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'Sexting' Incident Raises Big-Picture Digital Safety Issues


It's getting increasingly complicated to keep students safe at school, especially as technology becomes more widely used in the classroom and for personal communication. Policies to keep students safe in the digital age are often crafted with painstaking detail to allow for a range of scenarios.

But as this commentary piece in Sunday's Washington Post describes, the rapid pace of technology and trends in how it is used among young people make it difficult to keep up. And there's always the potential that such policies will have unintended consequences.

Ting-Yi Oei, a school administrator in a Northern Virginia school district, describes his ordeal after being indicted on child pornography charges. While he was investigating a case of "sexting," in which cellphone users text nude photos of themselves to others, he had one teenager send the evidence, a provocative photo of another student, to his own cellphone so he could transfer it to his office computer as the principal instructed.

His problems started essentially because of his lack of tech savvy.

"I immediately took the picture to the principal, who instructed me to transfer it to my office computer in case we needed it later. Being unfamiliar with camera features on cellphones, I asked the school's technology resource teacher for help, but he didn't have an immediate solution. The student then said that he could text the picture to my cellphone. That left the problem of getting it to my computer, whereupon the boy said that I could send the picture to my school e-mail address."

All the charges in last year's incident were recently thrown out of court. But it is not likely to be erased from the educator's memory.

As more cases of sexting are coming to light, however, other serious consequences are arising. Some teens are being charged with crimes for sending each other nude photos. I've read of cases where the offending teens may be required to register as sex offenders.

Earlier this month, Vermont lawmakers proposed making sexting legal between consenting teens, according to this news story.

Are other state and local lawmakers giving school leaders guidance on this issue? How should these kinds of cases be handled by school administrators and teachers?


I think it's a bit far-fetched to say this is something new or what's happening is particularly more dangerous than issues of the past. The main difference between now and the past is that ubiquitous digital technologies are documenting what inappropriate things have always been going on between teenagers. One of the reasons parents and some teachers aren't dealing sensibly or well with this, though, is pretty well painted in the excerpt you provide; many don't understand the technologies that come as second nature to today's teens. That's also displayed in the fact that some children are being convicted as sex offenders; the law doesn't understand the technology or how it might be used, either. That's a problem. You can't exactly talk about the proper use of these devices, or make laws regarding them, if you don't know much about them.

Frankly, I think common sense rules here. There doesn't need to be a whole health class, with set curricula, on sex and technology, though I am sure that this is what the state and many parent groups will eventually recommend, much to the more tech savvy generations' amusement. There does, however, need to be open discussion about preserving one's 'good' identity for the future. Teenagers are a self-conscious bunch, which is why many of them would be showing themselves off in the first place--to get feedback and reassurance. Many teenagers, I think, would listen to an argument based around identity. They don't want their reputation for the future to be tainted, just like they don't want their reputation of the present to be tainted. Teenagers need this plainly read out to them, though, because more than a few are too immature yet to think ahead about matters like these.

Still, there will be plenty who go full-speed ahead, thinking they know better, and it will result in great embarrassment and misfortune eventually. This is how teenagers have always operated and always will operate, simply due to their developmental stage, which prevents some (though not all) of them from making good, sound decisions. That's just the way of it, and many will unfortunately only learn from their mistakes. The technology is here to stay, and teenagers will behave as teenagers do. The typical response, and the one that will likely win out in the end, will be to restrict and ban that which is seen to be the problem. Of course, the mobile phones are not really the problem here; it's teenage immaturity that's the problem. All removing mobile phones or other technologies will do is keep teens from documenting their forays, so that they'll just once again become verbal rumors in the cafeteria. Of course, maybe parents and teachers will feel better about that; then they can once again pretend it doesn't go on!

To combat this, parents and teachers need to first understand the technology well enough to know basically what's going on, and then they need to advise young people on making good decisions that they won't regret in the future. That's really all that can or should be done, I think.

Lelia, the first commenter, makes a very persuasive argument that the best way to minimize illicit use of technological devices is to help teenagers recognize the negative consequences accompanying certain behaviors. I fully agree that we can't eliminate technology. Eliminating technology would be almost as silly as eliminating shopping malls if bad things happen in them.


I had an interesting conversation with my young adult daughter recently concerning Facebook. She helped me set up a Facebook account--and when we added her to my friends, of course I was treated to a list of her friends that I might want to add, and she has appeared to me, and my friends as someone she might want to add. She complians that now she is getting messages from these "old people," some of whom know her from church. She is thinking of getting out of Facebook. In her words--when you are getting messages from old people at church, you know it is time to move on. On the other hand, she and her peers had earlier demanded that some of the young teens that they knew (from church) clean up the things that they were posting on their Facebooks--pointed out to them some of the potential consequences of looking too trashy, or vulnerable.

Maybe we just need to move the adults into the environment.

This anecdote illustrates a couple very important dilemmas that exist that I’ve been pondering about lately…

The first is a digital divide that exists in two areas: 1) Classroom vs. real world technology and 2) Teacher vs. student knowledge in “technology.” Simply put, the technology that currently exists in the classroom is extremely obliterated when compared to the technology that exists in the real world. And highly related to this is the fact that the majority of teachers lack the knowledge and experience with technology that current students hold.


The second issue, I’ve been ruminating on is a policy issue. Regardless of digital knowledge, if schools and teachers are going to adopt these technologies into their schools, there has to be a better system in place—-to protect students, schools and education. We have to develop a system where we can have our cake and eat it, too. Where technology can exist in a classroom, but we can reap all of its benefits, too. So that when we decide to embrace technology in the classroom, everyone is willing to do it with open arms.

To aid in this, in my own dreamy world, I always envisioned a huge “security” monitoring station, where computers were constantly scanning students’ smartphones, computers, etc. If a student was engaging in some sort of misbehavior, the computer would red flag it for an administrator to handle appropriately.

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