Tredyffrin-Easttown Middle School and Conestoga High School are not far from my daughter’s school in Rosemont, in the Main Line suburbs west of Philadelphia. Four students from T-E Middle and Conestoga High School were recently arrested and charged with distributing pornography via cell phone. The photos were of one of their classmates, a girl. The accused are 11 to 15 years of age; the girl is 13.
A bigger story came out of Cañon City High School in Colorado two weeks ago, where more than 100 students have been implicated in sharing nude photos of themselves and other teens. Unlike the story here on the Main Line, no arrests have yet been made in the Colorado case. When asked why the district attorney hasn’t made any charges so far, schools superintendent George Welsh responded “I don’t think he wants to prosecute 100 kids for a class 3 felony,” which sounds reasonable enough.
It’s a nationwide problem. Last week, 20 students at Kings Park High School on Long Island (New York) were suspended for sharing an explicit video of an underage girl and boy from neighboring Smithtown High School. Two 14-year-old boys have been arrested in that case; both have been charged with felonies. Also last week, police investigating students at Valley Forge High School in Parma Heights Ohio announced that they would soon announce charges related to sexting involving half-a-dozen students. The Atlantic magazine just published a lengthy article about Louisa County High School in central Virginia, where students involved in sexting were “all across the board,” according to Major Robert Lowe of the police department. “Every race, religion, social, and financial status in the town. Rich, poor, everyone. That’s what was most glaring and blaring about the situation. If she was a teenager with a phone, she was on there.”
Why are kids doing it? The answer seems to differ depending whether you’re talking about a boy or a girl. When researchers ask a teenage boy why he sent a photo of his erect penis to a girl, the most common answer the boy gives is 1) because he got a big kick out of doing it, and 2) because he thinks the girl will be excited and aroused to receive the photo. The boy doesn’t know that most 14-year-old girls are not aroused by a photo of an erect penis. He’ll find out eventually.
But the most common answer girls give to the researchers is some variation on, “At this school, that’s just what the cool girl do. It’s no big deal.” Some girls say that they would prefer not to, but they don’t feel that they have much choice. It’s just part of your job description, if you’re a cool girl. And that’s been my own experience too, both as a practicing physician as well as interviewing girls on this topic across the United States. In one study, more than 50% of girls said that they were bothered "a lot" or "a great deal" by the request for a sexually explicit photo, but they sent it anyway. Only 3% of boys said that they were bothered "a great deal" by a request; more than 80% of boys said that they were bothered "not at all" or "a little bit" by a request.
There is an arms race of sorts between teens and their parents. I have met many parents who think they are really plugged in to their kids’ lives because they are following their kids on Facebook and Instagram. The parents have no idea that the real action is happening on apps the parents don’t even know about. At Cañon City High School, the kids were using an app which looks like a calculator. If you tap on the app, you get a full-screen calculator which looks and functions like any calculator. But if you enter a 4-digit code followed by the equals sign, you open a hidden vault of photos. There are many such apps available now, for free. Other apps feature both a real pass-code and a dummy pass-code. If your parents ask to see the hidden photos, you can give them the dummy pass-code and they see harmless photos. The parents remain clueless.
You can’t blame those parents. If they read the New York Times or The Atlantic, they could easily believe that their job is just to not do anything that might upset their kids. The New York Times published a column by an NYU professor of history who advised parents that sexting “can be perfectly innocuous” and rhapsodized about an imaginary “romantic couple [who] shares intimate photos and deletes them right afterward.” The Atlantic published a lengthy feature on texting at a Virginia high school with plenty of editorializing by the author, Hannah Rosin. Rosin is convinced that sending obscene photos should not be a criminal offense, even if it results in distress for the girl, “because since when was any version of adolescent sexuality fair and free of pain?”
The big problem I see as a practicing physician is that sexting pushes girls to present themselves sexually before they are ready. It pushes girls to present themselves as sexual objects in a way which is profoundly dehumanizing, particularly at the age of 14 or 15. It can, and has, promoted a culture where what really counts is which girl looks best with her clothes off – where what matters most is not what kind of person you are, but how you look when you’re naked. It creates a culture of disrespect between girls and boys.
I’m not asking you to accept the Bible as authoritative, but there’s a profound line in the Song of Songs, the world’s first great love poem, which I think provides some insight here. Three separate times in Song of Songs, the female protagonist says: “I command you, daughters of Jerusalem, Do not arouse or awaken love before its time” (Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4). Clearly she understands that it is possible to arouse love before its time; that’s why she commands you not to do so. But for many American kids today, the race is on to arouse love at the earliest possible moment, as soon as the plumbing works.
The results are not good. When girls engage in sexual activities in early- to mid-adolescence, they are at much greater risk of subsequently becoming depressed. That’s much less true, or not at all true, for boys. A girl who engages in sexting is referred to as a “thot” – “that ho over there”. A boy who engages in sexting is a stud.
Some parents, and some pundits, act as though sexting is inevitable. They feel there’s nothing they can do to stop it. When I speak to parents, I tell them that they must install monitoring software such as My Mobile Watchdog or Net Nanny Mobile on their kids’ phones (I have no affiliation with any software company). These programs report to parents all the activity that is happening on the kid’s device, including the hidden apps. These programs can also send you every photo your daughter or son takes with the phone, as soon as the photo is taken, before the kid even does anything with the pic. If you’re going to give a child or teen a phone, then you (the parent) are responsible for what they do with it. That’s what I tell parents.
Some parents push back. They say, “I don’t want to violate my daughter’s privacy. If she doesn’t want me to see her photos, then I won’t see them. I’m fine with that.” I tell that parent, The most important thing you must teach your kid about sharing photos online is that there is no such thing as privacy when you send a photo online. And you don’t teach that lesson by preaching it. You teach that lesson by saying to your kid, “I will see every photo you send as soon as you take it. So if you don’t want me to see it, don’t take it.” That gives girls an excuse not to participate.
These programs also allow parents to see all the programs that the kid is using, and what the kid is doing with each program. If the parents in Colorado had had these programs installed on their kids’ phones, they would have immediately discovered that the calculator app was more than just a calculator app.
Another option is not to let kids have smartphones at all. I was talking with a parent in Sandy, Utah, who made that choice. She has had no regrets about it. And she said her daughters’ friends are fine with it too. They all know that her daughter is the one with the weird mom who won’t let her have a smartphone. The biggest push-back this mom has received has come not from her daughter, or from her daughter’s friends, but from the parents of her daughter’s friends. “Don’t you think you’re depriving her? You’re making her be the odd girl out!”
This is all still new. Twenty years ago, kids didn’t carry devices with them which could function not only as phones but also as cameras. Today, many kids do. If you’re a parent today but you’re parenting according to 1995 rules, you may be putting your child at risk.
Many parents tell me that they want to be their kid’s best friend. But a friend cannot prohibit you from sending a photo of your genitalia to an admirer. A parent can; a parent must. A friend cannot tell you that it’s time to turn off your device and go to bed. A parent can, and must.
Do your job. Govern your kids’ use of their devices. If you don’t, who will?
Leonard Sax MD, Ph.D., is a practicing physician in Chester County and the author of four books for parents including Girls on the Edge and The Collapse of Parenting, www.leonardsax.com.