FIELDS: Teen sexting

In naive hands, cellphones can ruin lives

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Revolutions are always unpredictable, depending on the way always unpredictable people adapt to them. That’s true of high-tech revolutions as well as revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and a lot of other places. Humans are curious creatures.

The revolution in communications, for example, for all of its benign access - and success - comes with social consequences that continue to surprise and occasionally alarm. Nothing seemed simpler for increasing opportunities for adults to stay in touch with their children’s comings and goings than the cellphone. The cellphone that seems to grow out of the ears on every teenager’s head and allows them to reach out to their friends seemed harmless enough. At first.

But the tiny instrument, so neutral in its processing power, can wreak havoc in the lives of the young when naive, inexperienced or vengeful adolescents use their cellphones for less-than-savory purposes. The power of this tiny tool, you might say, lies in the hands of the holder. Cellphones, like guns, don’t hurt people, but the people using them sure do, and can make a terrible mess of things.

So it happened with Margarite, a sensitive adolescent who, at the tender age of 14, finds herself the protagonist of a front-page story in the New York Times because she took a picture of herself nude with a cellphone camera and sent it to her boyfriend. She became the center of a perfect storm of adolescent angst in the electronic age. Margarite’s tale reads like a bad but believable teenage novel: Innocent young girl longing for love and appreciation sends her boyfriend a cellphone photo she took while standing naked in the bathroom. We don’t learn (but we can imagine) how her boyfriend responded to the full-length, full-frontal nude photograph, but we do know that when he broke up with Margarite, he sent it to another girl who appreciated the image with a singular purpose: to ruin Margarite’s reputation.

She sent it out to their school network with a mean-girl sexting message: “Ho alert! If you think this girl is a whore, then text this to all your friends.”

The sexual revolution as it affects teenagers does not reflect either a liberated spirit or generosity in judgment. “Slut” and “ho” are the operative words they’ve heard in the lyrics of a lot of their music, but they don’t use them to entertain. In this instance they were meant to humiliate Margarite, and they succeeded.

The pop culture is rife with sexuality and you could forgive the young for claiming they’re merely imitating their parents and even grandparents. AARP, the magazine of the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, writes about sassy seniors who enjoy aging electronically, if not necessarily gracefully. A sexpert says sexting is not just for kids but enables the elderly to forge relationships naturally outside the bedroom so that “when you come into the bedroom it’s your playpen.” (So who’s going to talk about acting your age?)

The rural prosecutor in the state of Washington first charged three children in Margarite’s case with disseminating child pornography, a felony, but reduced it to a gross misdemeanor of telephone harassment. The prosecutor sounds overzealous (and maybe looking for a headline or two), but he wanted to frighten teenagers into understanding the seriousness of the offense. Curbing mean behavior is a necessary thing to do, but not many of us would criminalize adolescent acting-out behavior.

There’s an argument over whether the creator of the image, as well as the distributor of it, should be prosecuted. Definitions can get ambiguous. It’s easy to criticize parents for not monitoring their children’s use of their cellphones, but many parents confess to finding it increasingly difficult to manage all of the electronic data that pour into their children’s consciousness. Many schools ban cellphones; some principals have been allowed to examine the content when they confiscate phones.

Angst in adolescent relationships are hardly new, but what is thought to be permissible has changed radically in an increasingly sexualized culture where teenagers with raging hormones are titillated by fashion, ads and music. Only 5 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds surveyed by the Pew Research Center say they send naked or partially naked photographs or videos of themselves on their cellphones. Other estimates run higher, and sexting is difficult to monitor. Kids, like adults, have been known to lie about sex.

In spite of the electronic devices meant to make life easier and more efficient, busy parents increasingly take their work home and run their electronic gadgets (we’re not talking juicers, blenders or rice cookers) in the living room or at the kitchen table, distracting attention from what’s going on elsewhere in the family circle. So it’s not just the kids who need to cut back. Self-control is not age-specific. Not so long ago, we had to worry only whether cellphones affect the brain. Now we’re learning how they can stimulate the glands, too.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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