Teens are native tech users — they use their phones like they use their hands.
In Colorado recently, a “ring” of hundreds of teens in high school and middle school were discovered to be sharing nude photos of each other. (Interesting language by the way, calling it a “ring” – like a drug ring, a crime ring or some other terrible thing, other than kids being kids.)
According to reports, the teens had made a game of it, sharing and finding nude pics of one another, with points awarded for photos of different teens, based upon their popularity. Discovery of the activity has rocked the community, interrupted football games (horrors!) and led to hand-wringing galore.
Teens and adolescents caught with nude pictures of themselves, and other young people are often subject to charges of manufacture and distribution of child pornography. Even when the pictures are of themselves.
In a wild, Orwellian Catch-22, teens may be old enough to consent to sex (in many states, age of consent ranges from 15-18), but not be old enough to consent to share a nude picture of themselves with another person. Or even to take a nude picture of themselves and simply have it on their phone.
The laws are outdated, and in conflict with themselves. They need to change. The laws about child pornography, about pornography and sex in general, were never developed expecting the technological abilities that exist today. Some states have already updated their laws, turning sexting offenses into misdemeanors, and prohibiting sex offender registration for teens in such cases. Unfortunately, many states remain mired in hyperbole and moral outcry over the issue, with antiquated laws still on the books. First Amendment scholar and attorney Lawrence Walters has written an excellent review on these legal issues.
I will note that it’s interesting how we automatically equate nudity with pornography, and sexualize the pictures of these adolescent bodies — sometimes, even often, nudity may not be sexual except in the eyes of the beholder.
Research about sexting is rather unclear, as is most research about sex, pornography and age. Sexting is incredibly common, we know that. Whether it is healthy or unhealthy remains quite uncertain and nuanced.
Some research suggests that many teens are pressured into sexting, but other research has hinted that teens who sext may be more confident about their bodies and their sexuality in general. The delightful work Sexting Panic by Hasinoff invites us to consider the ways that our fear of sex and technology is leading us to suppress sexual autonomy and development. It is, in many ways, an antidote to our deep-seated, hyperbolic fears of the “epidemic of sexting.”
Teens today are native to technology. College freshmen today, in 2015, have NEVER known a world/life without cellphones, digital cameras and being online all the time. They’ve grown up with cellphones, the Internet, Google and digital cameras. They Skype, they Instagram and Snapchat. They have Youtube video diaries and they share Vines with each other, of themselves doing everything. They talk, they dance, they kiss and they play video games. And they post all of this online. And yes, once it’s online, it’s there forever.
But fear-based tactics don’t work. Telling kids that they should be scared of the possible future consequences of sharing these videos and pictures is simply impractical. Grown-ups ARE right — if these kids applied for grad school, for jobs as doctors or lawyers or politicians or teachers today, those pictures and videos could surface and ruin their careers.
Because that’s the way the world works today. Based on outdated morals and standards, our society has ruined the lives and careers of countless teachers, politicians and normal people, simply because pictures and videos of them naked or being sexual existed, and could be found online.
None of us want to imagine that pedophiles might be getting these images and using them for their own illicit purposes. But the laws that penalize these teens themselves, labeling the youth as sex offenders — these laws have no chance of reducing child pornography. Making sexting teens into criminals does not prevent child pornography, or exploitation of children.
I have a teenage daughter. I don’t know if she has sexted. Because I grant her the privacy in that aspect of her life, which she has requested. As a father, a psychologist and an advocate for sexual freedoms, I hope that she understands the risks, the complexities, the nuances and dangers of this modern world. But, I know that setting limits, restrictions, monitoring and fear-based strategies on her, are likely to fail. Worse, I know that if I fail to grant her the privacy and trust she deserves, that she WON’T come to me with questions when she needs help.
So, it’s us that need to change. It’s the world, the society, and the social values, that need to change. We need to create a society where sharing naked pictures of yourself DOESN’T destroy one’s future, your career and your life. We need to change laws, expectations, and stop shaming children for living and breathing in the world which we created. We owe it to our children – they are using the technology which we created, and which we put in their hands. Expecting teens today not to sext is like telling them they can only masturbate without using their hands.
This article originally appeared on PsychologyToday.com.
Photo credit: Flickr/9jv3Vi