Nor do all sexting teenagers experience trauma or bullying, as popular reports suggest. Many teenagers regard sexting as a normal part of courtship — as necking in the car was for earlier generations. Back then, of course, what happened in the back seat stayed there and wasn’t splayed across the Internet.
What hasn’t changed is our reliance on schools, which have been called upon once again to clean up a perceived sexual crisis. In Texas, the “Before You Text” program warns students that sexting can yield “embarrassment, humiliation, fear, and betrayal.” A curriculum used in the Miami-Dade County public schools declares flatly, “Safe Sexting, No Such Thing.” But our kids already know that sexting can be embarrassing and humiliating, in certain situations. And they also know that it can be perfectly innocuous in others, as when a romantic couple shares intimate photos and deletes them right afterward.
What they need is someone to help them sort out which is which. And that is something our schools probably can’t do. A curriculum that honestly appraised the risks of sexting would draw fire from parents and politicians who think adolescents should simply abstain from sexting (and, for that matter, from sex). Surveys have repeatedly shown that most parents favor sex education in our schools, but they also differ sharply about what the subject should contain. So the safest course for school officials is to focus on so-called plumbing lessons and to avoid anything controversial. And even frank sex education in schools might not make much difference in the lives of our teenagers, who have always drawn their sexual knowledge more from the hated mass media than from their teachers.
That was certainly the case in the 1920s, at the dawn of modern Hollywood, when educators worried that students were taking their sexual cues from movie stars. With the rise of pornography and sexually explicit rock ’n’ roll lyrics in the 1960s and ’70s, schools again struggled in vain to impose order on world that seemed to be spinning out of control. “A 12-minute filmstrip is hardly a match for two years of ‘R’-rated films every weekend,” the director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals admitted in 1981, adding that “schools are a puny David without even a slingshot against the media Goliath.”
So how should we address the issue of sexting? What if we tried to meet the kids where they are? The most promising sex education initiatives right now are text-messaging services, which allow teenagers to submit questions anonymously and receive informed answers. In North Carolina and Texas, these services are operated by public health departments; others are run by organizations like Planned Parenthood. And they’re catching on quickly among teenagers, especially among those whom researchers believe are at the greatest risk. In Washington, a study of a statewide text-messaging program that connects kids to trained health educators found that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to use the service than other kids were.