Teens in Louisa County, like teens everywhere, hear a lot about sex, but really know only a little about it
Danah Boyd, the author of It’s Complicated, often talks about social media as a window into the teenage world. A parent who reacts purely by scaling up the restrictions is missing a chance to know what’s actually going on with their child, to know things that in previous eras would have stayed hidden from them. In her talks, Boyd advises parents not to, for example, shut down accounts. Kids will just find ways to open new ones under names that have nothing to do with their real ones, that their parents could never track, or they will migrate to new platforms. (Many of the kids I met in Louisa County used inventive, inscrutable names for their Instagram accounts, names only their peers knew about.) Instead, parents should take a deep breath-even in the most uncomfortable scenarios-and ask questions. Kids can have a million motivations to send a naked picture of themselves, and unless you ask, you won’t know whether the one that was in their head seems more like reasonable experimentation or something else.
These tend to link sexting tightly to ruinous consequences, but that’s a problem, because ruination doesn’t normally follow the sending of a sext. “If we present it as inevitable, then we’ve lost our audience,” says Elizabeth Englander, who leads groups about sexting in middle and high schools, “because they internet know very well that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t happen.” If you say otherwise, “then the kids know immediately that you don’t know anything.”
Instead, Englander eases kids into the dangers slowly. She usually starts out by talking about how in life, it’s sensible to avoid risk. You wear a seat belt even though the chances of a fatal crash are slim. This way, she says, the kids understand that she knows the risks of a picture getting out are rare, but they also understand that if it does get out, the effects on their social life and future could be catastrophic. She gets the kids talking about why they send the pictures, so she can narrow in on the more risky situations she has identified from her research-namely, ones involving lots of pressure and very little trust.
A recent review of 10 official sexting-education campaigns concluded that all of them erred on the side of what the researchers called “abstinence”-that is, advising teens not to sext at all
Briana’s Twitter feed is a mix of little-girl cute and grown-woman sexy: a fuzzy kitten, inspirational quotes from Athletes for Christ, an ass in a bow thong. Any senior at Louisa County High School can tick off the names of girls who got pregnant in the past year. But the kids in Louisa County are also part of a generation that’s seen teen pregnancy decline to a record low. Teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past. The majority now report that their first sexual experience was with a steady partner. Given how inundated and unfazed they are by sexual imagery, perhaps the best hope is that one day, in the distant future, a naked picture of a girl might simply lose its power to humiliate.
In late August, about two weeks after the new school year started, Rusty McGuire, the Louisa County prosecutor, gave an evening community presentation at the middle school about sexting
He cited statistics showing how popular it was and explained that under Virginia’s child-porn laws, it was a serious crime. However, he acknowledged that sternly explaining to kids that it’s illegal or has long-term consequences “isn’t working.” As an alternative, he suggested humor, and showed a campaign called “Give It a Ponder,” run by LG. The series involves the actor James Lipton pinning a beard on kids who are about to sext, so they pause for a sober second thought, and it is, indeed, pretty funny. But only about a dozen parents and kids were there to see it.