"Sexting": Why Worry?

Monique Olsen textingReports of "sexting"—or teens sending each other homemade pornographic images using their phones—have exploded in recent weeks. Schools and parents are outraged and terrified, and lawyers are confused, because most child pornography statutes don't account for the kids themselves being the pornographers. What should they do?

This week alone, sexting cases have made front-page news out of Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The United Way announced a public service campaign this week that aims to discourage the practice after a sexting scandal in Wisconsin. A week ago in Tennessee, a 37-year-old male teacher admitted to sexting two of his female high school students. The practice, it seems, has become viral.

The news coverage has quoted some scary studies. For instance, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reports that on average, 20% of teenagers admit to having transmitted nude pictures over their cellphones. (The percentages double when the survey includes young people up to their mid-twenties). "What we're setting out to do here is to educate parents and kids about the very real and far-reaching consequences of this sort of behavior," said a district attorney pursuing the Massachusetts case mentioned above.

Whether or not we should worry about sexting comes down to one question: Is sexting a social trend or a technological one? Social trends are persistent, while technological trends turn over quickly. Based on its close parallel to the amateur porn phenomenon, I'd argue that sexting is more technological than social. This isn't to say that we shouldn't worry about teens sexting, but it is to say that the phenomenon, thankfully, won't be durable.

I'm not arguing this distinction clarifies how authorities should proceed when they catch students in the act; if a 15-year-old gets caught sexting in Massachusetts, for example, she might paradoxically end up having to register as a sex offender. That is a complex, worrisome issue, to be sure. But let's decouple the legal worries from the moral. For worried parents and school administrators, there is hope in obsolescence. Here's why.

New technologies, be they VHS, DVD or Web, frequently gain ubiquity via unseemly uses; in the 1990s, Internet was used largely for pornography. But these days, smut sites are being supplanted in the rankings by search sites and social networks, according to research published in The Economist in 2007. Reuters reported a replica study in 2008, that found that Internet porn queries had halved between 1998 and 2008. In fact, this year only four porn sites crack the top 50 most visited websites list, according to Alexa. And that decline has happened in spite of a boom in amateur, homemade pornography—the kind exemplified by sexting. (It bears mentioning that teens make up a big swath of Internet porn viewership, with some studies reporting that the average teenager spends as much as 100 minutes a week browsing for adult content.)

Whether or not this activity was perpetrated by teenagers doesn't matter; the fact is, people of all ages are attracted to new tools that allow them to be dirty, but only inasmuch as they're new. Then they lose their shock value and their sheen, and people—especially teens, who are famously fickle—move on. Those same kids who spend 100 minutes a week surfing for porn? They also report spending an average of nine hours a week on social networking sites and chat forums. 

This is in stark contrast to more entrenched problems like smoking and drinking, that hang on tenaciously despite persistent multi-million dollar ad campaigns against them. The average age of a new cigarette smoker in 2006 was still just 18.9 years old, and 25% of teens aged 16-17 say they drink alcohol; 7% of them admit to driving drunk. All these statistics have indeed dropped in the last decade, after peaking in the 1990s, but only because of effectual publicity campaigns, increased law enforcement, and education. No such war was waged against Internet porn, and yet, it continues to decrease as people find better uses for the Internet as a tool. 

Sexting presents a legal quagmire that won't easily be resolved. But at least it's not an affliction that is here to stay.

[photo by Christopher Peterson]

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  • Anne Collier

    I agree that novelty is a factor in the sexting trend (and it is a trend at least for now and at least in the US, where there have been news reports about it in well over a dozen states, and the UK, where so far 90 teens have been cautioned by police nationwide : http://www.netfamilynews.org/2.... But I disagree that this is just about technology. It's also very much about 1) adolescent behavior and development and 2) young people's cultural context, which the slightly sensationalist Daily Mail piece I blogged about nevertheless takes into consideration. That's not to say sexting won't lose its appeal to young people, but I think we're on the front side of the curve, and it'll take a lot of education about how this behavior is illegal and already has resulted in arrests of minors for production and distribution of child pornography to get kids to stop this practice. Where minors are concerned, I really hope police and prosecutors in the US will see their job as an educational one rather than a law enforcement one and that - when incidents occur - school administrators, parents, police and the kids themselves will use them as "teachable moments" (as police seem to be doing in the UK) and consider the blunt-instrument approach of prosecution with the greatest of caution.

    Anne Collier
    Editor & Founder

  • Ivars Ulinskis

    Does it really need to be handled or simply supervised for sake of children protection?

  • Julio Garcia

    @Chris: I don't think they can handle it, and I don't know how they feel about this issue. They have a different culture and approach about sex, they are not Christians.

  • Julio Garcia

    @Lynne: As the economy is all interconnected (financial crisis in USA contaminated the global economy), also the culture and behavior are widespread and are interconnected. The USA are not alone in the world. Affect and are affected by other countries, economies and cultures.

  • Rob Howard

    when the older generation dies out sexting won’t be so “horrible”.
    In the 1950s parents were horrified at Rock 'N Roll.

    The older ones were against interracial marriage.
    Congress passed laws against comic book violence.
    Horrible for women to vote, wear pants, shorts.
    Topless men were arrested before 1930s.

  • Chris Dannen

    @Julio -- how are japanese authorities dealing with underage kids peddling underage photos?

  • Lynne d Johnson

    @Julio - But if it's new to the states, wouldn't that constitute a trend, irregardless of wherever else in the world it was happening?

  • Julio Garcia

    I'm not sure that is a trend. Already happening in Japan for many years on a large scale.