MARGARET CARLSON

It's time to stamp out sexting

Teens will be teens, but parents must be parents

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Will teenagers ever learn? You think yours will. Maybe so. But it’s likely that was also the hope of the parents of children who were so shamed by nude photos of themselves that went viral — how else can they go — that they killed themselves.

Sexting hasn’t ended, despite the misery it causes and the hope that easily bored teens will move on to something else. There were two highly public outbreaks this month. The largest spread across six counties in Virginia, where more than 1,000 pictures of naked 14- and 15-year-olds were pinged by 100 teens on Instagram.

The fun stopped when a mother found some unfortunate photos on her daughter’s Instagram account. The kid had been playing a game — a variation of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” — in which teens could get access to nude photos of others by posting one of themselves.

In the second incident, a group of middle-school children in Barrington, Ill., an affluent suburb of Chicago, were sexting. Will pre-pubescent teens be next?

The police are involved in both cases, and criminal charges could result. A photo of a naked underage teen is child pornography, a felony. Teens don’t realize that, or block it out.

Holed up in a room, or at a party, snapping a crotch shot apparently seems like such a nifty, fun thing to do. (Adults can be stupid, too. See former Rep. Anthony Weiner, a.k.a. Carlos Danger.)

Having the nude shot replaced by a mug shot might be a good thing. It could wake up the stupidest kid.

In the meantime, what’s happened to parents? They understand the peril but often cite the fear of invading their teen’s privacy as reason not to intervene — as if a mindless kid ruled by hormones should be able to keep sexting private when Mom and Dad are paying for the smartphone.

Invade away. The cost of having a parent pay for your unlimited texting should be that you can’t ruin your life or someone else’s by sexting. Just as there are parental controls on television, there is widely available software to monitor the devices kids walk around with. Some will send the parent any photo the child takes before it can take flight.

Parents have to realize there isn’t a sufficient shaming mechanism at work these days. There wasn’t one when I was a kid, either. But back then, mistakes didn’t go viral.

The urge to share is so great that in a notorious case, teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio, took pictures of their criminal behavior. They had video of partygoers cheering on two football players as they violated a girl. They drew a line at sending a picture of one of them urinating on the victim but a kid bragged about it online.

The perpetrators’ photos convicted them. To his credit, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine didn’t stop there. As hard as it is to imagine (or perhaps not where high school football is concerned), adults had covered up for the students. Mr. DeWine indicted them, too.

Maybe that case didn’t get enough publicity to curb sexting because it apparently remains endemic. If criminal charges are brought in Virginia and Barrington, let’s hope it makes headlines and becomes a teachable moment in every middle and high school. Maybe that’s what it takes to get through those thick skulls.

In the meantime, just put a nanny device on your kid’s phone while pointing out something teens already should know: Their privacy can’t be invaded because no one has any left.

Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View.



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