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“Sexting” scandals involving minors are popping up faster than weeds in an organic garden. This week, nearly two dozen students at Kings Park High School in New York were suspended for allegedly texting or just viewing a student in a sexually explicit video. Meanwhile, at Canon City High School in Colorado, hundreds of students who allegedly took and shared nude pictures of themselves or classmates are facing possible child pornography charges. According to CNN,

The Cañon City School District said that if charges are filed, they could amount to a Class 3 felony if students took “a picture of themselves showing a naked private body part and sent it to another person, … received such a picture and forwarded it to another person, or … received such a picture and retained possession of it over time.”

And last month, a North Carolina teen faced sex crime charges for allegedly exchanging nude photos with his girlfriend.

There is a common thread that runs through all of these stories: Teens often don’t know that sexting as a minor can come with these harsh legal ramifications.

I learned this firsthand while talking to students about sexting during a weekly digital citizenship class. Surprisingly, in a class of nearly 30 students, while all knew (more or less) what sexting was, not one knew of its possible legal penalties. So I shared some current news stories about students, not much older than these 8th graders, who got caught sexting and explained what happened to them. Why, my students wondered, hadn’t anyone warned these kids about the possible consequences of their actions?

Good question.

The answer lies somewhere between our society’s deeply-rooted Puritanical views towards sex and adult naivety about new technology and how it facilitates a teen’s age-old interest in the opposite sex.

So can we just talk about sexting for a moment?

I picked up the phone and talked about sexting with Deputy Clay Cranford of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and author of Parenting in a Digital World. I wanted to know how the teens he works with in our community view sexting.

“Kids’ perception is that it is not a big deal,” Cranford told me. “In general kids think it is normal behavior to share sexually explicit images. Boys expect these images and girls supply them in order to demonstrate that they are in a committed relationship.”

When kids do get caught sexting, the adult response is typically two-fold: First, it’s met with shock; second, it elicits a knee-jerk reaction. In each of the sexting scandals above, for example, teens faced suspension from school, possible felony charges, or both. These severe penalties extended even to kids whose only crime was to have been the recipient of the sexually explicit message. Hardly fair.

So why don’t we talk about sexting? Because it’s uncomfortable. But it doesn’t have to be, especially if it is done in the context of “media literacy,” a subset of digital citizenship. For example, a critical study of the today’s media landscape (aka, media literacy) includes topics widely associated with sexting, like gender representation and stereotypes, unrealistic ideals of beauty, “photoshopped” images, even “selfies” and what (or how much) they reveal. Lessons on any of these topics make it easy to transition to a conversation about sexting, in school or at home. My own in-school experiences teaching these topics have opened up a lot of critical discussions and questions (i.e., How come the Kardashian-of-the-week can flaunt body parts all over the Internet, yet minors sharing sexual images are held to a different standard?).

Three Things To Consider When Talking About Sexting

Finally, my discussion with Deputy Cranford left me with these three important considerations about teens and sexting:

  1. The teenage brain is a work-in-progress. According to Cranford, “Juvenile brain research has shown us that the pre-frontal cortex is developing throughout puberty and doesn’t completely finish developing until a person reaches their mid-twenties.” In other words, even a stern warning to teens about the serious legal consequences of sexting is not a fail-proof guarantee that they still won’t do it. Teenage brains are wired to engage in activities that feel good at the moment without a care as to the risk, and this just might include sexting.
  2. Consider today’s media environment. Common Sense Media reports that teens spend an average of nine hours per day engaged with media. This includes television programs, movies, music, advertisements, social media, and more… all loaded with provocative imagery. Surely you’ve noticed.
  3. Teenage sexting has been linked with pornography exposure. A large survey of American youth revealed that 51% of males and 32% of females claimed to have viewed pornography for the first time before they were 13 years old. Furthermore, even grade school children are sometimes exposed to pornography accidentally when they view material on the Internet (see #2 above). As Deputy Cranford pointed out to me, studies show that early exposure to pornography can cause boys to view women as objects. Research shows that young males exposed to porn “show a callousness towards women” and “a greater acceptance of female promiscuity.” Couple this phenomenon with a budding relationship with a young woman who might be seeking acceptance or validation, has grown up in a media environment where a female’s worth is largely tied to her looks, and who is in possession of a smartphone with a camera… and you’ve got the recipe for a possibly perfect storm.

But Look at The Bright Side

There is, thankfully, a silver lining to all of this cellphone activity…less than half of U.S. teenagers aged 15 to 19 are having sex, a rate dramatically lower than it was a quarter-century ago. Additionally, research shows that the majority of teens report that their first sexual experience is with a steady partner. Plus there are apps widely available now, such as PocketGuardian, that alert parents to any sexting activity happening on their kids’ phones and provide information on what to do next.

We also know what doesn’t work when it comes to kids and sexting. Doing nothing doesn’t work and, according to “Why Kids Sext,” just telling kids not to sext isn’t very effective either:

A recent review of 10 official sexting-education campaigns concluded that all of them erred on the side of what the researchers called “abstinence”–that is, advising teens not to sext at all. These tend to link sexting tightly to ruinous consequences, but that’s a problem, because ruination doesn’t normally follow the sending of a sext.

In other words, the “just say no” approach to sexting is just as ineffective as its abstinence-only cousin for all of the reasons covered above, but mostly due to adolescent brain development (or lack thereof). Teens are wired to take risks and make mistakes, which is why, when it comes to sexting, it’s imperative to talk, watch, and listen.

But especially to talk, early and often.