Teens Aren't Just Texting, They're 'Sexting'

Sexting, the practice of taking revealing photos and sending them to others via texting, is raising concern among parents and educators. Some prosecutors are pursuing child pornography charges brought against the kids who are caught in or involved in sexting incidents. Regular parenting contributors Jolene Ivey and Dannette Tucker are joined by author Laura Sessions Stepp for more on sexting, and whether it should be criminalized.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice.

Earlier in the program, we talked with school administrator Ting-Yi Oei about sexting, and he described how his 30-year career as an educator was nearly derailed by charges that he possessed child pornography, which in his case was a picture that only came into his possession because he was investigating rumors that kids in his school were sending each other provocative pictures, which they were.

We decided to talk more about this with the moms. So we'd like to welcome regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributors Jolene Ivey and Dannette Tucker, as well as are Laura Sessions Stepp, who is a writer and consultant on adolescent issues. Her best-selling book, "Unhooked," described the thinking of girls and young women who'd gotten involved in the hook-up culture.

They're all here with me in the Washington studio. Welcome ladies, moms.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel

Ms. DANNETTE TUCKER: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. LAURA SESSIONS STEPP (Author): Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: I have to ask Jolene and Danny how they heard about this sexting business, because I have to confess the only reason I heard about this was because of Laura's reporting, when she did a piece in the Boston Globe last year. And honestly, that was the first I had heard about it, was a piece that I'd read.

Ms. STEPP: It was the first that we had had any sort of formal survey about how much is going on.

MARTIN: So I want to hear more about that. But Jolene, you've got five boys.

Ms. IVEY: I'm very happy to say that the first I heard of it was in the news reports, also. My kids, as far as I know, if they're telling me the truth, have not been involved with this.

MARTIN: Did you ask?

Ms. IVEY: Yeah, yeah. We've asked as a result of what we'd heard in the news, but they kind of looked at us like we were stupid and said of course they hadn't done anything like that. And further questioning, we asked about their friends, and usually they'll at least tell you what their friends are doing, if you're not asking them to rat someone out specifically, and they said no. They don't even know anybody who's doing it. So as far as my kids and their social group, so far, so good.

MARTIN: Danny, what about you?

Ms. TUCKER: I heard about it the same way, this picture part in the news, but actual experience with sexting, when Davon(ph) was 12.

MARTIN: Your son?

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, because he was getting these provocative messages on a prepaid cell phone we had at 12 years old, but they didn't include pictures. You know, I mean, he was getting messages like hey sexy, what are you doing? You know, let me see your - the wrong word.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah. He was 12, you know, and…

MARTIN: And who was sending these messages?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I can't say her name, but…

MARTIN: No, I'm asking was it a young lady?

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, it was a young lady. She was the aggressive one, and she wasn't alone. Her cousin would come over during the weekends or whatever, and they would talk to Davon and his friend Eric, and they would send these messages, you know, to the point that I had talk to him and go, do you think it's appropriate?

You know, it's not appropriate, period, for her to send these text messages saying these things. Now, pictures didn't accompany them at the time. Now we're into the pictures, but the sexting thing goes way back, I believe.

MARTIN: Laura, talk more about this. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy engaged a youth-research firm to try to get a handle on this. I think you were involved with this, or at least…

Ms. STEPP: I wrote about it, yeah.

MARTIN: You wrote about it.

Ms. STEPP: Right.

MARTIN: Tell me about this. How did you know that this was going on. And the survey claimed that 20 percent of the teens they surveyed were - said that they…

Ms. STEPP: Said that they have texted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves. And interestingly, 22 percent of the girls, 18 percent of the boys. So the girls are doing it more than the boys.

They had heard about it. The campaign has a wide network all over the country of young correspondents, and they had heard about it various ways. I said we need to quantify this, because no one had really done it before.

So they hired TRU out of Chicago, wonderful organization that does a lot of this kind of data gathering, and we're frankly surprised. And I have to tell you, I don't know the exact figures, but the campaign has been asked to be on something like 600 different media outlets. No one could believe these figures, no one. And it's been a very hot story. And now, of course, you have the prosecutors going after some of these kids for doing what the kids consider just play.

MARTIN: What is your initial concern about this, Laura, this behavior? Let's set the prosecution piece aside.

Ms. STEPP: Right, sure, sure. It's not that kids are exchanging dirty pictures. I mean, they've done that, you know, ripped out of magazines, or they've sent explicit messages to each other.

The power of the Internet to distribute this beyond the people you send it to, that's what concerns me. You know, it's one thing to say I'm sending my boyfriend, over the Internet, pictures of me topless, but what happens if that boyfriend then turns it around and sends it to five of his buddies, who send it to five of their buddies. It's the girl herself loses any control over where that picture goes, and that's what concerns us the most.

MARTIN: Laura, why do you think girls are doing this?

Ms. STEPP: Girls see this as a form of power, that - something they can give boys that boys - excuse the phrase - salivate for, and they then ask the girls for more and the girls can say yes or no. Also, the girls feel safe because they're not giving their bodies. They're just giving pictures.

MARTIN: What do the boys do? Are the boys sending nude pictures of…

Ms. STEPP: Some are.

MARTIN: …provocative pictures of themselves, or are they just distributing pictures of girls?

Ms. STEPP: No, some of them are sending pictures to their girlfriends. There is a kind of equality about this, although the girls - again, girls do it more than boys.

MARTIN: In one of the cases you mentioned, there have been a couple of cases around the country - a handful of cases where prosecutors have prosecuted teens who photographed themselves…

Ms. STEPP: That's right.

MARTIN: …for distributing child pornography because they were underage.

Ms. STEPP: That's right. I don't think any of us know at this point how to quite handle this because it is so very new. I mean, texting was maybe two or three years ago. This is like - happened within the last six, 18 months, I'd say.

MARTIN: Jolene, I know you are not - it's not appropriate for you to speak for Glenn, but your Glenn is a prosecutor. He's a state's attorney for Prince George's County, Maryland, a jurisdiction outside Washington, D.C. But I would be interested in your opinion - you're also a state office holder - of prosecuting teens for sending these pictures to each other. What's the logic there?

Ms. IVEY: I think it's pretty excessive to prosecute for it. I think what we all have to remember is teens' brains are still under construction. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health says that the frontal cortex area that governs things like judgment and decision making and impulse control, that isn't fully developed till they're 25. So we have all of these amazing tools in kids' hands that we just didn't have available, frankly, when we were that age. And so what they have in their hands is something that gives them ability to ruin their lives, in some ways. I think that's enough, without adding the prosecution angle to it.

MARTIN: Danny, did you know that kids were being prosecuted for passing pictures around?

Ms. TUCKER: I heard rumors, but didn't know. No.

MARTIN: Do you think that that would influence the kids who are doing this to think about it?

Ms. TUCKER: No. I mean, for my neighborhood, my problem is the girls are aggressive and they don't - they're just basically running wild. Nobody is saying to them it's not good to pursue young men like this. It's not good to put your body out like this. I mean, like she said, it's just not the texting and the sex texting. It's everything right now.

MARTIN: I haven't seen the pictures that are at issue, particularly in this case that we discussed earlier in the program. But as it was described to me, that is no different from what you've seen in an underwear ad in a woman's magazine on the newsstands right now.

Ms. TUCKER: Right. But everything is sexual to them now. I mean, like I watch, you know, some Saturdays, I'll sit there if the kids are home and we don't have activities. Everything they watch has sex in it, and all of these kids love the Ray J shows with all the women. The - what's the boy's name from Public Enemy with all the women? So that's all they are seeing. They love this thing where Ray J and all these women over him and who is he going to pick in the end and "I Love New York." And that's what they're seeing.

MARTIN: Do you buy Laura's argument that this is about power, that girls feel powerful? Because when I see these programs like with Flavor Flav and all this, the women don't seem like they're the ones in the power position to me. They seem like they're the ones being chosen like they're livestock, frankly. So I don't see what's so…

Ms. TUCKER: I totally agree with Laura. I totally agree. It is about power. The problem is it's the wrong power.

MARTIN: Right.

Ms. TUCKER: They think power is in their sexuality because that's what they see on TV. "I Love New York" is in her third season. Lord, would somebody tell me why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: You understand? But that's power to them. One of the girls in Emanie's(ph) class wants to grow up and have a show like that.

MARTIN: Emanie being your daughter, who is how old?

Ms. TUCKER: Emanie is 11, will be 12 next month, sixth grade.

Ms. STEPP: And does she want to have a show like that?

Ms. TUCKER: (unintelligible) fast, out of the group, where the group is, you know, still playing with dolls except for this one, you see. And that's power to them. Oh, wait, I'm gonna set mine. Now watch me. No, that's the wrong power.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm talking with Jolene Ivey, Dannette Tucker and Laura Sessions Stepp about sexting. I think this is a good place to talk about strategies for dealing with this since I think - Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I agree with both of them, absolutely. But there's one power that parents do have, and that is call your cell phone company and tell them if you really think it's an issue with your kids to take that ability off your kid's phone. Now that does mean that if you're in the habit of your daughter sees some cute shoes and she takes a picture and sends them to you, and then you can see the shoes and say yes or no, I know people who do that. You would give up that ability. But you'd also give up the ability of your child sending or receiving pornographic pictures.

MARTIN: That's an interesting point. So it's a technological problem, in one way. It's a judgment problem, but it's enhanced by technology. And you're saying nip it in the bud with the technology. Laura what do you think?

Ms. STEPP: I think I'd like to think that we could stop it by doing what Jolene suggests and say just take it off the kid's cell phone. I think kids will always get around that - added to that should be, again, this ongoing conversation with your kids about what relationships are all about and what your body - your body has value. All this sounds trite and old fashioned, but kids don't hear it. They don't have a conversation with adults about this.

MARTIN: One of the things that I found intriguing in your book "Unhooked" is that you interviewed young women who were campus leaders in a lot of ways. They were athletes. They were scholars. They had other stuff going on. I mean, it wasn't this idea of these marginal girls who…

Ms. STEPP: Right.

MARTIN: …who didn't have anything else going on but their bodies. That was the way they were going to get attention.

Ms. STEPP: Right. Right, right.

MARTIN: Why these girls had a lot going on but they were still engaged in this conduct. How do you- how do you explain that?

Ms. STEPP: I think because no one had helped them figure out what real power is. Their - the power the parents focus on - and I was a parent and still am a parent - is your power is as a student, is your - what career you're going to, you know, go into. But it's not about sexual power.

MARTIN: Danny, what do you think?

Ms. TUCKER: Oh, I totally agree with her. I'm going to take it a step further. The sex conversation is being had with your kids. Are you having it, or is the TV having it? Because it's being had. Okay? My charge is to the parents, especially the female mothers out there that are single mothers. You have got to think about what you're doing when you're dating in this way, when you're sending this stuff. She's doing the same thing.

Whatever I do, I'd watch your Emanie - she's my little Mini Me. Okay, so if I'm too provocative and too, you know, wielding sex power in the wrong way, that's exactly what she's doing. And in our case, in our neighborhood, that's what we have. We have a lot of girls that are unchecked because their mamas are partying at the club next door to theirs, dressed provocatively, sending sex pictures like they send it.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah. I mean, it's the same thing. And then grandma's at the next club. You know, they're the 15-year people. You know what I mean? Everybody is 15 years apart, but ain't nobody grow up. That's what's going on in my neighborhood.

MARTIN: Do you think that - this is always sort of the scapegoat for everything but I do wonder whether the media has something to do with it in the sense of what people are exposed to. Is media leading or following? Because as I said, I mean, if you pick up a magazine, there will be somebody with no clothes on in it selling something.

Ms. TUCKER: We all do, but we have a brain. I'm sorry, the parents - the media is not a scapegoat. The parents, to me, are the ones that have dropped the ball on this. Get back into your kid's life. Care about what they're doing other than just watching TV and be - and getting out your head.

MARTIN: Laura, what about the - part of what has also happened in this generation is a lot of people who are parents today wanted to get away from the no-stop-don't message that they were raised with.

Ms. STEPP: Michel…

MARTIN: As a girl, that's all we were raised with is no-stop-don't.

Ms. STEPP: That's right.

MARTIN: And they feel like I don't want to - that's not how - I don't want my kids growing up being ashamed of their bodies. I don't want my kids grow up having all these hang ups that I had and having to learn as an adult not to have them.

Ms. STEPP: Right. I mean, Michel, when I was in college I wanted to get rid of single-sex dorms. I wanted to get rid of curfews. I wanted to -women could do everything a man can do. Believe me, I've been there and I've done that and some of it I wish I hadn't done. And that's exactly what I tell girls. I think they need to know what we did, what we wanted, what our hopes and dreams were.

Say to our daughters who are 15, 16, when you're little girl - if you have a little girl or a little boy and they go on the Internet in 10 years and they look up mommy's name, do you want them to see you with your boobs hanging out? Put it back on them. Help them realize that now is not just now. They are growing up. They're going to be the leaders of tomorrow. That's power.

MARTIN: I wonder why, though - young woman have the example of Hillary Rodham Clinton. They have the example of a Michelle Obama. They have the example of, you know, women governors and senators and mayors. And yet, there's still this - I don't know. Is it because these women all look tired and maybe they don't want to work that hard?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know, they think oh, no. That's too hard. I'm not doing that.

Ms. IVEY: How much are they've focused on the news, though, and how much are they focused on MTV? I mean, you have to look at what are they really watching the most of. I know that my kids don't really watch MTV just because we don't let them.

MARTIN: Your kids are not always just in your house. I mean, they're - every - I mean…

Ms. STEPP: No, it seems like…

MARTIN: My kids have never seen Spiderman…

Ms IVEY: …my kids are always in my house, and all the other parents send their kids to my house. I'm telling you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: I want to answer that with Jolene. I totally agree with what she just said. You are one of Emanie's role models. Michel Martin is one of my daughter's role models because I point you out to her. You know, you have to say your daughter act like Michel Martin. Act like Michelle Obama. You know, you have to point that out to them.

What I do also is point out if I ever see you act like "I Love New York," you know, you have to show them the difference. And that's what's not happening. They don't see you guys as role models because they see the video girls. And nobody's there to say to them I know what you want to be. You want to her.

MARTIN: But I wonder if a part of it is that people like me aren't out enough where people like your daughter are.

Ms. TUCKER: No, you guys are out. I found you. You guys are out. You do it. You - we're on the radio right now. It's up to that mother. It's up to me to put positive women in Emanie's life.

MARTIN: Laura, I'm going to ask you a final question. Do you think you can put the genie back in the bottle without putting back all the stuff that a lot of people don't want to see, the repression, the sort of self abnegation that we also associate with these more restrictive eras? Do you think you can - can you redirect course in one way without going back completely to, you know, the prairie dresses and all of this thing that the rest of us don't necessarily want to do?

Ms. STEPP: No, we're - it makes us all uncomfortable. I absolutely do. And why I do I say that? I've talked to hundreds, thousands of young women and young men, and I think this is a fantastically smart, savvy generation. And I also think that they are hungry for conversations with people like yourself, people - their moms, the woman at church, the woman down the street. If we as a group saw ourselves as role models -forget the media for a minute. Forget Hollywood. We are the people who are most in their lives every day. And they want to do the right thing.

I mean, their aspirations for power are no different than yours and mine were. We had guides in our life. I know I did. They need guides more than ever, and we all need to do that. And, yes, I think we can without trampling on individual rights and freedoms.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now - to be continued, something tells me. Laura Sessions Stepp is the author of "Unhooked: The New Culture of Casual Sex," and she is a former Washington Post reporter and is now a consultant on adolescent issues. We were also joined by Jolene Ivey and Dannette Tucker. They're our regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributors. We were all here in the Washington studio. Ladies, moms, thank you.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. STEPP: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And before we go, Jolene, I understand you have something to say. Step light.

Ms. IVEY: Yes, I do Michel. As you mentioned in yesterday's commentary, this week marks the second anniversary of TELL ME MORE. And I am proud to say I was here when it all began two years ago. Our first conversation was with white mothers who were raising black sons, and we recorded it for the blog before we were even a show. Since then, we've tried to bring you, our listeners, engaging stories about parenthood from all perspectives. And though we're moms, we realize we're not every mom. So as part of our second anniversary we're inviting you to tell us more about your world of parenting.

Are there topics you would like to hear us discuss or maybe a guest mom we should consider? To tell us more about what you think, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522. Remember to tell us your name, or you can always go to the TELL ME MORE Web site at npr.org and blog it out.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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