Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Is Sexting Unsafe? For Whom?

Education week points to this Washington Post article by an assistant principal who was charged with child pornography because of his investigation of a sexting incident.

My problem with the sexting incidents is that they're being framed as digital safety problems. That may be true in some cases, but is the receipt of a nude photo always harmful? If unwanted on either end, then probably yes. It may constitute harassment. But more harm is being done to these students not by the act itself, but by the prosecution of the act as child abuse or possession of child pornography. The first article linked below notes:
it seems there is no one reason prosecutors are opting to charge teens with child porn instead of lesser charges. Some may be doing it to "send a message."

Some may feel they have an obligation to charge these teens with the most serious offense possible and, according to the law, naked pictures of underage kids are usually considered child porn. And others may feel they are left with no options since there aren't really any laws that apply specifically to sexting.

In any case, it's clear we need to change our laws to catch up with technology.

Not only have the laws done harm to the kids, but in the Post article, they're doing harm to the educators, who are in a position to help these kids.

Sexting is certainly not behavior that we should condone, but we should acknowledge that hormones run high and that kids are going to do things related to their sexuality that may not be appropriate and may, in fact, do them harm down the road. Last week, I caught the end of an Oprah show about teens and sex that I thought made a lot of sense (yeah, I watched Oprah, okay?). Dr. Laura Berman suggested that girls, especially, should become familiar with their bodies and with sexual response through masterbation so that when they experience those feelings with someone, they don't equate the physical feelings with just that person. They need to understand that those are physical responses and not emotional ones. It's a way really of not just understanding your body but respecting it and maintaining some control over it.

One of the interesting things about the show was how squeamish many people were about discussing sex. And this, I think, is the root of many problems, including sexting. When something is treated as taboo or as some mysterious thing, teens are naturally curious about it. Being open with our kids about sex--what it is and isn't, why it might be important to wait to have sex, and what the consequences are--can lead to a healthier attitude toward sex and perhaps help them avoid situations that make them sexually vulnerable.

I think this issue needs to be reframed. It's not primarily a technology issue; it's a behavior issue. It sounds like that's exactly how assistant principal Ting-Yi Oei at Freedom High was treating it and was, in fact, working on an education plan for the school to address it. That is, until he got arrested for child pornography. Both the law and the school have unfornately missed the boat because the technology got in the way--and not just because Oei's ineptness made him look guilty, but because blaming the technology means we don't have to deal with the real issue. The law treated these kids the same way they would treat middle-aged men trafficking kiddie porn in chat rooms because the technology is similar. It's time for law enforcement, educators, and parents to think beyond the surface.

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