April 30, 2009

Sexting: dangerous but is it a crime?

“Come gather round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
Then you better start swimming
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a changing”

Bob Dylan’s song of protest (voted #59 of the top 500 songs ever written by Rolling Stone) seems as prescient today as in 1964, especially as COCM members recognize the latest teen-technology on-line behavior:sexting. Research studies reflecting usage reveal that between 20-25% of all teens have sent or posted semi-naked or naked pictures. A higher percentage says that exchanging sexy content makes dating or hooking up more likely.

Teens have been recently charged with disseminating child pornography in 9 states, many have to then register as sex offenders. Meanwhile,the media (as usual) has sensationalized the issue by the way it has covered the topic, often confusing parents, teens and even pediatricians.

But the real question here is this: should laws made to protect children be used to prosecute them? I believe that misses the point. Pediatricians and parents should look beyond the headlines to the convergence of adolescence and these electronic devices that allow instant communication decisions from immature teen brains.

These kids are not threats to society.They’re reckless hormonal narcissists who are tasked with growing up in a sexualized society. Their previously private thoughts are now revealed all too publically. They often are the real victims here: assaulted by a desire and opportunity to get older-younger.

Parents need to become aware that the media has ensured that adolescence occurs well before Tanner stage II. The media has framed the issue, but not focused on real solutions. That's where we can help enormously with our pediatric knowledge and media skills!

So what is the Pediatrician’s role when it seems that teens are more connected to their devices, and each other, but disconnected from their parents? It doesn’t have to be complicated.

1) Don’t wait until a health maintenance appointment to frame the issue of texting/sexting. Rarely does a teen or tween appear in the office without a cell phone. (Or receive a call during the appointment).

2) Remind them that a text or sext, once sent, is out of their control permanently. Examples abound from the pictures of Vanessa Hudgins (HSM 1,2,3-oh google her) or Michael Phelps and his famous bong picture.

3) Ask about whether parent is concerned about texting as nauseum. Most will agree
about the numbers, but will be clueless as to potential solutions.

4) Advise visiting ThatsNotCool.com (go there yourself). A great site with tools and guidance, prime parenting directives actually, to buffer cyber-stalking and cyber-pressures. The site also has great posts that could be taken from the site to stimulate a discussion in your examination rooms, newsletters, websites.

Note that as the January archives article revealed, uncovering the problem does not imply you have to solve it. Expressing awareness and concern, could, hopefully, motivate parents to seek opportunities to learn and engage in collaborative conversations that would lead to constructive solutions.

“Come Mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you don’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old record is rapidly aging
Please get a new one
If you can’t lend a hand
For the times they are a changing”

By Don Shifrin, MD, FAAP