MY SON IS on the cusp of 12. Armpit hair. Adam’s apple. Pimples. His voice is so low that on more than one occasion, my heart seized when I heard a man’s voice in the other room and thought someone had broken into the house.
“Puberty is gross,” he declared from the back seat of the car one day, a few hours before watching, unfazed, as a villain in a show spat acid and melted a guy’s face off.
Puberty might be gross and cringe, but I talk about it as much as he can tolerate. Yet conversations with mom can only go so far, and while I can (and will) hand him a book, I wondered what kind of tech resources are available for a single mom and a son who are each online a LOT.
A Dearth of (Organized) Info
In a world where it seems like anything can be found online, I learned that puberty resources for tweens and teens lag behind.
“There’s such a hole in the market because everything that’s online and searchable is written for parents or for lawyers,” says Cara Natterson, a pediatrician, consultant, and author of New York Times bestselling puberty and parenting books, including The Care and Keeping of You series and Guy Stuff.
Natterson sought to help fill the gap, and in 2020 she cofounded Oomla, a brand that sells clothing and features information for the tween and teen set, as well as The Puberty Podcast, available on the Oomla website and on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
The site also hosts The Puberty Portal, a series of short topical posts that are, Natterson says, the only such content written by and for tweens and teens. The prompt for those writers is, “What do I wish someone had told me five years ago?” The portal is on its second batch of contributors, and Natterson says the group is buzzing with ideas and incredulous that certain topics have not been covered yet.
“The reason they’re all so excited to write is that there’s nothing for them,” she explains. “To me, as a pediatrician and mom of teenagers, how shocking is it that a stage of life that 100 percent of people will go through is approached in this way?”
Natterson also runs a TikTok channel called “Spilling the Pubertea,” where she and cohost Vanessa Kroll Bennett attempt to use anatomically correct language while navigating TikTok’s censorship. Hence, the two professionals sometimes find themselves resorting to captions with “eggs” and “pen15” to avoid having their videos removed. Other topics include shaving, hormones, Gen-Z slang, and “Is it normal?” videos.
How We Search
Part of the apparent gap in info could result from the ways we search. A parent might Google the word “puberty” or “puberty resources for boys,” looking to build a library of at-the-ready information, but a teenager is less likely to do that. Instead, they’ll search for a specific issue—zits, facial hair, getting their period—and then bounce from link to link. They’ll hear a YouTuber talk about one issue and a TikTokker chat about another. Or they’ll come across comments and information while watching an unrelated video.
That’s exactly how Amanda Bortner, 20, learned. Although her mom was really open with her, Bortner still found herself turning to Google, YouTube videos, and her friends.
“I remember the first time I ever shaved my legs, I didn’t even tell my mom,” Bortner says. “I was like, ‘Mom, look what I did.’ She was like, ‘Oh, I hope you did it the right way.’”
Bortner, now an intern at Oomla, said she didn’t follow any specific channels. And she recognized that sometimes the information she found wasn’t legit—like the time she came across a couple of beauty YouTubers offering some sketchy advice.
“I remember I watched a video titled something like, ‘What to do to alleviate pain on your period,” Bortner says. “They said to take a laptop when it’s really hot and place it on the area … All of the comments were like, ‘Why are you telling people to do this??’”
Although Bortner was savvy enough to recognize bad advice when she saw it, others might not be. Puberty is starting earlier and lasting longer, beginning as early as eight or nine years old. So young kids are likely scanning the same topics that were once considered teen subjects.
Naturally, parents worry about what their kids will find.
“There’s a gigantic fear, not unwarranted, that kids will wind up on porn sites when they start doing searches for information,” Natterson says. “Many do, so it’s not an unreasonable concern. So how do you navigate that?”
Natterson explains that it begins with being the trusted adult who can help vet information—and again, keeping the conversation open.
Dr. Meredithe McNamara agrees. An assistant professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine who specializes in adolescent medicine, McNamara suggests adults watch content with teens.
“I would recommend that parents, guardians, and loved ones and providers ask this young person what they have found and what they have read,” McNamara says. “I do not believe in unfettered access to social media. I believe it has to be a continually open conversation. I think the approach to this is with the adult being kind of humble, and ‘What can I learn from my young person who’s going through this stage?’ is huge.”
McNamara said some of her patients pull up YouTubers who explain concepts really well, and others whose content is a little different or potentially inaccurate. Even when correcting misinformation, McNamara always makes sure to thank her patients for showing her the material and tells them she’s learned something that helps her understand them better.
“It really puts the young person in control of what’s most important to them, which is their body and their life,” she said.
Resources for Trans and Nonbinary Kids
McNamara was a coauthor, along with six other medical and legal experts, of a report in May that criticized the scientific claims used as justification to criminalize medical treatment for transgender youth in Texas and Alabama. She has also coauthored a number of op-eds on the matter.
Although the internet can be harsh, especially for marginalized groups, McNamara said she’s found positives for the gender-diverse community.
“There’s so much interesting data that shows that social media networks are very protective of and supportive for gender-diverse youth, that they find one another and that they develop really supportive and constructive friendships, that they reach out to each other when they might not be reared in supportive homes,” McNamara says.
McNamara said The Trevor Project has good, vetted resources for gender-diverse youth and youth who do not identify as straight. The site also hosts virtual drop-in counseling hours for free over Zoom. McNamara says PFLAG also has “exceptional resources for parents.”
Like any other teen, trans kids tend to find their own sources.
“These young people will pick the sources they feel safest engaging with,” McNamara said. “I think that may be a forum, a TikTokker. I think the things that are really concerning that need to be intervened with and screened for are when youth are not monitored and then preyed upon by adults on dating sites and that kind of thing.”
Keep the Door Open
Just before Bortner went to college, her mother brought a few books into her room.
“I know you don’t want them, and you don’t want to read them,” Bortner remembers her mother saying. “Just put them on the shelf and leave them there.”
Then a funny thing happened.
“I remember at one point I was like, ‘Ok, I’ll open it,’” Bortner says.
The no-pressure method had worked.
“It doesn’t really matter how your kids get the information,” Natterson says, “so long as you let them know that you’re always comfortable talking to them about any of it. That’s the win as the adult in this scenario. And if you don’t know the answer, look it up or find someone who can help you. At the end of the day, every kid is going to get some combination of good and bad info … You want to (become) the trusted adult they can run information by.”
McNamara said it’s also incumbent upon adults to learn what their kids are doing online.
“We have to care about what this generation is using to live their lives,” she says. “We have to look at it on their level. We have to ask what it does for them, and we have to ask to be invited to experience tech and social media.”
Natterson and McNamara both stress the importance of remaining nonjudgmental and not shaming their kids.
“This will be your win, because there will be a lot of days where you’re going to feel like you screwed up,” Natterson says. “So long as you’re in the conversation, you’re doing great.”
Although the information can be scattershot, it’s out there.
Some sources include:
- The website Amaze is a sex education site that also features puberty resources via a series of light-hearted cartoon videos designed to educate and entertain. They can be goofy but are informative. A related website, Amaze Jr, is geared toward parents of younger children. Both are on social media.
- The Puberty Prof is a website by health educator Lori Reichel that includes articles, a podcast, and the TALK Puberty app to facilitate conversation, among other resources.
- The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine has a serious and educational tone and provides a number of links with online resources for adolescents and young adults.
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) includes a section with puberty resources, though they are more medically oriented and somewhat dense.
- The website Puberty: The Wonder Years, geared toward teachers and parents, includes an associated book and curriculum, plus links to resources.
- The Netflix show Big Mouth, an irreverent and edgy look back at the cringiness of teen years, manages to pass along good information about puberty. It was created by Nick Kroll, the brother of Natterson’s cohost, and Kroll’s best friend, Andrew Goldberg. Big Mouth gets Natterson’s stamp of approval as a fun option for older teens.
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