02 May 2009

Media Outcry

Ok, I’m going to say it. Sexting. Well before the great swine flu pandemic of 2009, there were media alarmists ringing the bell about teens and sexting. For those who are not in the know, sexting is sending or receiving nude or scantily clad photographs (generally of girls) of yourself or another teenager. Last month it seemed to be on several major, national news outlets, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and National Public Radio at about the same time. Then I saw it on the cover of Reader’s Digest while I was in line at the grocery story. I decided that I had to get a better understanding of this outcry.

Teens have always been experimenting with sex and flirtation. Why is sexting a big deal? For two primary reasons: the fact that pictures in the digital age can be permanent, and the fact that sending explicit photographs, even of yourself if you are underage, constitutes trafficking in child pornography. And teens are being prosecuted. Most of the news reports that I read included cases in four states. In Pennsylvania, 17 teens were offered classes in exchange for dropping charges. (In this particular case, it appears that the prosecutor is widening the scope of what is considered indecent, including photos taken of a girl in a swimsuit, as well as those who appeared in the photographs but never sent them. A group of parents are suing him in federal court with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.) In New Jersey, a 14 year old girl was arrested and charged with distribution of child pornography for posting nude pictures of herself on MySpace. Charges were also made in Ohio, Vermont and Florida.

These teens do face very serious consequences and vey real dangers. Being branded a sex offender for life, having risqué pictures plastered across the internet for virtually anyone to see, including future employers, are all damaging to reputation and potential. To rectify the situation, Vermont and Nebraska are two states with bills to decriminalize sexting by excepting teens from child pornography charges in cases where they knowingly and voluntarily send photographs of themselves to other minors. These bills are good legal steps, but do we need to get teens to truly understand the consequences of their actions, beyond the legal ramifications? And, are the handful of cases that have garnered media attention representative of what is happening in the rest of the nation?

I wondered why the sudden outcry by the press that I mentioned above. Is there a new development or story to tell about sexting? Is the discussion being generated by anything in particular? Turns out, most of the articles and transcripts were based on the same story; a survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com. Which got me thinking, what did this survey actually reveal? Anything?

The survey results, as quoted by various media outlets (Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, National Public Radio, and Reader’s Digest) all use the same statistic: 1 in 5 teens are involved in sexting. But what about this survey? It’s fun to use statistics to support or refute arguments, but does anyone bother looking at the background? Thankfully, Carl Bialik did in the April 18, 2009 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Entitled “Which is Epidemic – Sexting or Worrying About It?” Bialik investigates the poll itself. Interestingly he finds that the group conducting the online poll, Teenage Research Unlimited, used a sample of “653 teenagers and 627 young adults who had enrolled in an online panel maintained by a market-research firm…existing panel members…are rewarded for answering surveys and for finding new panelists [emphasis added].” The division of age groups skews the results, as 18 and 19 year olds were included in the teenage group and this age had twice the reported rate of sexting as did the 13 to 16 year olds (22% vs. 11%). Just how objective or representative is this research?

Bialik interviews several researchers and one, Terry Humphreys, assistant professor of psychology at Trent University in Ontario, notes that it’s not surprising that teens are sending such photos, after all ‘[m]ost of the mainstream media uses semi-nude models to sell us things… I would want to see the results separated for semi-nude and nude before I get too anxious about what our teens and young adults are doing with their cellphones.’ Do we hear this type of balanced coverage or more commonsense approach from other sources? Not that I could find. Bialik’s article provides a valuable reminder that we must not automatically think the worst of teens.

Is this all overblown media hype driven by skewed statistics and unreliable data? If not, what are our responsibilities as librarians? Do we have any? Is there a way to effectively address this topic? Should we be explicit in our approach, gear workshops toward educating teens/parents? Should we wrap it in more general privacy related topics? Is it any of our business unless it somehow involves the library? Do we provide the information through books, pamphlets, links on the library website, and hope that teens find their way to it? Altogether, another thorny issue to ponder as we prepare to work with young adults.

Updated 5/3 - take a look at this New York Times article on using texting as sex ed.

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