Words That Don’t Belong Together: Teens and Sexting

Here’s a wake-up call if you have a teen in house. Just last month, more than 100 teens at a Colorado high school traded between 300 and 400 nude pictures of themselves on their cellphones. One mother reported that boys sent unsolicited photos propositioning her daughter. Another mother said she found nude photos on her then-12 year-old daughter’s cellphone. This epidemic of poor to abominable judgment seems to have affected boys and girls in equal proportion.

Are you prepared for this? That was a trick question. Most parents and school administrators are clueless. At the Colorado high school, located in a town of 16,000, the initial response was to cancel the final high school football game of the season since football players seemed to be at the center of what the school called a “sexting ring.” Although high school football is serious business, particularly in rural America, this response hardly gets to the heart of the problem. 

Unfortunately, most responses to sexting by minors are punitive, and the messages about sexting rely heavily on scare tactics.  Neither of these approaches holds much sway with teens – they just make adults feel better. And, adults take note: sexting isn’t going away. In a recent study conducted by Drexel University, 88% of adults reported engaging in sexting, fairly strong evidence that sexting is moving into mainstream culture. At some point, this becomes a “do as I say, not as I do” proposition, one that has never gone over well with teens. 

As with most everything involving teens and sex, the best time for adults to get involved is before anything happens. On issues involving technology, however, teens are often ahead of their parents and other authority figures, including school administrators and law enforcement.  The tech savvy Colorado students, for example, used cellphone applications called “vault apps” that can be designed to look like calculators unless properly accessed.

The message to parents and school personnel is that we’re out of our league. Current reality, and the constantly evolving nature of technology, point to the importance of “think outside the box” partnerships with the tech community. New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman posits that if technology is the problem, it is also the answer. He cites sexuality education initiatives that use text messaging to “allow teenagers to submit questions anonymously and receive informed answers.” This form of “just in time” learning may fill an important void that neither parents nor schools are capable of addressing, and is tailor-made for the in-the-moment lifestyle of so many teens. To deal effectively with sexting, however, I suspect we need proactive technology applications that alert teens to danger instead of responding to requests.

If enlisted, I’m confident the technology community would rise to the occasion. That said, this doesn’t undercut the primacy of parents in educating their children about sex and healthy relationships. Adults as well as teens need to understand the full ramifications of launching deeply personal information into cyberspace. It’s just that we adults need to play catch-up, and teens need to understand that a lot more than high school heartbreak is at stake. 

Cindy Sesler Ballard is the retired CEO of CFLeads, a former practicing attorney, and currently serves on the of board the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.