Parents of teenaged kids have always faced multiple challenges, and things are no different today.
When I speak about social networking to school audiences, I try and hit a few key topics. Among them are the intersection of online and offline behavior, parental involvement and the application of common sense.
Sexting, or the practice of sending nude or semi-nude photos across wireless networks, is a new phenomenon enabled by ubiquitous cell phone cameras. A December 2008 survey of nearly 1300 teens and young adults found that 20% of teenagers and 33% of 20-26-year olds said they had done it. The consequences can be devastating.
I am not defending sexting as a wise thing to do. But some of the responses to it have been draconian and unproductive, in my opinion. The most high profile case comes from northeastern Pennsylvania where District Attorney George Skumanick threatened to bring sexual abuse charges against the girls who were discovered to have sent pictures of themselves in partial states of undress unless they attended a 10-hour class about pornography and sexual violence. If they declined to take the class and were convicted of the charges, they could serve prison time and might have to register as sex offenders. Oh, did I mention that the girls in question are 15?
Three of the girls and their parents, out of the 20 to whom the D.A. offered this deal, have filed a suit in Federal court asking the court to drop the charges. The three families assert that the deal was unfair, illegal and “retaliation” against the families for asserting their First and Fourth Amendment rights to oppose the deal. (The Fourth Amendment covers unreasonable searches and seizures.)
Again, I am not defending the kids’ behavior. But it does fall into the category of ill-advised, some would say stupid, behavior that every single one of us was guilty of during our teenage years. The difference is, before the internet, our stupid behavior did not become a digital artifact left behind forever. THAT is the lesson that needs to be imparted to kids today, not bringing them up on felony charges for raging hormones and dumb behavior.
Before you engage in some questionable digital behavior, think about whether or not you would do it in the “real world.” An analogy in this case might be, would you lift up your shirt in the middle of math class? Use common sense and realize that there should be no difference between your online and offline behavior.
Parents, for their part, need to remain involved and engaged. This does not mean spying or snooping. But it DOES mean talking to your kids about the implications of our “always on” digital world. Once you send a text, e-mail or a photo, it’s out of your control forever. It’s not always easy for teenagers to think beyond 5 minutes from now. That’s where we come in, as parents, faculty, administrators and concerned adults.
In some cases, a good talking to is the sensible alternative to jail time, don’t you think?
UPDATE: A federal judge on Monday, March 30 temporarily blocked the prosecutor from filing child pornography charges against the three teens. See the updated story here.
SECOND UPDATE: On March 17, 2010 a 3 judge Federal appellate ruling came down deciding that parents could block the prosecution of their children on child pornography charges. Read more here.