Dr. Wes: Last week we discussed “Sexy Baby,” a documentary that urges us — rather jarringly — to consider how easy access to explicit sexual content crosses the boundary from adult entertainment to daily teen culture.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in sexting, which includes two behaviors — sexy written interchange, ranging from flirtatious to hard core, and explicit pictures ranging from nude to swimming-pool-legal with seductive poses.
So there’s bad news and worse news. First the bad: There are no reliable stats, but I guarantee that any study you find underestimates the commonality of written sexting. The vast majority of dating couples engage in it. I’m not endorsing this. I’m just reporting it. Parents wanting to verify that statistic in the privacy of their own home will instead hear that their teens have never ever sexted anyone. So it’s probably not worth asking. Better to discuss it as a concept.
Start with this: Text messaging isn’t like a phone call. It leaves a detailed transcript. Turn that over to someone who used to be your friend or dating partner and now happens to hate you? Disaster ensues, whether the text is explicit or just embarrassing.
So kids, never put into writing anything you don’t want read by the wrong person.
Now, the worse news. If you’re under 18, sexting pictures isn’t just a bad idea — it’s illegal. Two clicks and it can contribute to the vast array of child pornography treasured by pervs in cyberspace.
Yet every week I hear a new pic-sexting story. But the scary part is how these stories have changed.
Five years ago, kids described a serious breach of trust (“Oh my God, a picture of my (blank) went viral. I should never have trusted him/her!”). Today it’s framed as no thing (“God, mom! Why is this such a big deal to you? It’s my (blank)! Not yours!”).
Enter SnapChat, which kills the sent image after a few seconds. The perfect sexting app, huh? And it’s been used that way from the day it was released. I actually learned about it while reading articles extolling the wisdom of teens who were switching to SnapChat to preserve their privacy while sexting. No, seriously.
What the authors failed to mention is that it only takes an awkward two-finger movement to take a screen shot of any sent image. Exactly 100 percent of all teens I’ve asked already know that. So much for 10 seconds of privacy.
Sex is many wonderful things, but it is not a teen spectator’s sport, even if our culture bellows out a contrary message. As the mom in “Sexy Baby” advises, “I want to be part of the conversation [about sexuality]. I want to be part of the thinking.” Regardless of how uncomfortable that conversation may be, parents should heed that advice and start talking. A lot.
Katie: My generation has grown up without imagining a telephone tied to the wall by a cord. We communicate wirelessly from any location, except maybe a Carnival Cruise — though I understand you can purchase that service.
What’s more, vast computer networks see our grades, college applications, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers and most of our private conversations in texts and online.
For us, the virtual world is the real world — which makes it difficult to convince teenagers that sexting is not the same as being alone in a bedroom with a sexual partner with the door closed. If most teens send as many words through texts and tweets as they do through their lips, it’s not surprising that many turn phone cameras into long-distance eyes, sending images to people they know intimately in private.
Though the dangers of sexting are widely known, teens are infamous for thinking “it can’t happen to me.” At the moment of sending, few believe a trusted partner would misuse an intimate text. Then comes the breakup. Suddenly, those texts aren’t so private anymore.
Considering the popularity of sexting, fear of consequences clearly isn’t stopping anyone. More effective is teaching teens lifelong technological responsibility and respect, both for others and for yourself. Children should be introduced gradually to technology, with limits placed on their Internet and cell phone usage and family discussions designed to help kids understand the relationship between virtual and physical behavior.
A healthy, ethical home life can help teens distinguish between positive and negative attention. Those whose families teach them to respect their minds and bodies will feel less compelled to seek someone else’s approval through a snapshot of a brief adolescent mistake.