Why Teen "Sexting" May Not Be As Bad As You Fear

Family Matters on 02.07.12
Contributor bio | twitter

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Creative Commons

The other day I wrote that parents can be cyberbullies too, looking at a case where an angry step father "sexted" a nude photo he'd found on his teenage step daughter's phone to teach her a lesson about the dangers of sexting. At the time I focused on the absurdity of the lesson, and on the dangers of using online humiliation as a punishment for our kids.

But another aspect of this story has been bothering me. What are we telling kids about themselves and their bodies?

Equality of the Sextings?

We don't, of course, have all the details of this case. How explicit was the photo? Was it intended to be "sexted", and to whom? Or was it simply a teenager exploring and trying to figure out who she is? After all, phones are multifunctional devices these days, and many of us take photos for private consumption, and just because they are on our phones does not mean we are planning to share them with the world. We should assume that many of our teenagers do the same thing.

As Andy pointed out in his shock expose on the fact that teenage boys masturbate, we know that teens will think about and explore the topic of sex one way or another. It's what they do. Lurid headlines and blanket condemnation of "sexting" is in danger of tarring any and all use of phones and images with the same, deeply perverted brush. But as Matt O'Donnell of ABC News points out, research shows that there is a vast diversity in the content that so commonly gets categorized as "sexting":

Of the 1,560 internet users surveyed in this research, which included adolescents between the ages of 10 and 17, 9.6 percent admitted to sending "sexually suggestive" images. Whoa, you say, that's a lot but read on.

One percent surveyed admitted to sending images that would violate child pornography laws. Any number in that regard is too high, but knowing only 1 in 100 teens are sending potentially damaging (and criminal) images may mean that parents, teachers, community leaders, and advertisement campaigns are getting through about the dangers of sexting.

This research is, in many ways, a validation for O'Donnell who wrote previously that a more nuanced response to sexting from parents and authorities might help lessen the dangers for our children. By understanding the nature of sexting, and differentiating between normal exploration and more public, dangerous exhibitionism or exploitation, parents and educators can create a space where teens feel comfortable discussing sex in the digital age, and come up with the mental and emotional tools they need to stay safe. Initiatives like puberty night, for example, should include discussion of sex and technology, and create a space where teens feel comfortable sharing what is going on in their peer groups so that adults can give guidance on what is, and what is not, appropriate and safe behavior.

Law Requires Flexibility

Similarly, when the law does need to step in when "sexting" has crossed legal boundaries, instead of presecuting teens under sex offender laws, for example, many authorities suggest that lesser, misdemeanor offences may be more appropriate. Right now, says O'Donnell, many law enforcement officers are unwilling to prosecute relatively minor offences because a conviction would result in them being registered as sex offenders and, quite literally, destroying a teen's future for what may have been a foolish and misguided mistake.

Denying Teens' Sexuality is Swimming Against the Tide

While many of us may heartily wish that our teenagers were not sexual beings, I'm afraid we are swimming against millions of years of evolution on that one. Similarly, we may wish that they didn't live in a digital world. But when we all use our iPhones, iPads and smart phones 24/7, and some of us blog for a living, we may be better off seeking to understand those technologies, understand how our teens relate to those technologies, and heck, maybe even seeking to understand how they relate to themselves and each other. 

That's a tall order I know. But the safety and well-being of our teens (and the sanity of their parents) may depend on it.

Top Articles on Teens, Behavior and Sex
Puberty Night is Sex Education Brings Teens and Parents Together

Breaking News: Teenage Boys Masturbate A Lot. Seriously.

Would You Let Your Teen Sleep With Their Boyfriend or Girlfriend at Home?

Parents Can Be Cyberbullies Too