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Mixed Messages

by Janet DeLoach
Racy text messages, increasingly popular among local teens, can have unintended consequences.

Way back last century, if a boy liked a girl in his class he might pass her a note and ask for her phone number. If he finally mustered the courage to make the call, it was to her parents’ house, not her cell phone.

Fast forward to 2011. In a world of e-mail and text messages, kids can contact each other directly, anywhere, anytime. Washington Township resident and mother of three Donna Tatulli says that now that communication is simpler, things have become much more complicated. “It used to be one phone call would come into your house, and your parents were there,” says Tatulli, whose kids range in age from 17 to 21. “It kept things open and honest, because [kids] would have to go through channels to get to each other.”

That was before sexting, the practice of sending sexually explicit text messages or photos via a mobile phone. Two years ago, Tatulli recalls, her then-15-year-old daughter, Tori, had her first experience with sexting. A boy she knew sent her a text message, asking her to send him a nude photograph of herself.

Nothing like cutting right past the chase.

Tori told both her parents about the message. They laughed about it together and a perfect opportunity for a calm discussion ensued. Tori then sent a reply: a picture of herself, fully clothed, with her dad standing in the background. “Her message was, ‘That’s my dad in the background. He knows what you’re asking me to do,’” Donna Tatulli says.

Naturally, the sext requests stopped from then on. Unfortunately, not all local teens are as savvy as Tatulli’s daughter.

In fact, sexting has been in the national spotlight, thanks to a string of salacious news stories. Last summer, officials at a high school in Seattle discovered that naked pictures of two cheerleaders were circulating among football players and suspended the girls from the squad. (The parents sued the school district.) In New York, a 16-year-old boy was accused of distributing sexually explicit photos and video of a 15-year-old girl. All told, cases of sexting were reported in at least a dozen states in 2010.

More than youthful indiscretions, sexting is technically a violation of child pornography laws—and prosecutors in states including Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Wisconsin are electing to treat it as such, by charging teens who send and receive the pictures. Here in New Jersey, a legislative effort to decriminalize the practice is currently underway. The bill, initiated and sponsored by Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt, (D-Camden County), would allow minors caught sexting for the first time to complete an educational program, rather than be saddled with a criminal record.

But what’s behind this epidemic? “Young people are experiencing the same social and emotional issues that they always have. Their behavior is the same; it’s just the mechanisms are different,” says Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, a sexual health education specialist at Rutgers. “Just like when we were teens, they want to flirt. They see things adults are doing and they want to try on being grown up.”

But since today’s young people are growing up with computers and cell phones as a normal part of life, not enough grownups are setting boundaries around the use of this technology, she says. “Adults have to catch up. There’s a learning curve going on.” For many New Jersey school districts, it’s much easier to simply ban all cell phone usage. Washington Township and Evesham school districts have done just that.

“Young people are looking to adults to set boundaries, whether it’s the parents or the schools,” says Wojowicz. “Parents should be their child’s first sex educator. Even if it doesn’t seem like [kids are] listening, parents should talk early and talk often to their teens about sexuality.”

Tatulli, for one, says offering her kids guidance about how to approach technology from Facebook to cell phones has paid off. “I tell my kids there’s consequences for every action,” she says. “Once it’s out there for all to see, it’s too late to do anything about it.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 2 (April, 2011).
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