Parents, beware! Locking the doors and issuing curfews are
no longer enough to curb teens’ licentious behavior. At least, that’s what a
spate of recent media stories would have us believe. Seemingly harmless technologies
like texting and the Internet have led to a
spate of teen-scandals from the suburbs to the city. Whether it’s
cheerleaders sending nude photos of themselves to friends via cellphone or
school suspensions due to racy online videos, tech
sexscapades are all over the news.
A clear pattern–or
For those of us who work with teenagers, the fact that
normal teenage behavior is going online is nothing new. I’ve seen young people
save sexually explicit text messages as proof that they are as experienced as
they claim to be. I’ve noticed teens post suggestive photos on their profiles,
and watched MySpace, instant message and Facebook statuses morph with up-to-the
minute updates on their shifting romantic lives.
The more sensationalistic numbers appear at first to
reinforce this observation: one
study, commissioned for CosmoGIRL! magazine showed "sexting" in particular to
be common (emphases mine):
One in five kids have used their cell phone to send sexy or nude
photos of themselves, according to an online poll by Teenage Research Unlimited
(TRU), a trend analyst firm in Chicago.
Another study found even more
widespread results on MySpace:
In an initial study, UW School of
Medicine and Public Health assistant professor of pediatrics Megan Moreno and a team of
researchers found more than half of
18-year-old MySpace users they studied mentioned sex, violence or substance use
on their Web profiles.
However, yet another study done about teens and tech
found that sexting is not happening at
such an alarming rate as the Cosmo/TRU poll suggested. C.J. Pascoe, the Colorado College assistant sociology professor who worked on the Digital Youth
Report study, surveyed 80 random teens
and went through their inboxes in search of risque photos: "I never saw
it," she said.
So has sexting gone wild, or is it an overblown myth trumped
up to scare parents? The answer is neither. Kids communicate so regularly using
social media that it feels like second nature. For many teens, texting and
social networking are vital modes of self-expression – extensions of how they
dress, talk, and act. So those teens who are more eager to explore their sexuality
will be more eager to use technology to that effect, but there’s zero evidence
to suggest that the technology in and of itself is corrupting.
Rather, it’s the way it can be used to "catch"
or humiliate its users that has caused the alarm. At first glance, online and
text-only interactions provide an easy, seemingly safe way of engaging in
typical teenage behavior. The advent of instant messenger in the 90s was
successful with young people partially because it made awkward land-line phone
calls to new friends or potential love interests a thing of the past, allowing
young people to test the social waters without risk.
But along with the apparent sense of anonymity which makes
technology appealing for teens comes a way of preserving interactions in amber,
a chance to seize proof that they are
engaging in grown-up behaviors. It is this
aspect that can come back to haunt them. For instance, that "safe" instant
messenger conversation or photo can be copied by an unscrupulous buddy, pasted,
and sent out to hundreds of people within, well, an instant.
And one of the reasons that "sexting" makes adults
squeamish is that such hard evidence renders teens’ lives impossible to ignore.
Indeed, as Tracy-Clark-Flory points out in this
Salon piece, calling panic on this behavior is fundamentally denying the
inescapable fact of teen sexuality, and the experimentation and
boundary-pushing that comes with it.
Will teens heed
Teens, who are simultaneously
obsessed with authenticity and image, will not always be willing to change the
way they use technology at someone else’s suggestion. During the course of the
survey about MySpace use, teens on the online space were sent a follow-up
email warning them about potential consequences of publicizing their
A follow-up study aimed to find out whether interventions
would prompt youth to act differently. "Dr. Meg" sent an e-mail to
young MySpace users cautioning them about their posts on sex or substance
abuse, causing about 42% of them to change their profiles within a month.
Some might see this result
as a positive example of what gentle adult intervention can do, and it is. But
even with explicit warnings, many teens did not
act to change their profiles.
Whether or not kids heed adult lectures about risky online
behavior often has to do with how relevant the potential consequences are made.
I spoke to a few former students who said they remained largely unconcerned
about this issue through the first chunk of high school and used MySpace and
Facebook to post party pictures and off-color comments. However, once they
began to be interested in college admissions and job prospects, they
began to make adjustments in how they portrayed themselves online. Warnings can
be helpful, but are most effective in tandem with teens’ evolving conceptions of themselves (this change is apparent, too, when they start changing their email
addresses from words like "sexy" "juicy" "fly"
and "starwarsguy" to their actual names).
So what’s an adult, or community, to do when a so-called
sexting scandal, or potential incident comes to their attention? First, refrain from punishing teens for online "indiscretions." Punishment
from schools and parents is often a way to mollify adults in a given situation, but it teaches teens little. Kids are
potentially going to be humiliated by having their private lives exposed to their
peers anyway – and if they’re not embarrassed, then punishment is unlikely to
It’s better to approach the matter in a positive way:
engage kids using the technology they’re familiar with. Many sexual health
groups are using texting and the internet to spread safe sex information (as
we explored last spring). It’s vital to expand on these sorts of
projects so that the technology kids use can help them be safe, informed, and
even empowered about the choices they make.
Parents, older siblings and mentors should also look into
the program kids are using and learn how to talk to them about it. If it’s
Facebook or MySpace, adults should find out about the privacy controls and
research the way these interfaces work, so they can have an informed discussion
with teens about how to continue using those media freely, but without
Ultimately the way we teach kids about safe online use and
texting should parallel the way we teach them about safe sex: rather than
condemn or forbid behaviors, focus on reducing any associated risks. Arm kids
with sensible, clear information rather than threats, and then let them do
their online thing.