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

>>See part I: Teen Culture
>>See part II: Photo-sharing Behavior

After examining the historical precedents for sexting in the past two entries, I have come to the conclusion that as trite and reductive as it might sound, sexting seems to me to be a modern and slightly subversive example of teens-being-teens in the context of modern technological opportunity.  In my opinion, legal sanctions have no place here; I am not sure how the incarceration of young people and/or attaching permanent labels to their life records, is in their best interests.  

Regardless, whether legal action continues or not, there are serious consequences to the act of distributing sexual pictures and parents should be encouraged to use the current news coverage as a teachable moment.  Circumstances are just right for some effective counseling in a situation where a young person opens the door to new information and potential learning.  

In the case of media-related issues like this one, you often hear people say “Parents just need to talk to their kids!”  But few bother to suggest what should actually be said and how to open conversations up when teenagers are quick to shut them down.  Clearly there is no one successful way to respond, but you might try to emphasize that sexting makes people vulnerable to several kinds of consequences:

  • Legal Consequences:  Teenagers who engaged in sexting have been charged with crimes of creating and distributing child pornography and finding themselves in varying degrees of legal turmoil. 
  • Physical Consequences:  Sending sexual images to phones and social networking sites allows them to be distributed via the internet, which, in turn, facilitates their use by commercial pornographers, pedophiles or others who might want to harm or exploit young people appearing in the photographs.  
  • Emotional Consequences:  Sexting can have ongoing consequences for the victim.  As one educator noted "You're going to be humiliated hundreds of thousands of times. It's totally devastating."  

Parents should also be aware that they may face difficulties as they present their criticisms and warnings, facing a minimum of three notions difficult for teenagers to grasp:

  • The Future:  Parents want their kids to consider troubles they will have “later on,” “when you’re older,” “when you grow up,” or “when you’re our age.”
  • Forever:  Images released into cyberspace are permanent, and can be retrieved and referenced in years to come.  
  • Anonymity:  The internet is not anonymous, even though it appears to be.  People cannot hide behind a screenname or avatar. 

It is my hope that parents can use the ideas mentioned here to think more deeply about the contexts in which young people live and how this leads them to experience today’s technology-rich and image-abundant world.  

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