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Learning the electronic birds and bees – the hard way

Submitted by on Wednesday, 30 March 2011 No Comment
I still don't think that "sexting" - sending a suggestive or explicit picture via cell phone - is crime that rises to the level of lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the key, particularly when the perpetrators all are minors.

But neither do I think it's "an electronic hickey," as a deputy prosecutor described it recently to The New York Times.

What it is, at the risk of sounding like the evangelical right, is a massive moral failing among a certain segment of teens, some of whom think it's OK to betray a friend's trust and others who think it's cool to distribute humiliation and insults to their entire contact lists.

It's also a failing among parents, many of whom have no interest in what their kids are doing electronically and no inclination to learn.

I don't know about the New York prosecutor and it's been a while since I was in high school, but I seem to recall hearing of a number of ways to cover up hickeys. Makeup and turtlenecks were popular among those who wanted to hide the evidence. Other teens flaunted them.

There's a difference, though, between something that can be viewed only upon someone's person and a digital image that can be transmitted across the town, county and country to hundreds of teens. Something that won't fade nearly as quickly as a sucker bite.

And there's also a difference between the hickey era and today's electronic shenanigans, not the least of which is the age at which it starts. The children - yes, children - in the Times story were 14. Fourteen, for pete's sake.  According to the boy involved, the girl sent him a naked picture of herself because "we were about to date." Back when I was in eighth grade, we were about to beg our parents to let us go to the movies with a mixed-gender group - and the parents usually said no.

The picture, of course, went viral after one of the girl's former friends "pressured" the boy to send it to her. She, in turn, disseminated it widely, labeling it a "Ho Alert."

When other students received the picture, their parents called the school and demanded that the principal do something - because apparently administrators' jurisdictions should cover all electronic communications, not just the entire Internet. According to The Times article, many school districts have banned sexting and now authorize principals to search cellphones.

In the end, the New York prosecutor handled it just about right. Three teens were charged, though the charges were downgraded from a ridiculous child pornography felony to misdemeanor harassing telephone communications. The teens had to create public service materials about the hazards of texting. Eventually, those materials will be distributed to other students as cautionary tales.

It's caution that parents have the responsibility to teach at home. It's a responsibility too many abdicate.

I recently saw a 13-year-old update Facebook that she was in detention that afternoon for "mouthing off" at a teacher. The teen's mom doesn't have a Facebook account, so she doesn't monitor her children's activities. The mom freely admits that she has no interest in online life and that the whole thing confuses her. While what the teen wrote pales in comparison to the New York teens, her status update still wasn't smart.

One set of parents in the New York case claimed "limited English" in justifying their lack of involvement in their daughter's role in the incident. They must be vision impaired as well. I would think that "naked picture" translates immediately in any language.

We still don't know how many teens actually use sexting - the number could be anywhere from 5 to 24 percent, and the Times article admits as much - so we have no idea if it's a minor issue or a serious and growing problem.

I plan to treat it as a potentially serious problem and hammer into the guys that the Golden Rule applies online as much as it does face to face. Unfortunately, by the time it's time to have those talks, I'll have plenty of examples of the consequences of treating other people badly.

Copyright 2011 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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