This is the second installment of an examination of the phenomenon of sexting by guest blogger Dr. Richard Chalfen

>>See part I: Teen Culture
>>See part III: Reactions and Responses

How and when did young people give pictures to one another in the past?  We know that historically young couples swapped pictures of themselves by exchanging them in person or sending them through the mail.  Though school portraits were often traded, shots of girlfriends in skimpy swim suits were often preferred.  For the past few years, the internet has become a major medium of photo exchange, through family-created websites, photo-sharing websites such as Flickr and Picassa, and now through social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.  Very personal pictures, including moment-of-birth shots and sexually revealing shots, are often shared very publicly over the internet.

Additional structural complexity appears when we acknowledge a series of related photographic activities:

  1. Hearing daily reports of adults misusing cell phone cameras for “up-skirting” on escalators, and of cameras being placed in such public locations as department store changing rooms, locker rooms, and even bathrooms.
  2. Learning that large sums of money are earned from taking and selling the “right” picture of certain people in private acts.  This occurs in situations from ordinary people using their camera phones to become citizen photo journalists, to actual photo journalists catching images of politicians taking bribe money or celebrities engaged in salacious acts.
  3. Acknowledging that photo journalists, street photographers and others have struggled with differences of taking photographs and publishing photographs as two domains of activity, each with different rules, rewards and consequences.  This has resonated with ordinary people because individuals engage in two different processes when they first take a cell phone picture and then second, decide to “publish” it by sending it on to someone else.
  4. Redefining the Public and the Private and the subsequent emergence of two overlapping domains.  This relationship is constantly in flux, though we could claim a considerable acceleration of movement from the private into the public. This trend is certainly not new and mass media has perhaps led the way in offering examples.  Consider very personal information about private body acts that were revealed and discussed on popular shows such as the Newlywed Game, as well as the more recent Jerry Springer models of personal revelation.  This private to public phenomenon extends to our personal pictures.  The new aspect is that once you put photos in cyberspace, they can go anywhere and will exist forever.  

Combine all of the above factors with adolescent culture and you can see an expected emergence and popularity of sexting for which relevant codes of laws, rules and standards have yet to be established and formalized.

Parents need to exert caution and care when trying to protect their children from being a participant (willing or unwilling) in sexting.  Because many parents rely on their children having cell phones to keep in touch about locations, plans, and needs, it may be far more troublesome to ban cell phones than to keep an open dialogue about concerns. 

So how can you talk to your kids about your concerns?  Tune in for tomorrow's installment of this post, which will offer some concrete ideas.

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