Thursday, May 31, 2012

The sex(t)ual revolution

Trends in technology are engaging kids at younger and younger ages. My adolescent children have an innate sense of how to navigate through email and video games. Years ago, when my grandmother died in her nineties, her education in gadgets got her to the point where she could almost program her VCR. Today, my kids can pull up a video of her on a cell phone and, if they chose to (assuming I would allow it), could with a push of a few buttons send it to all their friends—and/or to anyone else on the planet within reach of a computing device and an internet connection.

These days, it’s that easy to connect… but with such ease comes the risk of putting too much of oneself out there for the world to see.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, one in five teenagers has engaged in “sexting”—that is, has sent a sexually provocative message or visual image from a cell phone or computer. Another study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimated that 22% of teenage girls said they had sent or posed for nude or semi-nude photos. And still another poll found that 44% of high school boys had seen at least one naked picture of a female classmate.

Even if these figures turn out to be off by a few percentage points here or there, they point to a sure trend. Why do kids do it? Some suggest that sexting is just a new symptom of changing attitudes about sex among young people, that casual liaisons and freedom of sexualized expression are the new norm—and this new expression is enabled by (driven by?) the advent of personal, handheld computing devices… just as the sexual revolution of the 1960’s was fired by the invention of the “pill.”

Some of the young women surveyed cited pressure from guys or friends for why they sext. But to many other respondents, sexting is really “not a big deal,” and some see the steady stream of “leaked” celebrity sex photos and videos as evidence that consequences for sexting are often minor. After all, in Hollywood don’t they say that all publicity is good publicity?

With sexting so pervasive and starting so young (six percent of the sexters surveyed began at age nine), parents need to be vigilant. Consequences can be devastating—what might begin as a private image or text shared between boyfriend and girlfriend could wind up shared with all their classmates, their school, their community… the world. When private content reaches the public, the damage can spiral out of control, threatening college admissions or future employment… or worse. 18-year-old Jessica Logan committed suicide in 2008 after her ex-boyfriend forwarded nude images she had sent him to hundreds in their high school.

Legally, sexting can cross a line when private images are transmitted to others. Regional laws often lag behind the pace of technology, with most created to target child pornographers, not the high schoolers who with their errant images might inadvertently provide the content for them. In some instances and in some states, kids who send lewd images (even of themselves) can run afoul of child-pornography statutes, meaning they could be labeled as sex offenders and forced to register as such. (In Maine, juveniles are not subject to registry.)

So, how do we prevent our kids from sexting?

Talk to them openly about the risks and consequences. Stay aware of their friends, their “frenemies,” their crushes. Tell them the buck stops here: if they receive a sexually charged image or text, don’t forward it: that’s as bad as sexting themselves. Emphasize that responsible behavior has an online component.

Adolescents have always pushed boundaries. So has technology. Let’s be sure it doesn’t take our kids to places they don’t want to go.