To prevent sexting, adults first need to accept the role that technology plays in adolescents' lives.
Psst. Do you sext? Do you even know what sexting is?
If you're a middle-aged person reading the paper over breakfast, probably not. If you're a teen with a cell phone, it's a different story.
Sexting, if you haven't tuned into any popular news programs lately, is the glibly condensed term used to describe the electronic transmission of nude and seminude photos, as well as sexually suggestive text messages, most often via cell phone.
A much-quoted "Sex and Tech" survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy tabulated nearly 20 percent of teen respondents saying they had sent such images. This has skeptics raising brows, because teens who sext might also be more likely to respond to such a survey. But in the past year, nationwide concern over the issue has sparked prevention measures ranging from parent watchdog groups to state legislation, and punishments that include serious criminal charges.
Adding technology to adolescent hormones and impulsiveness can be a recipe for regret. When puppy love turns sour, images meant for one pair of eyes get passed on to a snowballing number of cell phones or broadcast over the Internet in one impetuous click. A Cincinnati teen recently committed suicide a year after this happened to her. In Milwaukee, the United Way finds sexting to be enough of a problem that it has begun a PSA campaign aimed at teens and tweens.
In Minnesota, a recent random poll of school and law-enforcement officials found varying degrees of sexting awareness, with several asking for a definition of the term. Among Twin Cities high school students, however, sexting is common knowledge. Many say they've been sent classmates' images gone viral.
Over lunch at a Dairy Queen, a group of Minneapolis Southwest High School juniors talked recently about the effect sexting has on their lives. The consensus among the two girls and three boys: not much, but they've all either been sent an image at least once or know someone whose life has been negatively affected by it.
"It's happening a lot more than people know," said Olivia Wilson.
"It's an issue, or becomes one when the boys send it to everyone," said Paige VonAchen. "When we were in ninth grade this guy, a sophomore, sent around a picture of this girl in eighth grade and it went all over to other schools, too. She's probably over it now, but it wrecked things for her for awhile."
"If boys get punished for it, girls should, too, for sending it in the first place," said Nathan Monsein.
Asked for their opinions on the issue, some of the students' parents agreed that while the issue may be overblown, it is cause for concern and family conversation.
Wilson's mother, Lizabeth Converse, suggests this prevention measure: "Tell them if they're caught doing it, they don't get a cell phone again until they're 18. That will give them pause."
'Hot and cold' laws
Sexting is the kind of juicy topic that tends to spark overscale reaction, fomented by breathless media reports. Experts generally agree on two things: Mass hysteria is not justified, but the issue is serious enough to warrant a parent-child conversation. Opinions diverge on whether law enforcement should get involved.
In Florida, Phillip Alpert was convicted of child pornography charges for, in a moment of anger, distributing nude images of his ex-girlfriend, 16. He was 18 at tha time, and is now a registered sex offender. The Vermont Legislature, however, is considering decriminalization of sexting. Proponents argue that an angry teen boy whose girlfriend has just broken up with him should not be charged with the same crime -- and given the same permanent sex-offender record -- that a middle-aged file-sharing pedophile would be.
"The laws are either too hot or too cold," said Parry Aftab, an attorney and Internet-safety crusader. "Existing sexual exploitation laws are designed for adults who prey on minors. This needs to be treated differently. On the other hand, there shouldn't be a complete hands-off policy when you have a lot of at-risk kids out there."
Some see sexting as this generation's version of flashing, streaking or acting out. The intentions may be no less innocent, but the technology makes the potential consequences far more damaging.
"We don't want to give [sexting] more life than it deserves, but we do acknowledge that it happens; it's not an urban myth," said Julie Young-Burns, a nurse practitioner and district coordinator for a Minneapolis program called Safe and Drug-Free Schools. "We try to weave it into the bigger picture of risky behaviors and cyberbullying, driving home that you should think before you act -- which younger teens in particular don't always do. They don't think rules about being media-savvy apply to them and give out all sorts of information about themselves online. I try to help parents understand what that really feels like. They want to be a part of what's happening, not on the outside."
To understand and prevent sexting, parents must first understand the role that technology plays in their children's lives. But, says adolescent-health spokesperson Glynis Shea, that doesn't mean the medium is the message.
"What we do about this should be driven not by our fears of technology, but by our understanding of adolescent development," said Shea, a former advertising executive now with the University of Minnesota's Adolescent Health Division. "They are dealing with their bodies sexually maturing and all the feelings that go along with that, and how that plays out is filtered by the world they live in. Parents need to tell their kids that unlike flashing a passing car from the school bus, this kind of thing can live forever."
Rick Kaufman, director of community relations for Bloomington public schools, said that two sexting incidents in his district were recently turned over for police followup. But he would never want to ban the use of cell phones by students. He was working for the Colorado school district in which Columbine High School is located when that tragedy happened.
"Cell phones saved lives that day," he said. "But with freedom comes the expectation that kids won't use them in inappropriate ways. Whether law enforcement should get involved, it's like the question of zero tolerance. There has to be consequences, but it can also be a learning moment."
Sgt. Mark Stelik supervises the crimes against persons unit for the Bloomington police.
"This is a new version of harassing communications," he said. "A 16-year-old girl, she has to be a little bit responsible for the fact that she's allowing these images to be taken and be out there. But is it really appropriate to be charging people with possession or distribution? I'm not certain of that. In Minnesota in most circumstances, 16 years old is age of consent to have intercourse. There's a difference between older teens and much younger children doing it. This is the problem with texting or MySpace or Facebook. Kids have a different idea of what's private and what's not."
Stelik shares the view that this phenomenon is a new generation's version of an age-old adolescent issue.
"Young people have been doing similar things since the beginning of time, whether through handwritten notes or phone calls or photos," he said.
Said U of M teen-health advocate Shea, "When the technology changes again, they'll be on to something new."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046