It seems like every week there’s a new teen sexting story making headlines. Last week, a sexting “ring” involving roughly 100 high school students in Canon City, CO, revealed that these kids were not only trading nude images of themselves, but were – GASP – hiding them behind vault apps, which password protect and hide images and videos behind seemingly innocuous apps. While the school system and local law enforcement try to figure out how to handle this fairly large incident, parents around the country are left overwhelmed, wondering what to do.
I talk to kids, parents and school staff daily about this very issue, and followed this case closely. There was nothing particularly shocking or new about this case in particular, because I hear about these stories every day from school administrators and kids themselves. However, I was struck by a handful of articles that handled teen sexting in a fairly casual way, with some of the following sentiments: Parents – didn’t you do dumb things when you were kids? Didn’t you do things your parents freaked out about? Didn’t you have a Polaroid camera you used to take pictures you shouldn’t have? Well, that’s what this is. Kids are expressing themselves. You’re old, this technology is new, and if you had it when you were kids you would have done the same thing. So relax, let kids be kids. You and generations of kids before you turned out just fine, a little sexting isn’t going to ruin their lives.
While this is definitely a generational thing that they – and you – will get through, I think brushing off teen sexting as something “all the kids are doing these days” is a disservice to them. Here’s why:
Technology is moving WAY faster than we can wrap our heads around. I do this for a living, and one of my biggest struggles is keeping on top of the latest trends. With that, many of the laws relating to technology are either non-existent or extremely antiquated.
Currently, there are federal laws that make it illegal for anyone to create, possess, or distribute any nude/semi-nude, sexually explicit images or videos of anyone under 18. There are teens that that have faced/are facing federal charges for casually exchanging these images with their boyfriends/girlfriends/friends. In most instances, it’s completely unfair and not at all what these laws were designed to combat. Some states (20 to be exact) have passed their own laws to address teen sexting with various punishments. However, until the federal laws are updated to include language that differentiates minors and adults, law enforcement has the discretion when it comes to deciding how to handle these cases. A federal charge of this nature would undoubtedly ruin a teen’s life (punishments can include jail time and sex offender registration). Thankfully, most prosecutors will decide not to go this route. But, it’s happened and could very well happen in this most recent case in Colorado; I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be OK with my kids taking this chance.
We’re not talking Polaroids, here.
I’ve had a lot of students entrust me with their sexting stories and it has never once involved bragging about how much it improved their lives/relationships or how it boosted their self-confidence. It’s usually a story filled with humiliation or panic, wondering why they ever trusted someone with these most personal photos they can’t physically get back. Frustratingly, I don’t have any immediate or helpful solutions for them. Thankfully, when we were growing up, any documented notes or pictures are ripped up in a landfill somewhere, never to be seen or shared again. These kids don’t have that luxury. If/when they regret a picture or video, it’s already potentially saved, screenshotted, or even shared with others and there’s little recourse at that point.
Developmentally, kids aren’t always wired to think action today, consequence later. With that in mind, I often wonder what these kids are going to think about these most intimate, private pictures or videos in five or ten years from now: Do they still exist? If so, are they going to pop up one day? Will my current partner see this – or possibly my family? While generational tolerances evolve, I can’t imagine a time when these naked images of our young selves will ever become the norm or something we proudly share as a #TBT on social media.
I want our kids’ relationships to be about way more.
Respect. In all relationships – teen or adult – it’s not always guaranteed, but I hope to teach my kids to expect it and serve it up. In forming relationships, our kids will learn a lot through many trials and errors, but none so permanent as someone else having control of personal images they can’t get back. It’s not a bad thing to teach them that respect for your bodies, yourselves, your partners, and your friends does not equal giving up or possessing pictures/videos of each other.
Teen sexting has undoubtedly become part of the relationship game, but it doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel. It’s important we’re talking with our kids and educating them about the potential consequences, along with the permanency of what they’re putting out there. It’s pretty empowering to be the one in control of who sees your body.