Parents, phone home

Are teen sexting scandals the responsibility of schools?

Consider the latest news that more than 100 teenagers exchanged nude photos in Cañon City, Colorado. Because the saga entails sex, nudity and teens, it’s garnered national attention with breathless accounts of “a massive sexting ring” and “nude photos being traded like Pokémon cards.”

The focus of the story is not the town where the kids live, but the school they attend. Reporters are quoting the principal and superintendent about what they intend to do. When parents are quoted, it’s to question why the school didn’t detect and stop the sexting sooner.

Why do we hold schools accountable when teens send each other nude or semi-nude photos via smartphones bought for them by their parents who likely also pay the monthly bills?

It’s not because kids attend a certain high school that they share nude photos with one another. It’s because they’re sexually curious teenagers who have sophisticated technology that makes taking sultry photos and sending them a breeze. And they are growing up in a culture where celebrities like Kim Kardashian are lauded for sexy selfies and where nudity is no longer taboo.

The only people in their lives who have immediate control over the passing around of these photos are the owners of the phones – the parents. Parents can seize the phones and close the accounts. They can also teach their teenagers that snapping and sharing naked selfies is a terrible decision that will likely end badly.

A study of seven Texas high schools found about 30 percent of teens had transmitted a naked selfie in a text or email. The research suggests sexting — in sexual messages or photos — has become part of the normal mating process in high school and not a harbinger of rampant promiscuity. One expert compared cellphone exchanges of sexy photos to the “You show me yours/I’ll show you mine” contests young adolescents held behind closed doors before social media normalized exhibitionism and voyeurism.

Experts are now offering guidance on how to promote “safe sexting,” with most of it targeting school sex ed classes. I understand why people want schools to address the troubling trend. Schools have a captive audience. They represent an efficient way to reach a lot of kids at once, which is why we continue to broaden what we expect schools to teach beyond math, science and reading.

As an editorial writer, I was struck by how many advocates would meet with the AJC Editorial Board to explain their need to reach kids with their important warning/message/campaign. It might have been about smoking, healthy eating, civics education, driver’s ed, sexually transmitted diseases or teen pregnancy. The advocates believed schools were the perfect conduit to communicate vital information to students.

So, have we now added sexting to the social concerns we want schools to address, monitor and prevent?

I have two teens. If they were sending or receiving inappropriate photos, I would call the parents of the other kids involved. I would call the police if the photos crossed a legal line. I would confiscate the phones.

But I would not call their high school principal. This is not her responsibility. She didn’t give my kids and their friends smartphones. She’s not paying a monthly ransom for their data plans.

With smartphones, we gave kids the ability to see the world and each other. We shouldn’t be surprised when they take full advantage of the view.