Reports 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.