Did you see the headlines about Cañon City, Colorado that flooded the press this weekend about a sexting scandal that involved over a hundred middle school and high school students and 300-400 nude sexting images? I honestly hate to say it, but I told you so.
I founded GetKidsInternetSafe.com because I was worried about my kids. I was hearing the secrets and seeing the sad fallout from sketchy screen use from kids in my psychology office. And I’m not just talking about a semi-nude selfie here and there. I’m talking about incidents that leave kids shattered, humiliated, and sexually assaulted. Of course not every kid using screen media will experience tragedy. But as we are seeing from this incident, there are smoking guns everywhere and parents are unable or unwilling to protect their kids adequately.
Here is the true sexting story that I released in April (which got over 17.2k FaceBook shares thanks to The Good Men Project), because I felt such urgency that somebody needed to let parents know they had a problem. Sound familiar?
I have run across a phenomenon that few parents know about, and those that do are too ashamed to tell anybody. The ugly truth is that middle school girls are trying to attract high school boys by texting them sexy images of their blossoming private parts. It’s like Tinder for Teens but worse, no app needed and fewer safety features. Just a CLICK and SEND and your child’s nude image is available to everybody everywhere forever, no take-backs. Thirty seconds of bad judgment at eleven years old launches a nightmare digital footprint and sullied online reputation. Take five seconds and imagine that. Ouch!
It’s not just the girls in jeopardy. The boys enthusiastically log in to this mess too. Some become expert at grooming the girls to send the sexy photos, which they then share with their “boyz” for quickly growing “<city name> nudes exposed!” collections. And to make things more horrifying, the boldest of the boys proudly share their name lists of the virginity prizes personally collected from girls they intentionally targeted who were too young to know any better. Fifteen minutes and these young women have exposed their vulnerabilities, their reputations, and the essence of their true potential. It’s like these teens lost their minds and logged in for an on- and off-line pimp-prostitute internship program. All that was needed was a mobile phone with texting ability and a misguided sense of sexy adventure.
How do I know this? Because I’m a psychologist and the teens I see tell me the shameful truth, all of it; the truths that trigger titillation, pride, shame, sadness, and desperation. They tell me all about how they “released their nude” when they were 12 years old in order to attract attention from the older boys. Or how they were duped into it by promises from entrepreneurial Romeos, only to find out that they’d been conned and the photo was group texted to the high school football team. There’s also the confessions from the boys that get their, “ah-ha! I was being a dirt bag” moment when their frontal lobes come online later in high school and they’re stewing in shame and regret in my office. Believe it or not, both genders are capable of being predatory on the other. I hear what most parents don’t know.
I remember the first session when I realized this was a thing. I was seeing a beautiful eighth grade girl who was starting to get it and was lamenting about her best friend who purposely “put a nude out” when she was 11 year old. At 15 years old, the friend was bizarrely proud of it being re-released via text to “everyone in the county” four years later. My client guessed it was the fourth mass texting of the image. I sat there, horrified and dumbfounded, assessing my ethical requirements to the teens involved and my community in general. As a mother, I began visualizing the creation of a blueprint for Rapunzel’s tower in our backyard for my kids, no nudity and screen-free.
So much of my young client’s disclosure made me deeply upset for everybody involved. I was saddened that children this young had already learned how to use and exploit sexuality as a cheap commodity. I was saddened that these kids broker power through contemptuous attention catamount to social media “likes.” I was saddened that there was an army of teenagers willing to receive these tragic misperceptions of self worth. And I was furious that some actively groomed their victims to build a sick collection of lost innocence with no more thought than they gave to their Pokémon collections six months earlier. Keep in mind that in many cases these releases are consensual, while in others coerced.
I imagine you’re thinking, “What kind of amoral community does this writer live in anyway? My kids would NEVER do that!” Right? I’m sorry to tell you that I live in the same community you do. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Participants come from all types of families, families of all income levels and religions with great parents and slack parents. Short of raising your child in a stone tower, there is no family situation where your parenting supervision cannot be breached.
Of course there are situations where children tend to be the most vulnerable. But the temptation is there for even the most well adjusted kids. And to make things even more concerning, this pimp-prostitute culture does not always end by college age. The media is rampant with stories of fraternity houses that have private Facebook pages littered with nude photos of non-consenting women and blatant drug deals, not to mention social media and hookup dating sites flooded with sexual trolling. Like it or not, the young have their own culture of sexuality that is different from their parents.
What has led us here? Is it the unregulated Wild West atmosphere of the Internet? The moral decay of Western culture? The accumulation of sexualization and objectification of women splashed throughout popular culture over decades? Porn? Are permissive parents to blame? Unresponsive school administrators? The rapid technological developments we simply cannot keep up with? And more importantly, what will lead us out?
My CSUCI students and I discuss this often. You may be surprised how many advocate for mass regulation and filtering while I wonder about the sincerity of their self-righteousness. Because like them, I am conflicted about what makes up our “rights” for online liberties balanced with personal vulgarity and decency standards. Some of my readers argue that I’m being too conservative stressing about sexting. That teen sexuality is healthy, sexting is a “normal” expression of intimacy, and our concern is shaming and unwarranted. But I, for one, become alarmed considering that my son or daughter may face felony charges, which may result in a lifetime listing on a public sexual predators list.
I don’t agree that this is dismissible, because it’s “normal sexual experimentation.” I understand that we are all sexual beings as soon as we leave the womb. I “get” that experimenting with intimacy is a healthy aspect of adolescence. But I cannot be persuaded that releasing nudes in middle and high school so the images can be assigned “points” and traded for titillating collections is healthy sexuality. It’s exploitation. It’s objectification. It’s child pornography. Children and teens are simply not equipped to anticipate how nude images may affect their permanent digital footprints and opportunities in the future.
If you don’t buy that, how would you feel if your child’s nude photo had been exchanged among online adult pedophilic groups or posted on revenge porn websites?
Seriously folks, it’s time we at least face the facts and start dealing directly with screen safety issues. That means taking an honest, hard look at your children’s screen use and making a sensible plan. Perhaps that means following a free blog like GetKidsInternetSafe so you’re aware of the secret collections the vault apps that look like innocent folders or calculators on your teen’s smartphone harbor. Or maybe you’re ready for some simple home staging that can reduce risk significantly, like the one I offer in my GKIS Connected Family Online Course. Or maybe it’s sex-tech education that needs to get sprinkled in family conversation every day. Most importantly, today is the day to reboot your connection with you kids and start an idiot-proof dialogue to teach them the resiliency skills they need to stay Internet safe!
Do me a favor. Scroll down and let me know what you think and what you are doing to protect your family.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty