How do you run a small town high school in which at least 100 students, led by a football team, are circulating hundreds of nude photos of themselves via mobile phones, and not know what is going on? How do you talk to your teen or grade 8 child every day and she doesn’t spill the beans?
Is it all down to clever apps that hide the images from the likes of parents and school teachers? Or is there something about the parents, teachers and other officials that makes it easy for kids to hide what they would be ashamed, or at least afraid, for their elders to know?
To start at the school end of the scandal that has broken out at Canon City High School in Colorado, some answers emerge from the reported comments of the school district superintendent, George Walsh, and the principal, Bret Meuli.
Both told the New York Times they were aware of lewd photographs being exchanged among students in their district – as in other school systems across the United States — but not of the scale of the issue until a recent tip-off from the state hotline for students, Safe2Tell. Some student evidently thought things had gone far enough.
The sexting ring had grown into an organised competition, with points awarded for collecting the most “desirable” images. One boy was known as “the pimp of pictures”. That is what Mr Meuli, indicating that it was now above his pay grade, seems to mean by “scale”.
Because three years ago the Canon City Middle School counsellor already told a mother whose 12-year-old daughter had received a nude photo on her phone that “there was nothing the school could do because half the school was sexting.” The mother eventually took the child out of school and educated her at home.
Another woman said she had also complained to the school at that time after her daughter received unwanted photos from boys.
Lesson #1: Put a problem in the too hard basket and it will get worse. Especially if, as seems to be the case in the school system, you don’t think it’s that much of a problem to start with.
What about the home end of the problem? It is at home, after all, that kids should be learning delicacy about sex and respect for themselves and others. But that is not going to happen without some very intensive parenting, involving good example, clear information and a lot of mutual trust.
When it comes to sex education parents are competing not just with schools, where Planned Parenthood style sex education has dulled even common sense, but with pop media, the internet and above all, as this Canon City episode shows, the peer group – armed with smart phones and often primed by pornography.
Yet a research project in developing countries has shown that teenagers, while they get most of their information about sex from friends, actually prefer to get it from their parents. And surveys by the (US) National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy have repeatedly shown that teens who are close to their parents (and whose parents are actually both in the home) are more likely to delay sex and less likely to get pregnant.
A recent study confirmed that teens who use their phones more to connect with family than peers, and younger teens who did not have their own accounts, are less likely to be sexting. The study also showed, however, that “heavy-handed parental control over the technology” did not have this effect.
Lesson #2: It’s a tough call for parents to protect their children in a pornified, smartphone age, but the kids will be much better armed against it if they have a good relationship with mom and dad at home.
Finally, what about the experts on adolescent sexuality who might be expected to help parents and schools – at least, those most likely to be given a voice?
Well, there’s Amy Adele Hasinoff, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado and Denver, who has written a book called Sexting Panic, a title which lays her cards on the table. Ms Hasinoff would rather call what the Colorado teens have been doing a form of “media production” which should focus our attention more on the opportunities for communication that social media present, to girls especially.
“Rather than just demanding that students abstain from sending risqué images,” the Times reports her as saying, “educators should aim for open conversations that involve guidance in ‘safer sexting’ with trusted partners.”
No hope from that quarter, obviously, unless you think that teenagers really should have sexual relationships.
Nor from Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches history and education at New York University, and is the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. Mr Zimmerman also belongs to the “moral panic” school of thought: we, that is some parents and politicians, are making too much of the risks of sexting, he says in a Times op-ed. In other words, No scandal; it’s normal.
“[O]ur kids already know that sexting can be embarrassing and humiliating, in certain situations. And they also know it can be perfectly innocuous in others, as when a romantic couple share intimate photos and deletes them.
“What they need is someone to help them sort out which is which.”
Who would that be? Not schools, says Zimmerman, because they could never make sex ed explicit enough without antagonising some parents (who are also fairly useless because they are behind the kids in technical know-how) and anyway kids get their information from the media.
Who does that leave? You guessed it: “The most promising sex education initiatives right now are text-messaging services … operated by public health departments … [and] … “organisations like Planned Parenthood.”
Lesson #3: If these two represent the people forming the ideas of teachers and other public servants, the next, bigger sexting scandal can’t be far off.
The awful thing about the professionals in this drama is how little they expect of young people. That can be explained, evidently, by how little they expect of adults, including themselves. As the district attorney involved in the Canon High School case put it: “Consenting adults can do this to their hearts’ content, but if the subject is under the age of 18, that’s a problem.”
What is much harder to understand is how little they care about the real emotional and even physical harm that can come to kids from premature involvement in sex, and now from having their sexualised images let loose on the internet by vengeful former “friends” and accomplices. This the stuff of depression and suicide.
Children deserve so much more than this degraded “adult” idea of sexual relationships, and their best chance of getting “more” is from a mother and father at home who really understand themselves what love is. It’s time for parents to reclaim the upbringing of their children.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.