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
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
“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
Ben Johnson, student ministries director at New Life Church
in Alamo, Calif., is sure that Christian teens are involved in this risky
“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
Whitlock’s biggest concern over this trend, however, is a
“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.
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