Using her cell phone, a high school girl sends nude photos of herself to boyfriends that wind up printed and distributed in the boys' locker room at Hudson (Wis.) High School. Two boys accused of doing it are charged with defaming her character. The girl tells police she is devastated.
More teenagers today are feeling pressure to create larger identities for themselves like the celebrities they see depicted in national media, said Laurie Ouellette, a communication studies professor and reality TV expert at the University of Minnesota. In an era where teens aim to increase their list of "friends" on social networking sites, that can mean flashing nudity in an effort to compete for attention.
"The price is that you have to define yourself in the same kind of terms that celebrities are defined," said Ouellette, who thinks the emphasis on misbehaving celebrities bodes poorly for teens who see them as role models.
Whether it's photos of singing sensation Miley Cyrus shirtless and draped in a sheet for a magazine shoot or images of Twin Cities high school students drinking at a house party, more teens are discovering the enduring -- and unforgiving -- nature of technology.
Observers of young people who show their skin on cell phones and social networking websites say parents and schools should be alarmed at the trend. The Hudson case, they say, is an example of a larger problem sweeping the country that involves girls and boys pressured into sexuality, made easy by fingertip technology that turns their bodies and behavior into public information.
"It's certainly not just a Hudson issue, it's an issue for all of us who work with students throughout the country when they have access to this kind of technology," said Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten, superintendent of the Hudson School District. "Obviously, when used inappropriately, it exposes them to things they're not ready to handle."
In the fall, freshmen at Hudson High will be taught about "appropriate and inappropriate use" of technology, she said. Parents, meanwhile, should monitor their children's use of technology and realize that while text messages and other communications can be "wonderful tools," they can be troublesome as well, Bowen-Eggebraaten said.
Prosecutors charged Tyler J. Schultz and Michael L. Meyer-Senty, both 17, with defamation of character, a misdemeanor. Both were students from September 2005 through April but no longer attend the school, Bowen-Eggebraaten said. She declined to say why they left, citing privacy laws.
The court complaint said that on April 1, a teacher gave administrators a photo collage he found in the boys' locker room. The collage of 11 pictures showed the bare breasts and pubic area of a girl enrolled at Hudson High School. The girl's name was included, as was this message: "Let everyone witness your foolishness ..., let us see how your fare when your world is turned upside down ..., you lose."
The girl wasn't named in court papers, nor was it explained why she sent nude photos to boys.
According to the complaint, the girl was having a dispute with the boys because she had accused them of throwing a bowling pin through the glass front door of her house. The complaint said that Schultz admitted to asking other students for photos of the girl and that "he got lots of pictures from a number of students" at the high school. Schultz printed the photos at his home; Meyer-Senty distributed five copies in the locker room and members of the track team viewed them, the complaint said.
A broader issue
Parents need to understand that the Hudson case is only one example in a national marketing culture that even sells underwear that says "Eye Candy" to 8-year-olds, said Joe Kelly, president of Dads and Daughters, a Duluth-based website.
"We are unwise if we focus too much on any one of these particular stories because the problem is much deeper and wider than that," said Kelly, who has 27-year-old twin daughters. "It's all over the place."
He said young people, especially children, are starting to think that it's normal to show flesh in social settings, particularly through technology. "You see boys growing up thinking the size of a woman's cleavage is more important than the size of her soul," he said.
Ouellette said cell phone transmissions and social networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook are fast becoming the next generation of reality TV. But teens often don't understand that using technology to share suggestive nudity, drinking parties and other thoughts and actions can land them in trouble with their families, school administrators and future employers, she said.
"What's tolerable in our media culture often is not in real life," she said.
Ouellette said it would help if schools provided more instruction to students about the dangers of misbehaving on the Internet.
A research study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, issued in December, found that 93 percent of American teenagers use the Internet, 55 percent have created a profile on a social networking site, and 47 percent have uploaded photos where other people can see them. And e-mail as a means of communicating continues to fall in popularity, with texting and instant messaging on the rise.
"At that age, you kind of think you're invincible," said Sarah Egerstrom, director of the First-Year Experience program for new students at University of Wisconsin River Falls. "The technology is so much faster. Online you can create whatever persona or image you want."
The university has a workshop to show new students how to protect themselves, said Egerstrom, 30, but the early attempts to warn of the dangers didn't always resonate. "Some of the students just think, 'Ya, ya, we know,'" she said.
This fall the university will take a different approach. Egerstrom said a national social networking expert will come to show students what he's learned about them in the public domain -- with faces and other body parts blurred.
Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554