The media continues to sound the alarm over the phenomenon of kids “sexting,” using their cell phones to share nude photos of themselves. CosmoGirl shocked the nation by releasing a survey claiming that 1 in 5 teenagers has sent someone a nude or semi-nude photo. What the sensationalized news stories don’t bother to explain is that the huge majority of these photos were sent only to a boyfriend or girlfriend. (Whether that person kept the photo private is another story.)
Journalists also fail to emphasize a more startling phenomenon: Although nearly all teens could be photographing themselves in sexy poses and sending those photos to friends, fully 80% of them choose not to.
Nor do they mention that teenagers are more chaste than their adult counterparts; over 1/3 of young adults have sent such texts of themselves. Think about your own youth and the kids you knew. Wouldn’t our generation have made the same mistakes if we had access to the same technology? Unfortunately for today’s teens, the consequences of sexually frivolous behavior are much stronger today than they were a generation ago.
In the past, episodes of “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine” were treated as childish blunders and the children protected, as much as possible, from further embarrassment. But when the show-and-tell involves electronic media, authorities go into cyber-cop mode and charge teenage girls with “child pornography” for pictures the girls made of themselves. The girls in the pictures are often expelled from school or extracurricular activities, and risk ending up on sex offender registries. In other words, the laws meant to protect young people are now being turned against them.
In Pennsylvania, three 14- and 15-year-old girls were charged with manufacturing and disseminating child pornography. Three 16- and 17-year-old boys were charged with possession. Police Captain George Saranko told the Associated Press the charges were filed to send a strong message to other minors. Is this really about protecting kids, or is it about punishing them for being sexual?
The implications are enormous. If kids can now be criminalized for taking pictures, pedophiles and child pornographers have an easy out. By having the child push the button, the pedophile makes the child an accomplice in the crime. Now such creeps can rightly tell children “You could go to jail if anyone finds out about these pictures.”
Kids do need protection from real child pornographers. They may also need protection from their own poor decisions. Verizon Wireless is beginning to get on board with the idea, providing usage controls that allow parents to limit to text messaging during school hours and at night, and block certain numbers. Smaller companies like Firefly go further, allowing parents to set up a phone that will only communicate with designated numbers. Cell phones without cameras are also available, though they often lack other essential features. Concerned parents can also opt to block texting from the child’s cell phone altogether.
All in all, sexting is probably among the lesser dangers teenagers face today. With very real specters like sexually transmitted diseases and drug addiction lurking in every high school, some teens perceive sexting as a safe way to experiment with sex, risk, and bodily autonomy. After all, nobody ever got pregnant or contracted HIV over the telephone.