March 18, 2009
As the latest bad sign of the state of our youth today, teenagers are sending nude pictures of themselves through cell phones and the internet at an alarming rate. Called "sexting," this trend is sure to arouse a clamor among soccer moms and dads across the country. In a media-stoked fire, these parents will catch their collective breath as they hear on the local news about this disturbing new trend that might be affecting your children. Maybe, if these parents stopped to think about the culture they have raised their children in, they would realize that this latest craze is simply another predictable consequence of child-rearing today.
Sexting is a widespread problem. A recent poll from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy shows that 20% of teens said they have sent nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves through cell phones, email, or internet postings. On top of this, 38% said they have sent sexually suggestive text messages, instant messages, or emails. Kids as young as thirteen are expressing their sexuality through the technologies they know best.
Before we rush to condemn sexting as the publication of pornography, we need to understand the central social role played by technology in today's youth culture. The fact that such messages are being sent through cell phones or posted online should surprise no one. The younger generation uses cell phones and the Internet as a major, even primary, means of communication. Hence the scenes of young girls walking the malls together, half of them ignoring their friends (and too often, the people walking around them) as they stare at their cellphones, busily texting someone who is not there. In its common forms, sexting has little of the spirit of pornography distribution that some would seek to impute to it. The primary reasons for sexting cited by teens in the above survey are that it is "fun or flirtatious," a "sexy present" for a boyfriend, or a "joke." Sexting is more akin to a perfumed letter or midnight make-out session than a copy of Hustler.
The question remains—why are teenagers experimenting so fully with sexuality at such young ages? Why do they feel the impulse to display their sexuality in such an explicit manner? The answer is to be found in the culture in which they have been raised. Advertisers know that sex sells, especially to teenagers, and the news media has become adept at making youthful sex exploits infamous. Sociologists and teachers parrot the now-accepted principle that kids ought to embrace adult-levels of sexuality simply because "they are going to do it anyway." Worst of all, parents are complicit in all of this. They accept idea that their children will act-out sexually and that there is nothing to be done about the barrage of sexual images fed to them every day. Yet these same parents relinquish their duty to discipline their children or teach them restraint. Even basic ideas of self-denial and maturity are now seen as harsh or abusive.
Our culture has given children too great a burden to bear. From the time they begin to develop sexually (and often earlier), they are fed the idea that they ought to embrace their sexuality and explore it. It is encouraged explicitly in the entertainment industry, and parents and teachers refuse to discourage it, lest anyone consider them prudish. In other words, children are faced with adult-level concerns and decisions without the aid of adult-level maturity and guidance. In this atmosphere, should the rise of trends like sexting really surprise us?
Sadly, the reaction to sexting has been anything but helpful. Parents are responding by taking these children to court, rather than recognizing this as an opportunity to teach and discipline their children. Dahlia Lithwick of Slate catalogued a series of these recent overreactions, including three underage girls in Pennsylvania who were "charged with disseminating child pornography for sexting their boyfriends. The boys who received the images were charged with possession." Not only have we burdened our children with adult cares while refusing to give them adult guidance—now we are prosecuting them as adults when they inevitably fail.
Trends like sexting will continue unless there is a significant change in the current state of parenting. These trends serve as mere warning flags of a larger underlying problem. Children today are being confronted with major adult choices and responsibilities, but they are given no training, guidance, or discipline. Our teenagers live like the twenty-year-olds of their parents' generation, while possessing the maturity of five-year-olds. Only when parents retake their responsibilities to train up, protect, and teach their children will this increasing sexualization stop. Unless that happens, sexting will soon sound as quaint as a quick kiss goodnight.
Zachary Gappa is the Director of Research for the Center for a Just Society, a D.C.-based think tank focused on social justice issues. Some of his other articles have been published in various places online, including the www.centerforajustsociety.org, Town Hall, and The Christian Post.