In a series of articles in the New York Times, “Poisoned Web,” Jan Hoffman details a sexting case gone viral in Lacey, Washington. What can you do for your son or daughter so they don’t get sucked into the black hole of a sexting catastrophe that could ruin their whole lives?
In this particular case, a middle-school girl sent a full-frontal nude photo of herself, including her face, to her new middle-school boyfriend. He forwarded the picture to a second middle-school girl he thought was a friend of the first one. The second girl, an ex-friend with a grudge, forwarded the picture to the long list of contacts on her phone with the caption, “Ho Alert! If you think this girl is a whore, then text this to all your friends.” The photo rapidly went viral.
A lot of the analysis about the situation is nothing new:
- Why do girls send nude photos of themselves to boyfriends they have or hope to have? The same reasons girls always have.
- Why do guys prize and show these pictures as evidence of what studs they are? The same reasons guys always have.
- Why do friends of the guys or mean girls forward the pictures? The same reasons that names used to get written on bathroom or phone booth walls. The same reasons that girls have always cut down their competition and enemies. Bullies, bullying, harassment and abusive behavior have always been with us.
- Who or what is to blame? The same culprits get vilified: thoughtless, foolish boys and girls, teenagers, school officials, society, double-standards and technology.
Does technology make sexting worse? Yes, of course. Technology makes it seductively easy to forward pictures and comments. Also, technology makes the information global and permanent. Kids can’t move to another school or even another city in order to get away from the consequences of what they and others did.
In the past, many reputations and lives were ruined by foolish moments. Kids and adults have always been able to exercise righteous or mean or vicious inclinations, but it’s so much easier now.
What are the consequences to those caught up in sexting? The girl who sends her picture may be the subject of vicious attacks all her life. Her inner strength, courage, determination, perseverance and resilience will be tested. She may feel helpless and that her situation is hopeless. She may go down the path to being a victim for life. Her self-confidence and self-esteem may be destroyed. Anxiety, stress, guilt, negativity and self-mutilation may be stimulated. She can move toward isolation, depression and suicide.
The boy, the second girl and everyone else who forwards the picture have to face their own stupidity or meanness. And they may have to face their role in a suicide. An act of a moment can destroy a life. Also, they may have to face prison. We hope this will help them do better the rest of their lives. Humans have always learned some lessons the hard way.
Do today’s kids face overwhelming pressure? Many people make excuses for the foolish or nasty kids; as if the external pressures are overwhelming. For example, the article quotes, “'You can’t expect teenagers not to do something they see happening all around them,’ said Susannah Stern, an associate professor at the University of San Diego who writes about adolescence and technology.” This line of thought focuses on reducing all pressure and temptation.
But pressure was just as great throughout history as it is now – depending on the particular time in each society.
What’s the solution?
- I favor laws to criminalize the forwarding of child pornography – even if forwarded by minors. That’s our society’s way of saying, “This is dumb and wrong and serious. We agree that we don’t allow this. And there will penalties so think long and hard before you do this.” If we don’t say this, we’ll be enabling the bullies.
- I would require all schools have assemblies and programs in which students and parents are required to participate. Law enforcement must be involved to present examples of what can happen to the kids who send pictures of themselves and to the ones who forward those pictures. This will increase awareness of the dangers of kids succumbing to pressure to do something foolish like sending pictures of themselves and of the penalties for kids who forward pornography.
- Parents have the major responsibility to preach, teach and police their children’s use of internet and wireless devices. This is our ounce of prevention. As the father of the girl who sent her nude picture said, “I could say it was everyone else’s fault, but I had a piece of it, too. I learned a big lesson about my lack of involvement in her use of the phone and texting. I trusted her too much.”
These steps will decrease the number of kids involved in sexting. But we’ll never stop 100 percent of kids’ foolish or mean or vicious actions. But that can’t be our intention. Our goal is to educate kids whose awareness of the potential consequences of their actions will awaken in them the ability to do better.
Our goal can’t be to educate or convert psychopaths or people who want to make a living off child pornography. Educational approaches aren’t effective with these people.
I do expect most kids to be able to learn to be stronger, to develop better character and to be able to resist the temptations of our popular culture. There’s nothing new in the temptations and pressure the kids face. The only new thing is the ease and permanence that technology offers. I focus not on making society easy and safe, but on developing individual values, character, heart and spirit.
Remember, all tactics depend on the situation – the people and the circumstances. So we must design plans that are appropriate to preventing our individual children from sending pictures or forwarding them, and to minimizing the disaster if they act foolishly.
If your children are the targets of cyberbullies or sexting, you need to take charge. With expert coaching and consulting, we can become strong and skilled enough to overcome the effects of seeming to have your child’s life ruined by a foolish act in middle-school.
“How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” have many examples of children and adults commanding themselves and then stopping bullies. For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).