Shawn Hubler

The ‘scandalous’ sext lives of kids

Cañon City Police Chief Paul Schultz, left, and Crime Prevention Coordinator Jen O’Connor listen as Superintendent George Welsh talks about a sexting scandal at Colorado’s Cañon City High School.
Cañon City Police Chief Paul Schultz, left, and Crime Prevention Coordinator Jen O’Connor listen as Superintendent George Welsh talks about a sexting scandal at Colorado’s Cañon City High School. The Associated Press

This just in: Adolescents in Colorado are – brace yourself – very interested in sex.

According to news accounts that went national last weekend, the little Rocky Mountain town of Cañon City is shocked to learn that teens in a “sexting ring” there have been taking racy pictures of themselves by the hundreds and using a “vault app” to trade and hoard them, and hide the whole thing from their parents. Guilty parties could be looking at child pornography charges, though the district attorney is hoping it won’t come to that.

As a parent, I’d like to say that I, too, am shocked that teens sometimes get up to no good with their impulses and their cellphones. But my own experience is that adolescence is pretty much the same grotesque, hormonal ordeal it has always been.

That said, these teen sexting “scandals” have been happening a lot – one was reported just last month in a Shingle Springs high school. And, as is all too clear from the Colorado headlines, adults are still figuring out how to react.

Once kids passed crumpled notes in math class inviting each other to meet behind the bleachers; now there are all sorts of ways, from texting to Snapchat, for an adolescent to do something thrilling that he or she might regret.

Sexting has become part of modern courtship, right up there with yes meaning yes and changing your relationship status on Facebook. Ralph DiClemente, a professor of public health at Emory University, says about 30 percent of high school students sext.

The research so far indicates that sexting – the text messaging of sexual self-portraits – isn’t in itself harmful to adolescents, but it isn’t risk-free either. Pedophiles can use it to seduce. Bullies can use it to hurt. Rejected suitors can circulate photos that were intended to be private. Insecure kids can use it to boost status and end up feeling even more anxious.

And, of course, the Internet is forever, like that bad tattoo Johnny Depp got when he thought he’d never stop loving Winona. That’s why – no doubt, like you, dear readers – I’ve spent most of the past decade telling my now mostly grown children to never, ever send anything private into cyberspace, which, don’t kid yourself, is like a billboard, not to mention the disrespect and objectification inherent in sexting, not to mention the risk that someone you don’t know will see it, not to mention that it’s gross, so just don’t do it or you will be grounded forever and no college or grad school or employer will have you, and you’ll starve out there. Did you hear me? Take those ear buds out.

Nonetheless, in the age of iPhones, sexting has become a common aspect of modern courtship, right up there with yes meaning yes and changing your relationship status on Facebook. Ralph DiClemente, a professor of public health at Emory University who has extensively researched the impact of tech on the lives of adolescents, says about 30 percent of high school students sext, though there’s a range – surveys indicate that only about 10 to 15 percent of middle school kids do it, with far higher levels among older teens.

Lynn Ponton, a professor of child psychiatry at UC San Francisco, estimates that if you include kids just taking naked selfies on their phones in the privacy of their bedrooms just to see what they look like, the rate is probably more like 50 percent and maybe higher.

“It’s a part of sexual risk-taking,” Ponton told me. “And even if you eliminate their cellphones, they can still use their friends’ phones to do it. But then these pictures are on their devices and get into circulation. And that’s where we get to greater complexity.”

Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts who has extensively researched sexting, says the numbers show that most of the time, “it doesn’t end up in disaster.”

Englander has found that most kids sext to attract, please or placate a boyfriend or girlfriend, and most report feeling neither more upset nor more popular after. In most cases, she found, nobody was bullied, teased, arrested or embarrassed, although about a quarter of the teens she surveyed reported “feeling worse” for having done it.

But she also found that a small segment of teen sexters – about 12 percent – were traumatized by it. Those kids were more likely to be young, to say they did it because they felt pressured, and to experience anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other risk factors.

“Kids experience that pressure really differently, though,” Englander said. “It really depends on who’s asking and what’s going on with them socially and how they feel in general and what they expect to get out of it.”

Does that make you feel more comfortable about kids texting pictures of their nether parts to people? Yeah, me neither. But it’s happening, and one of the issues is that they don’t always appreciate that possessing and sending nude images of minors is highly illegal in most states.

That’s partly why, headlines aside, studies show most local authorities are loath to press charges in youth sexting cases unless adults are involved or there’s serious coercion. And why more targeted sexting laws are all over the map in this country.

In New York, kids caught sexting must participate in eight hours of educational classes. In Nebraska, it’s a felony to forward a sext without the sender’s permission.

California tried in 2011 to craft legislation on sexting, but child advocates deemed the approach too potentially punitive and rigid. This state’s “revenge porn” law makes it illegal to distribute consensually sent explicit images if they were initially intended to remain between two people. And if those images are of a minor, the distributor faces a $2,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

Englander says she recently consulted on pending Massachusetts legislation that would make consensual texting a misdemeanor among kids over 14, but punish it with mandatory counseling and education. The authorities there, she said, “don’t want to do nothing, but they also don’t really want to press charges against these kids.”

Of course, there are always the old standbys – better sex education, both in school and out, and talking to your children. The experts agree on those, and no doubt so do most parents. Trust me when I say, Colorado, that your kids won’t thank you later for saving this conversation for the national press.

On the other hand, Colorado had another news story earlier this year that blew me away with its wisdom: Simply by passing out free IUDs and long-term contraception to teenagers, the state had reduced births to teen moms by 40 percent and knocked 35 percent off the rate of abortions.

Social conservatives beat back renewal of its funding, so that was a setback. But wouldn’t it make headlines if we stopped ruining young lives with hysteria about “scandals” and “sext rings” and focused on making the pitfalls of adolescence more survivable for kids?

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