30 April 2009

It's a Big Scary World...

Earlier this month, Jennifer posted about Sexting in Taylorville. At the time, I was unfamiliar with what exactly sexting was (and I wasn't quite sure if Carol was saying sexting or texting during class discussion), but it seems to be cropping up everywhere in the news now. Parents, educators, and others are concerned over the safety of teenagers who are taking provocative photos of themselves on camera phones and MMSing them to others. Ewwww...

This is an interesting take on the typical 'everyone in cyberspace is preying on kids' stance that gained popularity around the same time that IMing was the new best thing. Now, it seems, people are willing to accept that although there are those who prey on kids and young adults via cyberspace, there are also greater issues involving their safety. It appears that these youth may be putting themselves in danger, intentionally or not. While I am not trying to say it is the victims fault when something bad happens, in this instance I have to wonder what would possess a young person to think that this kind of behavior is acceptable in any way.

When the Internet, chatting, and the like were all new, parents and educators were at first uncertain of what risks there were and how to proceed to protect young people. Quickly, however, we learned, and we modified our strategies for allowing Internet access and for discussing the issues with our kids. 'Don't give out personal information', 'Never meet in person anyone you meet online', 'Tell an adult if something strange is going on'- those statements became a sort of mantra, and gave parents/educators a sense of security. With the additional bonus of Internet filtering, it seemed as though that media was safe for young people again (or at the very least, safer).

While the Internet became 'safer', other media did not keep up the pace. Ultimately, though, I don't think that the issue of sexting is media based- I think it is an issue of self-esteem and self-respect. I don't think that there has ever been a time or a place where taking nude photos of yourself at 13 and sharing them with others was considered acceptable, regardless of the platform used. Call me old-school, a prude, stodgy, or whatever, but I can't believe that this is an issue of media at all. It is much more fundamental than that. The lesson at the heart of this issue is one that we should have been teaching young people for the past 100 years- even before cellphones and digital cameras. You should respect yourself.

But, where do we go from here? How do we halt this sudden attack, and stop it from reaching epic proportions? How can we prevent more young adults from making this mistake, and how do we help those who already have?

First, we could stop sensationalizing it in the news. Like so many other issues in the past few years, media attention may not be a good thing. As more young people learn about it, it may gain in popularity. Instead, I think a stealth attack is a better approach. Parents and schools need to have a plan that involves both discussion and repercussion. A good old-fashioned dialogue about the risks associated with releasing images of yourself out into the wild blue yonder would be beneficial. We've already harped on this particular issue with MySpace and Facebook- what you put out there stays out there, indefinitely, for anyone to see. If you wouldn't want Grandma to see it, don't post it (or get photographed doing it!)

We could even go more extreme- perhaps we can start filtering the texts young people send and receive, or restrict phone usage altogether. We could also attempt to stop buying phones with built-in cameras, although that is becoming increasingly difficult. Maybe older people should start doing it. That always seems to stop the young 'uns in their tracks--Like when so many adults started using Facebook, its popularity among young people dropped- or at least it did in my family. Why not a similar approach to this issue? (tongue in cheek)

No matter the approach, I think that the bottom line is that if we address sexting like we did the other issues associated with the Internet, and if we address the self-esteem needs of young people, we might be able to protect more young people from making this bad decision. Open dialogue should always exist. And, for those teens who have made a bad choice, it is equally important to be available to help them deal with the aftermath, and to attempt to fix the problem. After all, everybody makes mistakes, and that is an equally important lesson to learn.

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