Of Cellphones, Sexting and Forever

I read an article this weekend that made my heart hurt. Unfortunately the basic storyline is one that is becoming all too familiar. The article, in the New York Times, recounts the story of an eighth grade girl who, in her struggle to fit in and be liked (and we all know that’s the eighth grade experience for just about everyone) snapped a nude picture of herself in her bathroom mirror with her cellphone and sent it to her new boyfriend.(Do me a favor when you read the article: try not to get wrapped up in the political or moral aspect of “sexting” – just read the story of some young teenagers who made an impulsive decision that has altered their lives forever.)

Let’s talk about sext, baby
From the NYT article:

For teenagers, who have ready access to technology and are growing up in a culture that celebrates body flaunting, sexting is laughably easy, unremarkable and even compelling: the primary reason teenagers sext is to look cool and sexy to someone they find attractive.

“Sexting” is a term that gets a lot of use these days. It’s been added to the Oxford Online Dictionary and state legislatures are debating how the law should handle the punishment of underage participants. And (full disclosure) we dealt with the topic in our “The Naked Truth: The New Sexuality and Youth Ministry” Special Edition of Youth Leaders Only.Pop culture doesn’t do much to discourage the behavior. Songs, tv and movies, even commercials abound that portray it as normal, accepted flirtatious behavior. Here’s another quote from the NYT article:

“I didn’t know it was against the law,” Isaiah said.That is because culturally, such a fine distinction eludes most teenagers. Their world is steeped in highly sexualized messages. Extreme pornography is easily available on the Internet. Hit songs and music videos promote stripping and sexting.

The article points out this Super Bowl commercial from Motorola. Which I find highly ironic considering the entire 2010-11 NFL season was overshadowed by the “did he or didn’t he” storyline of one of the league’s most revered players.And you don’t have to look very hard to find references in music. The Ludicris song “Sexting” blew up early last year, following on the heels of (and pointedly referencing) the troubles of a well known sports icon. (Check the lyrics here.)Beyonce (along with Lady Gaga) sings in “Video Phone” (and I’m purposely not including a link for the video, but it’s on YouTube if you’re interested):

You like it when I shake it?
Shawty on a mission, what your name is?
What, you want me naked?
If you liking this position you can tape it on your video phone

Taio Cruz’s song and video “Dirty Picture” (featuring Ke$ha) gives us this lyrical winner of a chorus:

So take a dirty picture for me
Take a dirty picture
Just take a dirty picture for me
Take a dirty picture
Just send the dirty picture to me
Send the dirty picture
Just send the dirty picture to me
Send the dirty picture

But everybody’s doing it
When you ask students about sending inappropriate pictures to their BF or GF, odds are they won’t call it “sexting”, instead you’ll get words like: Fun. A sexy present. A joke.Again quoting the New York Times article:

“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.“They’re practicing to be a part of adult culture,” Dr. Stern said. “And in 2011, that is a culture of sexualization and of putting yourself out there to validate who you are and that you matter.”

Do as we say, not as we do
Some media outlets are attempting to help get the word out about the consequences of such behavior. MTV’s campaign “A Thin Line” is pretty smart, and includes some PSA-type video clips like Impressing Guys and Absolutely Everyone – both of which I can see using in a teaching setting with students. But I have to wonder if it’s the kind of thing that students are actually seeking out, engaging with and heeding. Not to mention that it seems a little bit (or a whole lot) like the tobacco companies funding and producing anti-smoking campaigns.And this video is a part of a campaign from LG called Text Ed with Jane Lynch. It’s definitely good for a laugh, and might get some Gleek parents’ attention (although I’m not suggesting that Glee is the epitome of behavior … or edifying song selections … for anyone).

What to do?
I have an almost 3-year-old daughter who already navigates my iPhone as well as any teenager. The very thought of dealing with these issues in just a few short years (I’m not naive enough to think I can stave it off until she’s 13) is already keeping me up at night.And as someone who loves and cares about students, my heart cracks a little more each time I hear a story about the consequences of an un-thought-through action such as sending a risque picture.It’s not like we’re dealing with new issues. Self-worth. Peer pressure. How far is too far? These teenage struggles have been around forever. But it does seem to me that the pressure is much more intense. The songs and media are much more blatant and in-your-face. And the technology doesn’t allow for do-overs.So what do we as parents and youth leaders do? My gut says the question isn’t “How do we stop this?!?” but instead, “How do we help students see themselves as God does?” and “How can I encourage teens (and my daughter) to understand their self-worth lies in His love; not in what their peers see (or want to see)?”What about you? How are you (or are you?) addressing these issues with your students?

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