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Sexting and the Attack on the American Teenager

This is what I call “The Slow News Day” story

Make no bones about it, stories like this raise eyebrows and get people talking. When USA Today ran this piece last week it was run and rerun over and over again at newspapers around the country.

It is a well-articulated story.

It seems so… true.

But Most of This Story is Fabricated


It’s our media once again attacking our young. And once again our media takes an otherwise slow news week and tries to create a story by peaking the interest of their target demographic with misinformation.

Some facts about this piece…

  • This story is dated, having been through the news cycle once already. What they are referencing is from August 2012 not February 2013. That’s not mentioned at all, this is reported as if its new news.
  • Stories like this almost always run with the worst possible scenario. The woman at the core of this feature, nameless and without any substantiation/credibility to her story, systematically lists every fear of a parent. (Sex, depression, suicide, cutting, isolation, maladjustment.)
  • This isn’t based on the findings of a study. It’s based on a press release about a longitudinal study that’s just begun. (Here’s the abstract for the study quoted.) Let’s go back to the scientific theory in 8th grade for a second. Those aren’t conclusions. They are an initial survey of participants, teasers really. All the researchers have done is stated a case for their study. But the piece is broadcasting them as facts.
  • The press release says that 28% of teenagers report in a survey that they have sent naked pictures of themselves via email, text, or something similar. In the piece the journalist rounds this figure up to 30% while the headline proclaims 33%. Calculated out, that a difference in 1.1 million potential teenagers effected. Sensationalism at it’s most simple. (She similarly rounded up the number of participants to “nearly 1,000″ when the actual study is 948.)
  • There is a big difference between what’s reported on an anonymous survey and what you learn from a longitudinal, qualitative study. Reading the abstract for the study reveals that it will purely be based off of anonymous surveys. This is a fatal flaw in the research. To really study this they’d need to do interviews, then overlay what students are reporting against their actual data usage. You could easily do that and find truly useful data.
  • Notice the disappointed tone in the reporters voice when talking to the local authorities brings up almost no cases of sexting in their area. No one is denying that this happens. But if 1/3 of teenagers were really snapping pictures of their privates and sharing them with friends there would be a lot more evidence. (It is a crime in all 50 states) As I’ve previously mentioned, actual cases of “sexting” as a criminal matter represent a very tiny number. An American Academy of Pediatrics paper published in December, 2011 points to only 3,477 cases documented in the United States in 2008 & 2009, and very few arrests, even fewer convictions.  (That’s 1 case for every 6,327 teenagers in America)
  • Compared to the 547,000 babies born to teenagers in that same period… let’s deal with the reality that “sexting” isn’t the number one thing we should be worried about when it comes to teenagers. (As I wrote about last month, the teen birth rate is the lowest its been since we’ve tracked it.)
  • According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse 6.5% of teenagers smoke marijuana every day. But that’s not as important to the media as “sexting” because its not as, well, sexy.

Why Does the Media Attack Teenagers?

I don’t know the whole reason as to why. But I do know that we, as a society, have a perverse curiosity about teenage sexuality. This is reflected in many aspects of media such as television, music, and advertising.

We are simultaneously enamored and horrified by teen sex. In my opinion, this is the driving force behind the recurring sexting story and why the media created (and educates) the term sexting.

Teenagers are the #1 influencer of their parents spending. Ultimately, I think that’s a major reason why the American teenager is both the object of our affection and these attacks. We infantilize them while we celebrate them.

So What’s a Parent to Do?

You’d be heartless to watch a piece like that and not want to do something for your kid. I totally get it, which is another reason I found the story frustrating. (Just like I’d be frustrated if you read this post and assumed that mobile phones are 100% innocent, that no one takes nude photos of themselves, or uses their phone to look at pornography.)

But the piece leads many parents to reactionary parenting. They don’t really have a plan and so they bounce from one news report to the next.

The solution is to figure out how to fit your teenagers phone into your overall goal of parenting. That leads to reasonable, principled responses to whatever comes your way. (Whether it be a cell phone, the car, dating, grades, or anything else.)

No one wants to be a reactionary parent. We all want to be reasonable. 

This is exactly why Marko & I wrote A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Social Media. We wanted to equip parents with principles for social media use in your home. (Your teenagers phone IS their social network.) Rather than scare you with sensationalism, we take the time to break down the data, explain how social media really works, and give practical advice to help you do some reasonable parenting.

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One Response to Sexting and the Attack on the American Teenager

  1. Melanie Crutchfield March 1, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    I agree with most everything you’re saying here; sexting happens for sure, but we need to temper our reaction with facts and a level head.

    I do take issue with this, though: “The woman at the core of this feature, nameless and without any substantiation/credibility to her story, systematically lists every fear of a parent.”

    The tone here suggests that this young woman (likely a victim here) is being untruthful about her experience. That’s the boilerplate reaction to many young women who claim to be sexually assaulted or victimized and it absolutely shouldn’t be.

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