Sexting has become a more commonplace term in today’s media. A year ago, few people were aware of this term, and when it first came onto the scene most parents who had never heard of it, or who had never thought about the ramifications of providing cell phones to their children, found yet another reason to demonize technology and make irrational decisions about trying to protect their children.
The most recent study released about sexting equates the phenomenon to spin the bottle.
So what is a parent to think about this convergence of technology and typical teenage and pre-teen curiosity? How are parents supposed to manage the collision of immature minds and tools that give them opportunities to get into trouble in ways never before imagined? Are the fears overblown, or should we be worried that we are about to lose our children to the digital universe?
First off, a review. What is sexting? It’s the use of a mobile phone for sending sexually explicit pictures to someone else. Of course with a mobile phone with a built-in camera, or even a built-in video camera the definition of sexting can sway a bit from simple sexually charged text messages to full blown digital video of someone in their birthday suit.
There are many elements of this that petrify parents, least of which is that girls are taking naked or partially clothed pictures of themselves and sending them to their boyfriends. As many girls interviewed for various studies have stated, more often than not the girls are goofing around.
The sad fact is that this goofing around is no joke. Once released into a digital universe, an image of a naked teenager can theoretically be impossible to ever delete. Once someone else has that image – someone who has no scruples, or who has malicious intent – there is no way to determine how far and wide the image might ever be distributed.
With this foreknowledge, of course parents have every reason to be afraid for the welfare of their adolescent children. Think of the damage the unrestrained distribution of this material could do to a child’s present, and future. The feelings of violation. The humiliation at school. The Facebook or MySpace searches by a potential future employer or school.
But here’s the weird thing, the reaction to this fear, the actions that parents may take, can possibly be worse than than the risk of a child sexting.
Instead of parenting our children by exposing them gradually to dangers and educating them to the ramifications of these dangers, the trend over the past decades has been to sequester our children, removing them entirely from harm.
As the trend continues – keeping our children on shorter and shorter leashes for their own safety – at what point do we remove our children’s ability to think for themselves, to have foresight, to avoid dangers on their own, or to even (*gasp*) learn how to leverage certain dangers to their advantage? After all, we would never have developed from our early stages of hunter / gatherer societies if we hadn’t learned how to leverage and mange something that is terribly dangerous: fire.
While there are dangers associated with things like sexting, the real danger to society that we are creating is through what one parent I know called the other day “over parenting.” Over parenting is not better parenting; it is hovering over children to the point where they are unable to think for themselves. Speak to any educator in regions with moderate incomes or greater, and they will tell you stories about the parents that are already too involved in their children’s education.
The trends have gone on for so long that even educators and administrators in institutions of higher learning complain of parents who rail against the professors and deans when their children do not receive the grades or attention that the parents expect for their children.
So what will happen because of sexting: a greater restriction of children’s ability to find some form of autonomy?
Something has got to give, because while three generations ago children were allowed to travel an average of six (6) miles from their homes, today most children are not allowed to leave their yards. Childhood with these kinds of restrictions is going to have very large ramifications that no one is really considering.
Read a book like Culture of Fear, by Barry Glassner and you will start to understand how misplaced our parental fears are. You will also start to relax and realize that our kids are just as safe today as they were when we were young. One of the greatest differences is because of technology – everything from cell phones to the Internet – we know more about what’s happening all around the country and the world than we did even in the days when Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock. We know when Amber Alerts happen anywhere from Arizona to Texas. We know when pedophiles are captured in Boston. We know when mass murders occur in Turkey. With the constant drone of frightening news, we easily forget about the distance between borders, and the probability of danger happening any time we leave the house. Ask the family of the people in San Diego who were killed when an F-18 fell on the house; you can never fully protect yourself from calamity, and that is no reason to stop living.
So what is a parent to do about sexting, and Internet access in general?
Be the parent. Know what your child is doing. Talk to your child about what he or she is doing. Have the very difficult conversations with your child, and educate him or her about what happens when a naked picture hits the digital universe.
At the end of the day, the most complex problems we have as parents in dealing with our children and their use of technology come down to the effective use of the oldest tool we have in our parenting kit: face to face communication with our children.