by the top dog boys.

With this newfound power why do boys push the envelope?

To assume they do this simply because they can is far too disturbing to acknowledge let alone comprehend. A better explanation is reflected in looking at the role that exposure plays. Today’s tweens and teens have open access to the media. Research suggests that because kids are more easily exposed to graphic sexual and violent content as a direct result of the digital age, the threshold for shock has been raised. This effect has been noted specifically in relation to public response to random shootings. As the instances have increased, episodes have become so familiar that one particular situation is less likely to prompt the front page coverage it would have just a few short years ago. In a sense we have all become somewhat immune to the level of horror these situations present. Our children are no different. That sex and violence sells is of course not lost on marketers and they use this media to move whatever it is they are selling.

Entitlement plays an important part

Boys believe they are entitled to make these provocative requests in great part because no one is out there discouraging such behaviors. This new sexualized culture of tweens and teens has been kept a secret as it has most recently come to a crescendo over the last several years. Many point to the release of the Kardashian sex tape as the beginning of cultural acceptance for such activity. Boys want to get with Kim and her sisters, girls it is assumed just want to be her. Heated arguments ensue when deciding whether Kim et. al. are empowering or degrading women. In the end one thing seems all too true, the boundaries for acceptable behavior have been pushed to the limit and our girls continue to suffer as a result.

The impact of the search for identity

The tween and teen years serve to help children establish a firm identity. It is during the tween and early teen years that kids are particularly vulnerable. Social media has afforded boys the opportunity to make up for the very characteristics that may stand in their way of becoming an alpha male. The anonymous nature of social media allows everyone to have any kind of voice they wish and far too many boys are using this to what they see as an advantage.

It is important to highlight that this sense of invincibility is evidenced in the real world outside of social media. The recent Stamford University rape decision best reflects the climate of the times in which we live. The case involved a young male who raped an unconscious coed in plain sight only to receive a sentence of six months in county jail. The judge noted in his decision that a more severe sentence would be too harsh a punishment for a mistake made by a young man who’s future held so much promise. The public outcry resulting from this decision offers at least some solace perhaps however, the message sent is clear: A young talented (he was a swimmer, allegedly an Olympic hopeful) good looking college male with no prior record can commit an egregious crime with barely a consequence. We have to wonder what contributed to this young criminal’s decision to commit this deplorable crime. To argue he is a sociopath, an individual lacking a conscious, is perhaps too easy of an answer. It would be unfair to affirm that today’s culture encourages such heinous crimes, instead, perhaps we can argue that today’s climate doesn’t do enough in the way of discouragement especially when esteemed judges are laying down joke sentences from their benches.

Clark Kent Syndrome is breeding bad behavior. The fact that these young people are engaging in, and getting away with, such unacceptable behaviors only serves to ensure that it will continue.

Searching for a solution

So what then is the solution? The answer here is quite simple, education and communication. How we can affirm that the message gets absorbs is perhaps the challenge. It is easy to contend that we must be talking with our girls, telling them they should not, cannot feed in to let alone tolerate such behavior from our boys. Our boys however must be ready and willing to receive the message.

Much of this must start with the media. This is a difficult undertaking in a climate that so easily seems to excuse bad behavior, a society that values the potential future of a male athlete more than that of a female victim. This is particularly difficult when mega social media celeb Kim Kardashian is encouraging the opposite in her social media feed. In a recent posting she displays a cell phone case which reads “sends nudes” on the back of it.

Calling it what it is can help clarify

It seems quite ironic that because these cavalier requests have received compliance that many tweens and teens are engaging in the proliferation of child pornography. It is important to frame our discussions about this issue in this manner. Offering up this reality helps clarify exactly how these behaviors translate. Suffice it to say that even though we may have pushed the boundaries about what is acceptable in today’s culture, child pornography clearly continues to be rightfully characterized as a heinous and dangerous pursuit. With this in mind we need to help our children understand that they have a responsibility to protect each other. Of course the conversations should include discussion about respect and responsibility. Since tweens and tweens are programmed to be egocentric a discussion emphasizing the perspective of the young ladies receiving these embarrassing requests or unsolicited ‘dick pics’ as well as the point of view of their parents and family members and the parents and family members of the boys making these requests and sending these photos may be helpful to emphasize that these inquiries are unacceptable and inappropriate. Thankfully “What would your parents say,” still holds a lot of weight with majority of tweens and teens.

Parents play a primary part in solving the problem

To be clear, the boys engaging in these behaviors are more often than not, kids perceived as ‘nice boys.’ While their behavior may be disturbing it does not follow that the majority of them would stick out as bad boys or bullies, in fact the irony is that so often these are as already directly alluded to, mild mannered boys.

Direct conversation with our children is not the only avenue to amend these terrible behaviors. Parents and other adults also need to be talking with each other. If for example, you have a daughter who receives an unsolicited request or inappropriate picture, it is important to clue in the perpetrator’s parents. How this is done is certainly situational. If a parent feels comfortable contacting the other parents directly it is important to keep in mind that the goal is to inform not blame. In other scenarios parents may feel more comfortable alerting the offender’s parents via school personnel, and or in some situations, through law enforcement. Parents should also monitor their children’s social media and look through their tweens’ and teens’ pictures and videos. While there may at first be protest with a supposition that privacy has been invaded, a clear explanation that safety comes first can quickly clarify. In essence, if there is nothing to hide, there should be no worries.

Social media allows individuals to have a voice in a world that can feel complicated and overwhelming.  We have an obligation to teach our tweens and teens that the messages they send matter. It is time to remind our boys that Superman stands for justice for all, that he symbolizes that there is strength and power in proliferating good versus evil. When our girls and boys gain perspective into the impact of their words and actions on others, they realize they have an opportunity to make a positive mark on the world around them.