Assemblies of God SearchSite GuideStoreContact Us

Teens and technology

Youth experts warm of dangers of new cell phone fad

By Jocelyn Green

Cell phones have been a daily part of many American teenagers’ lives for years. By now, 80 percent of teens aged 13-17 have them, according to Nielsen Mobile. What is new and newsworthy is what some teens are doing with those phones these days.

In January, in Greensburg, Pa., two 14-year-old girls and a 15-year-old girl were charged with manufacturing and disseminating child pornography for sending their boyfriends photos of themselves unclothed. The boyfriends faced the same charges.

Last December, two cheerleaders from Bothell High School, near Seattle, were suspended from the team after similar photos of them spread through the student body via text message.

And last November, officials at a high school in Salem, N.H., found cell phone photos of partially clothed eighth-grade girls, while a similar photo of a teenage boy circulated at nearby Sanborn Regional High School.

According to a survey by Teenage Research Unlimited, these aren’t isolated cases; one-fifth of teenagers admitted to sending or posting nude or seminude pictures or videos of themselves, usually to a boyfriend or girlfriend, and almost a third have received such images. Seventy-three percent said they knew this behavior could have negative consequences — and did it anyway. Twenty-two percent called it no big deal.

Experts call it “sexting,” the practice of using cell phones or personal electronic devices to send and receive sexual messages or images. These can be sent from phone to phone with the push of a button, and if the phone has Internet access, can be uploaded to MySpace, Facebook or other social networking Web sites.

“The idea is, ‘I’ll send a picture, and someone will affirm the way I look,’ ” says Garland Owensby, youth ministries coordinator at Southwestern Assemblies of God University. “Sixty years ago, people were getting affirmation from being first chair in band, or from playing sports, not from naked photos. We have a culture which is much more pornographic. Your worth is built upon how much you arouse someone else.”

Evangel University professor Timothy Rohde, who teaches young adult literature, says teen girls and boys send these photos for different reasons.

“Girls are looking for somebody to affirm that they are attractive, to care for them,” he says. “With boys it could be some of that as well, but it’s also what they’re expected to do in a hypersexualized culture.”

In 2007, photos of unclothed High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens that she e-mailed to actor Drake Bell circulated on the Internet. Last November, similar photos of Adrienne Bailon of the Disney pop group Cheetah Girls surfaced online.

AG Student Discipleship Director Rod Whitlock says teens take note of such practices and think, “If I want to be like these celebrities, if I want attention, I have to do this.”

Peer pressure from classmates also plays a role, says Whitlock. Forty-four percent of both teen girls and boys say they sent indecent photos in response to receiving such content. Almost a quarter say they are more uninhibited electronically than in person.

Taking and distributing indecent photos of minors is not only illegal according to child pornography laws, it also poses a safety risk, especially when those images are posted online. In February, MySpace officials announced that 90,000 sex offenders had been identified and removed from its site.

Ben Johnson, student ministries director at New Life Church in Alamo, Calif., is sure that Christian teens are involved in this risky behavior.

“Christian students, as much as non-Christians, are looking for a place of acceptance, to be liked,” Johnson says. “When they don’t find that, they will sometimes do really dumb things to look for it elsewhere. Girls may reveal or expose themselves to a boyfriend through an image, for example, trusting only he will see the picture. But he may spread it around either now or when they break up, to be vindictive and hurtful.”

Aside from personal humiliation and a tainted reputation, other long-term consequences include sabotaged college and career plans, sometimes years later. More and more college admissions staff and human resources personnel are scouring the Web to view applicants’ online identities. A moment of indiscretion as a teen, once captured and distributed electronically, will never truly be erased and may interfere with future opportunities. (One of the cheerleaders from Bothell High was suspended for a photo taken three years earlier.)

Whitlock’s biggest concern over this trend, however, is a moral one.

“If junior highers are already seeing nude pictures on cell phones, by the time they’re 16 or 17, that’s not enough and they are deep into pornography,” he says.

Rohde also notes that the person in the photo becomes a product. The image cheapens the intimacy that God created to be enjoyed between a husband and wife, he says.

“It dehumanizes the body and it takes the identity of the person, who is someone God created in His image and of infinite value, and turns that person into a product to be ogled and leered at,” Rohde says.

In some cases, indecent photos are sent to students who would rather not see them.

“The Proverbs writer tells us not to go near the immoral woman,” Owensby says. “Now she is coming to your cell phone. Delete the photos, tell the sender you deleted them, and that people are charged with child pornography crimes among their peers for taking, sending or storing photos of nude minors. We have students who have to register as sex offenders because they simply received and kept photos.”

Whitlock advises parents to discuss the phenomenon with their teenage children.

“Start talking about the images you consume as soon as your child is old enough to watch TV, long before they have cell phones, and then, of course, once they have cell phones,” Whitlock says. “Periodically, talk about the consequences — the legal implications and the moral ones.”

JOCELYN GREEN, a frequent news contributor who lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, is a mother of two.

E-mail your comments to

E-mail this page to a friend.
©1999-2009 General Council of the Assemblies of God