When I was in high school, a classmate named Dewey passed me a pencil-sketched hairy vulva and darkened clitoris on college-ruled paper with a note reading “Is this yours?” Flushed, I folded it twice, passed it back and shook my head. That same year mobile phones were the size and weight of a brick. From my Generation X experience, I have very little to offer my Generation Y son, especially when it comes to sexting.
This winter three teens in our community were formally charged with felonies in a juvenile court stemming from a sexting incident. As with many of these stories, it began with love — or at least infatuation, the teen equivalent. A girl took personal nude photos and sent them to her boyfriend. Then they broke up. He sent them to another girl, and she sent them to a friend. Within hours kids in the middle schools had all seen the photos. The ex-boyfriend and two senders are facing Class C felonies with a possibility of 30-days in Juvenile Detention and required registration as sex offenders. This case gathered attention as the public asked, “Does the punishment fit the crime?” When technology evolves faster than legislation there are many unanswered questions.
My son, who carries a cell as he navigates the city bus system, didn’t receive the text, but it was possible. Someday he might receive one like it.
When I asked Jamin what he would do if he received a ‘sext’, his response was, “The same thing I’d do if I accidentally had naked pictures pop up on the computer. I’d turn it off and tell you guys.” Many teen girls snorted when I asked them about sexting: “It’s so stupid — I’d never do that.” Other teens found the response to this recent sexting case hilarious. It’s funny to them because, as they say, “So many people have done it. People are acting like this stuff never happens. It totally does.”
A statistic from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported last month that a survey of 1,280 teens and young adults found that 20 percent of the teens said they had sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves. While it’s disturbing, if we combine what we know about teen’s brains, power, and the evolution of technology, sexting is predictable.
I wonder, what happened to wait time? In the early ’90s, the process of distributing pictures of a minor would have taken days. A teen would have to take a picture of herself with a film-loaded camera, wait a couple days to get them back from a Photo Hut, physically give them to her boyfriend, and then, after the break-up, he’d have to pass those person to person. There would be many times to stop and say, “Hmmm… maybe this isn’t such a good idea” or “What could be the possible consequence of my action?”
In 2010, technology offers no wait time. No think time. A teen’s brain does not quickly perceive risk and yet they have a flashy tool in their sweatshirt pocket that responds instantly to a lightning-fast thumb. What if it took a day or two to have a picture available to forward? What if a question popped up on the screen, “Would you be comfortable showing this picture to your family? Type Y for yes and N for no.” Or how about, “If this picture is an inappropriate photo, are you prepared to serve consequences for a felony which currently includes having to register as a sex offender?”
I move quickly to search out solutions because I’m not into a) admiring problems or b) blaming this generation of digital natives. My role as a parent has changed by leaps and bytes. I navigate websites my children frequent; I blog; I yammer; I ning; I program my iPod and theirs; I text my son “HAND” (have a nice day). I do this not because I love my screen time, but because if I’m going to help them stay safe, I need to understand their world. While sexting hasn’t intimately touched my family, it is my responsibility. As a woman, mother, teacher, community member, sexuality educator, citizen and human being, I am paying attention.
Ultimately I wonder, “Why take the photo?” If the pictures were never taken, there would be nothing to sext. No photo op, no forward. One of my friends said, “I think it’s totally a matter of self-esteem and parental oversight and values. These young girls today are so impressionable at a much younger age than we were. When squeaky clean movie stars do this — like Vanessa Hudgens — and are painted as victims, that sends the message that this is OK.” Vanessa Hudgens, for those of you without tweens, was the star from High School Musical with the girl-next-door image until nude photos traveled all over the internet. Imagine the allure of being both the topic of conversation AND the victim.
Another mom said, “Some teen girls feel a sense of power that comes from their sexuality. This fits right in with dressing provocatively and flirting aggressively. I think there’s got to be a certain level of thrill attached. Even with the belief, “My boyfriend would never share these,” it is probably exciting to wonder if anyone else would find out.”
Elizabeth Gilbert in her new book, Committed, writes, “If you have a society in which female sexual morality means everything and male sexual morality means nothing, then you have a very warped and unethical society.” To compound the problem, if we have a society where girls have sexual power without personal power, we are up a creek without a cell phone.
My mantra with my children is, “I love you. I trust you. I am paying attention.” It’s their job to test boundaries and my job to reinstate them. I ask them what they think and tell them what I believe. My son and daughter are in the “Sexting is so stupid” camp, but I don’t stop there. We talked about what happened in our community, about the laws, about the speed of technology. We imagined what the girl might have been thinking and why she might have done it. We discussed what the jilted boy might have been thinking and why he might’ve done it. Suddenly these teenagers have real human stories and aren’t just stupid. When I walk in their stinky, hormonal shoes, the sexters morph into me, my daughters, and my son in a different place and time with different choices.
I luv u
I trst u
I m payin attn
13 replies on “Sexting”
Heather, thank you for this honest and clear-eyed perspective. I will admit that prior to reading, I had no idea what “sexting” meant. My kids are 2 & 4, so I am in a different place at the moment…but not for long. Thank you for offering me still more tools with which I can hope to navigate our relationships and their safety in this no-pause-to-think world.
I found your article interesting but I do have to disagree about how in the past it would have taken longer to take and hand out naked pictures of yourself. Remember Polaroids? In 1982, one of my best friends took photos of herself standing in front of a mirror wearing lingerie and then gave the photos to a guy she liked while he was eating lunch at school (with a table full of guys-who all saw them too. Who knows how many guys ended up seeing them?). She enjoyed the attention she got. I thought she was nuts. I guess my point is that there have always been and always will be women who enjoy doing these sort of attention getting antics. Sending it through a phone is just a new way of distributing. I think it’s ridiculous to charge any of the teens with a crime. What should happen is that they should have mandatory therapy in order to help them understand why they are acting this way. And probably family therapy and no cell phone til they’re 18 would be a good idea too.
i luv u, i trst u, i m payin attn. brilliant. and i whole heartedly disagree with mrsjay. taking cell phones out of the hands of these children will not change their behaviour. i want my children to be able to communicate with me in many ways throughout the day, via text, via phone and with face to face interaction. i luve u, i trst u, i m payin attn.
Great, honest, intelligent. My daughter is only 5 but how we help our children be embodied, socially and sexually aware people starts from birth and keeps going. Thanks!
Thank you for being such a calm, thoughtful voice of reason, and for giving me my new parenting mantra!
Heather: your points are so well taken. My daughters are now in their twenties, but my husband and I always believed that it is the responsibility of parents to be open and available to talk about anything, answer questions and impart information. The corrollary is that with open and safe discussions with children and teens, parents can help model and promote critical thinking and good judgement. Absolutely–Pay attention. I always told my kids, “It’s my job.”
Though my children are all adults now, I am very grateful for your addressing this issue. My sense is that things are going to get worse before they get better, but this is certainly a step in the right direction
I love this column and I love your mantra, which is now my mantra too.
Nicely said again Heather. Keep up the great writing. Please address todays song lyrics and tweens sometime. Subject for another walk.
Heather – this was beautiful and intelligent and much appreciated. I still have a little one but work with university students for my job so I get it and worry how I will navigate whatever technology is still to come. I really resonated with your mantra and it will remain with me.
My daughter is only two, and I’m sure that her future holds technology that will continue to change the way we act and communicate. Your mantra sounds like my parent’s philosophy that helped me through the my teens, and the 80’s.
Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful connections to this column. I’m on a writing retreat this week and it’s been great encouragement knowing you are out there.
I loved your mantra! My children are merely four and five, yet issues regarding technology are already rearing their ugly heads since my daughter began kindergarten. It all scares me to death, but I too believe that by “paying attention” and keeping a firm foot in their world, I can (subtly) influence them to make the right decisions when it comes to the bad stuff. Thank you for your insight.