5 Back-to-School Rules for Cell Phone-Carrying Kids (and 1 for Mom and Dad)

Caroline Knorr Parenting Editor | Mom of one 

Parenting Editor | Mom of one

Whether your kid is heading to school toting a brand-new device or is already a cell-phone pro, it’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page about what “responsible use” means. You can keep an eye on kids at home (kind of), but at school, they’re on their own. As with any kind of boundary setting, these conversations can be tense. Fortunately, there are only five rules for them to remember — and one for you, to show that you’re all in this together. (Tweens and teens can also play our animated, interactive Digital Compass game to pick up digital-citizen skills.)

Here are our key guidelines for cell-phone carrying kids:

1. Respect the school’s rules. Some schools permit students to use their phones at certain times: between classes, at lunch, on the playground, even occasionally in class. Abusing this privilege could jeopardize your classmates’ freedom. They’ll be mad at you, and your parents could rightly suspend your phone use.

2. Pick up when it’s Mom or Dad. Ugh, it’s the parents calling again. Well, guess who’s paying for your phone? When your mom, dad, or caregiver call, it’s probably very important, so don’t send it to voicemail.

3. Ask permission before downloading anything. Even if you have your own app store account,get sign off on any apps you download. If something has in-app purchases, those costs could wind up on your parents’ bill — so they need to know what extra charges a download may incur. They also need to make sure it’s age appropriate and reasonably good for you.

4. Don’t flaunt it. Owning a cell phone is a privilege that not every kid has access to. It’s OK to be proud of your phone — it’s an expensive piece of equipment for which you’ve been given responsibility — but showing off could make other people feel bad. Also, it could get stolen.

5. Use your phone for good, not evil. You’ll see all kinds of misbehavior and mischief regarding phones in school. Set an example for others by being respectful and responsible with yours. Ask permission before taking someone’s picture. Take a moment to consider whether a text or video could hurt, annoy, or embarrass someone else. Turn off the phone when you’re supposed to. Don’t let the phone be more important than someone standing right in front of you.

And here’s our essential rule for parents:

Don’t text your kid during the school day. Unless it’s a real emergency — like, you’re going to the hospital — resist the urge to text your kid during the school day. Kids have survived for many, many years without talking to their parents while they’re at school — and they need to be allowed independence. And if your kid texts you, make sure he’s not breaking any rules to do so.

How to Cut Children’s Screen Time? Say No to Yourself First.

The New York Times

Photo

CreditPaul Rogers

Parents are often at fault, directly or indirectly, when children and teenagers become hooked on electronic media, playing video games or sending texts many hours a day instead of interacting with the real world and the people in it. And as discussed in last week’s column, digital overload can impair a child’s social, emotional and intellectual growth.

This sad conclusion of many experts in child development has prompted them to suggest ways parents can prevent or rectify the problem before undue damage occurs.

“There’s nothing about this that can’t be fixed,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated psychologist. “And the sooner, the better.”

As Susan Stiffelman, a family therapist, put it in The Huffington Post, today’s parents are unprepared “to deal with the intense pull and highly addictive nature of what the online world has to offer. As parents, we have an opportunity to guide our kids so that they can learn habits that help them make use of the digital world, without being swallowed whole by it.”

Two experts at the Harvard School of Public Health, Steven Gortmaker and Kaley Skapinsky, offer a free guide, “Outsmarting the Smart Screens: A Parent’s Guide to the Tools That Are Here to Help,” as well as healthy activities to pursue to counter the weight gain that can accompany excessive screen time. Young children should not have their own cellphones or televisions in their bedrooms, they say, adding that even with teenagers it is not too late to set reasonable limits on screen time.

Dr. Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” cited two common parental behaviors that can strongly influence a child’s tendency to abuse electronic media. Some parents are perpetually tuned into their own devices, responding to every ping of their cellphones and tablets, receiving and sending messages at times that would enrage Miss Manners. Other parents fail to establish and enforce appropriate rules for media engagement by their children.

Young children learn by example, often copying the behavior of adults. I often see youngsters in strollers or on foot with a parent or caretaker who is chatting or texting on a cellphone instead of conversing with the children in their charge. Dr. Steiner-Adair said parents should think twice before using a mobile device when with their children. She suggests parents check email before the children get up, while they are in school, or after they go to bed.

One girl among the 1,000 children she interviewed in preparing her book said, “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, any time, even on the ski lift.” A 4-year-old called her father’s smartphone a “stupid phone.”

Dr. Jenny S. Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who with two colleagues observed 55 groups of parents and children at fast-food restaurants, noted that 40 of the adults immediately took out mobile devices and used them throughout most of the meal. Often more attention was paid to the devices than to the children.

The researchers also found that when parents were absorbed in their own devices, the children were more likely to act out, apparently in an attempt to get their parents’ attention.

Dr. Steiner-Adair is especially concerned about parental failure to pay full attention to their children “at critical times of the day, like when taking children to and from school. This should be a cell-free zone for everyone — no Bluetooth for parents or devices for the kids. The pickup from school is a very important transitional time for kids, a time for them to download their day. Parents shouldn’t be saying, ‘Wait a minute, I have to finish this call.’  ”

Likewise, she said, when parents come home from work, “they should walk in the door unplugged and use the first hour they’re home as time to reconnect with the family. Kids hate the phrase ‘just checking’ that parents frequently use to justify a very rude, infuriating behavior.”

Nor should parents or children be using devices when the family dines out, the psychologist said. “The art of dining and the connection between delicious food and nourishing conversation is being lost, not just in restaurants but at home as well,” she said.

Dr. Steiner-Adair attributes a recent 20 percent increase in accidental injuries seen in pediatric emergency rooms to caretakers’ failure to pay full attention to those they are supposed to be watching, like infants and toddlers in the bathtub or children on the jungle gym. “Your reaction time and attention is not the same when you’re texting or talking on a cellphone,” she said.

Ms. Stiffelman, author of “Parenting With Presence,” realizes that attempts to change digital behavior can meet with resistance. But, she said, it is important to be fearless and decisive, and to avoid negotiations.

“Acknowledge your kid’s upset without delivering long lectures about why they can’t have what they want,” she said. “Children grow into resilient adults by living through disappointment. It’s O.K. for your kids to be mad, bored or anxious about missing out on what their friends are up to online.”

She and other experts urge parents to establish device-free times of day, like the first hour after school and the hour before bed. Cellphones and tablets should not be allowed at the dinner table.

Ms. Stiffelman suggests parents “make time for real-life activities with your kids that let them know that they’re worth your time and undivided attention. Do things together that nourish your relationship.”

As for controlling the time children spend on digital media, the Harvard guide states emphatically that it is the parents’ responsibility: “Since the devices can be turned on anytime, you as a parent need to monitor their use, keep track of time, and then make sure the agreed upon rules are followed.”

The 7 rules parents must not break in the school drop-off line

Nov. 6, 2014 

Hey, black car -- we see you trying to cut into the school pick up line. You are violating Rule #4 !

Sarah Maizes
Hey, black car — we see you trying to cut into the school pick up line. You are violating Rule #4 !

If you have kids in school, you’ve witnessed it. The fighting, the brawling, the all-out chaos that makes “Lord of the Flies” look orderly.

And, no, it’s not the kids in the schoolyard. It’s the parents in the car drop-off or pick-up line. Or, as I call it, “the Thunderdome,” a Mad Max-style dystopia where cars are king and respect for mankind goes out the passenger seat window.

In a recent study by British insurance company Allianz, more than 1,000 parents were surveyed for their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, as they did their school day morning routine. Levels peaked just before leaving the house to drive to school, at around 8:15 a.m. each morning, researchers found. And the impact of the school run stress stays with parents well into the day. Also, nearly 25 percent of parents surveyed said that morning drop off stress sets their mood for the day — good or bad.

We’re all adults. We know better. And it’s so simple. We are taught in preschool how to form a line. It’s not complicated. In fact, the simplicity and efficiency of “the line” is what separates us from the apes. Or at least it should.

Unfortunately there are just always people who believe they’re above the system. They’re “in a hurry,” “running late,” or just “dropping their kid off super fast.” Well here’s a newsflash people — we’re ALL just dropping our kids, in a hurry, and running late for a meeting — that’s why we’re in the car line, too.

So, for all of those parents who know somebody who could use a reminder as to how it all works, here are the 7 unbreakable rules of the school drop-off or pick-up line. Print them up, keep copies in your car, and when when you see an offender, paper the h*ll out of their car:

Rule #1: Do NOT get out of your car. Ever. Not to “quickly grab” your kid, wave “come on” to your child over the playground fence, or just say “hi” to your friend in line behind you to tell her how much fun you had at Girl’s Night Out. Stay in your car. And when the car in front of you moves, you move.

Rule #2: Put down the cellphone. Don’t text or type emails. Waiting for your kid in your empty (and wonderfully quiet) car seems like the perfect opportunity to catch up on work – but it’s also a distraction. People on their phones don’t notice the car in front of them has moved, and as we learned in Rule #1, you know what to do next. More importantly, it’s dangerous. People on their phones don’t see children darting out between cars to the parents breaking rule #3.

Rule #3: Don’t double park. Maybe you’re thinking “I’ll just pull up alongside this nice lady here and my kid can run out in front of her and jump in.” No. “But I see my kid right there!” Good. Then you can wave at them to meet you at the end of the line when you circle back around the block. Plus, it’s illegal.

Rule #4: DON’T cut the line. It doesn’t matter that there is a gap the size of the one in Lauren Hutton’s smile in front of that BMW ten cars up. We’re all waiting for them to get off their phone and move up (pop quiz: “What do you do when the car in front of you moves?”). Zipping into that gap is like cutting the line at a cupcake shop. You wouldn’t pull that $#*% at Sprinkles, would you?

Rule #5: Leave the PDA at home. You love your little one and want to send him on his way to school with a kiss. That’s lovely. You’re cute. But if little Johnny won’t get out of the car or he’s not ready to say “goodbye,” go park your car and walk him in. Even better? Install an ejector seat. People are waiting, folks.

Rule #6: The rules of the car drop-off lane apply to everybody, no matter what kind of car you drive. So move your Maserati to the back of the line, dude. You’re giving the 1 percent a bad name.

Rule #7: Move swiftly. Once your kids locate you, get them into the car and get going. Don’t sit there in line and have the “how was your day?” discussion with them.

In short, a little politeness goes a long way in the car lane (and beyond). Remember, being behind the wheel of a car doesn’t make you invisible. We see you. We all see you. Including our children. So let’s try to set a good example. Now put the phone down… the car in front of you just moved up.

Sarah Maizes is author of “On My Way to School,” and a mother of three. For more of Sarah’s parenting wisdom and unsolicited advice, go to www.SarahMaizes.com, or find her on Facebookor Twitter

Why Kids Sext

The Atlantic

An inquiry into one recent scandal reveals how kids think about sexting—and what parents and police should do about it.
HANNA ROSIN, OCT 14 2014

All photos by Greg Kahn
It was late on a school night, so Jennifer’s kids were already asleep when she got a phone call from a friend of her 15-year-old daughter, Jasmine. “Jasmine is on a Web page and she’s naked.” Jennifer woke Jasmine, and throughout the night, the two of them kept getting texts from Jasmine’s friends with screenshots of the Instagram account. It looked like a porn site—shot after shot of naked girls—only these were real teens, not grown women in pigtails. Jennifer recognized some of them from Jasmine’s high school. And there, in the first row, was her daughter, “just standing there, with her arms down by her sides,” Jennifer told me. “There were all these girls with their butts cocked, making pouty lips, pushing their boobs up, doing porny shots, and you’re thinking, Where did they pick this up? And then there was Jasmine in a fuzzy picture looking awkward.” (The names of all the kids and parents in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.) You couldn’t easily identify her, because the picture was pretty dark, but the connection had been made anyway. “OMG no f‑ing way that’s Jasmine,” someone had commented under her picture. “Down lo ho,” someone else answered, meaning one who flies under the radar, because Jasmine was a straight‑A student who played sports and worked and volunteered and was generally a “goody-goody two shoes,” her mom said. She had long, silky hair and doe eyes and a sweet face that seemed destined for a Girl Scouts pamphlet, not an Instagram account where girls were called out as hos or thots (thot stands for “that ho over there”).

Into the Future
Technology’s Next Generation
That night, in March of this year, Jennifer tried to report the account to Instagram’s privacy-and-safety center, hoping it would get taken down. She asked several friends to fill out the “report violations” page too, but after a few hours, the account was still up. (Instagram’s help center recommends contacting local authorities in cases of serious abuse.) She considered calling 911, but this didn’t seem like that kind of emergency. So she waited until first thing the next morning and called a local deputy sheriff who serves as the school resource officer, and he passed the message on to his superior, Major Donald Lowe. Over the years, Lowe had gotten calls from irate parents whose daughters’ naked pictures had popped up on cellphones, usually sent around by an angry boyfriend after a breakup. But he immediately realized that this was a problem of a different order. Investigation into the Instagram account quickly revealed two other, similar accounts with slightly different names. Between them, the accounts included about 100 pictures, many of girls from the local high school, Louisa County High, in central Virginia. Some shots he later described to me as merely “inappropriate,” meaning girls “scantily clad in a bra and panties, maybe in a suggestive pose.” But some “really got us”—high-school girls masturbating, and then one picture showing a girl having sex with three boys at once.
Lowe has lived in Louisa County, or pretty close to it, for most of his life. The county is spread out and rural, but it is by no means small-town innocent. People there deal drugs and get caught up with gangs, and plenty of high-school girls end up pregnant. Usually Lowe can more or less classify types in his head—which kids from which families might end up in trouble after a drunken fight in the McDonald’s parking lot. But this time the cast of characters was baffling. He knew many of the girls in the photos, knew their parents. A few were 14, from the local middle school. They came from “all across the board,” Lowe says. “Every race, religion, social, and financial status in the town. Rich, poor, everyone. That’s what was most glaring and blaring about the situation. If she was a teenager with a phone, she was on there.” He knew some of the boys who had followed the Instagram accounts, too. Among them were kids with a lot to lose, including star athletes with scholarships to first-rate colleges.

The girls on the page came from “all across the board,” Lowe says. “Every race, religion, social, and financial status in the town … if she was a teenager with a phone, she was on there.”
It seemed to Lowe, in those early days, as if something had gone seriously wrong under his nose, and that’s how the media reported it: “Deputies Bust Massive Teen Sexting Ring in Louisa County,” one headline said. The word ring stuck out, as if an organized criminal gang had been pimping out girls at the school. The Instagram accounts were quickly taken down, and Louisa County High School was transformed into a crime scene, which it remained for the next month. Police cars sat parked at the school’s entrance, and inside, a few deputies who reported to Lowe began interviewing kids—starting with girls they recognized in the pictures and boys who had followed the accounts. Jasmine, who was a sophomore, was one of the first to be called in. She told them she’d originally sent the picture to a boy in 11th grade she’d known for a couple of years and really liked. They asked her whether she knew of anyone else at school who had nude pictures on their phone, and she told them she did. For the most part, the kids were “more than cooperative,” Lowe says. One person would give up 10 names. The next would give up five, and so on.

But pretty soon this got to be a problem. Within an hour, the deputies realized just how common the sharing of nude pictures was at the school. “The boys kept telling us, ‘It’s nothing unusual. It happens all the time,’ ” Lowe recalls. Every time someone they were interviewing mentioned another kid who might have naked pictures on his or her phone, they had to call that kid in for an interview. After just a couple of days, the deputies had filled multiple evidence bins with phones, and they couldn’t see an end to it. Fears of a cabal got replaced by a more mundane concern: what to do with “hundreds of damned phones. I told the deputies, ‘We got to draw the line somewhere or we’re going to end up talking to every teenager in the damned county!’ ” Nor did the problem stop at the county’s borders. Several boys, in an effort to convince Lowe that they hadn’t been doing anything rare or deviant, showed him that he could type the hashtag symbol (#) into Instagram followed by the name of pretty much any nearby county and then thots, and find a similar account.

Most of the girls on Instagram fell into the same category as Jasmine. They had sent a picture to their boyfriend, or to someone they wanted to be their boyfriend, and then he had sent it on to others. For the most part, they were embarrassed but not devastated, Lowe said. They felt betrayed, but few seemed all that surprised that their photos had been passed around. What seemed to mortify them most was having to talk about what they’d done with a “police officer outside their age group.” In some he sensed low self-esteem—for example, the girl who’d sent her naked picture to a boy, unsolicited: “It just showed up! I guess she was hot after him?” A handful of senior girls became indignant during the course of the interview. “This is my life and my body and I can do whatever I want with it,” or, “I don’t see any problem with it. I’m proud of my body,” Lowe remembers them saying. A few, as far as he could tell, had taken pictures especially for the Instagram accounts and had actively tried to get them posted. In the first couple of weeks of the investigation, Lowe’s characterization of the girls on Instagram morphed from “victims” to “I guess I’ll call them victims” to “they just fell into this category where they victimized themselves.”
Louisa County’s chief deputy sheriff, Donald Lowe,
had never seen a sexting case on this scale.
Lowe’s team explained to both the kids pictured on Instagram and the ones with photos on their phones the serious legal consequences of their actions. Possessing or sending a nude photo of a minor—even if it’s a photo of yourself—can be prosecuted as a felony under state child-porn laws. He explained that 10 years down the road they might be looking for a job or trying to join the military, or sitting with their families at church, and the pictures could wash back up; someone who had the pictures might even try to blackmail them. And yet the kids seemed strikingly blasé. “They’re just sitting there thinking, Wah, wah, wah,” Lowe said, turning his hands into flapping lips. “It’s not sinking in. Remember at that age, you think you’re invincible, and you’re going to do whatever the hell you want to do? We just couldn’t get them past that.”

After a week’s immersive education on the subject, Donald Lowe found himself just where the rest of the nation’s law-enforcement community—and much of the nation—is on the subject of teen sexting: totally confused. Were the girls being exploited? Or were they just experimenting? Was sexting harming the kids? And if so, why didn’t they seem to care? An older man with whom Lowe was acquainted stopped him at the grocery store to tell him, “That’s child porn, and you ought to lock those people up for a long time.” But Lowe didn’t want to charge kids “just for being stupid,” he told me later. “We don’t want to label them as child molesters.”

As soon as teenagers got cameraphones, they began using them to send nude selfies to one another, without thinking or caring that a naked picture of a minor, unleashed into the world, can set off explosions. And while adults send naked pictures too, of course, the speed with which teens have incorporated the practice into their mating rituals has taken society by surprise. I’d heard about the Louisa County sexting scandal in the news. It seemed like a good case study—the place is traditional but not isolated; it has annual beauty queens and football pageantry on a Friday Night Lights scale, and also many residents who work in Richmond, the state capital. I spent several weeks in and around the county this spring and summer talking to kids, parents, police officers, and lawmakers, trying to understand how officials sort through such a mess of a case. Maybe more important, I wanted to understand how teens themselves think about sexting—why they send naked pictures and what they hope to get in return; how much or how little sexting has to do with actual sex. My hope was to help figure out how parents and communities should respond. Because so often in sexting cases that go public, we adults inadvertently step into the role of Freddy Krueger, making teenage nightmares come true: We focus on all the wrong things; we overreact. Sometimes we create an even bigger disaster.
A school resource officer talks to students at Louisa County High School about the recent sexting scandal—and the swirl of rumors that it generated.
When I asked the kids from Louisa County High School, which has about 1,450 students, how many people they knew who had sexted, a lot of them answered “everyone.” (Throughout this article, I will use sexting to mean the transmission of provocative selfies you wouldn’t want your mother to see—not words, but pictures.) A few of the 30 or so kids I talked with said 80 percent or 60 percent, and no one said fewer than half. Kids, however, are known to exaggerate. Surveys on sexting have found pretty consistently that among kids in their upper teens, about a third have sexted, making the practice neither “universal” nor “vanishingly rare,” as Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University, writes, but common enough in a teenager’s life to be familiar. A recent study of seven public high schools in East Texas, for example, found that 28 percent of sophomores and juniors had sent a naked picture of themselves by text or e-mail, and 31 percent had asked someone to send one.

The general public was first forced to contemplate teen sexting in 2009, when a scandal in rural Pennsylvania’s Tunkhannock Area High School, similar to the school in Louisa County, made national news. By that point, the great majority of teens had cellphones—71 percent, almost the same percentage as adults. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com had just conducted the first public survey on sexting among teens and young adults, showing that, much to parents’ chagrin, the practice was fairly common. In the Pennsylvania case, the local district attorney threatened to bring child-pornography charges against girls who showed up in the pictures, which was widely considered overkill. It “makes as much sense as charging a kid who brings a squirt gun to school with possession of an unlicensed firearm,” wrote a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Lawmakers around the country began searching for a better alternative.

“What are you doing?” he texted. “I just got out of the shower and I’m about to go to sleep.” “Send me a picture, PLEASE.” She caved. She sent it over Snapchat and said he had to let it erase right away. He said he did.
“I really don’t like the word sexting,” says Michael Harmony, the commander of the southern-Virginia branch of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which covers Louisa County. The term he makes his investigators use is self-production, which is law-enforcement-speak for when minors produce pictures of themselves that qualify as child porn. But changing the term doesn’t clarify much. Whether you call it self-production or sexting, it comes in too many forms to pin down. Harmony has dealt with a 13-year-old who posted her naked picture on MeetMe.com and had grown men show up at her house. He’s investigated a 17-year-old boy who blackmailed a girl into sending him naked pictures, and another boy who threatened to send out the naked pictures a girl had given him if she didn’t have sex with him. Lately, though, Harmony’s office has been flooded with cases like the one in Louisa County, generating bins filled with cellphones that his investigators have to go through one by one.

Since 2009, state legislatures have tried to help guide law enforcement by passing laws specifically addressing sexting. At least 20 states have passed such laws, most of which establish a series of relatively light penalties. In Florida, for example, a minor who is guilty of transmitting or distributing a nude photograph or video must pay a fine, complete community service, or attend a class on sexting. A second offense is a misdemeanor and a third is a felony. Where they’ve been passed, the new laws have helpfully taken ordinary teen sexting out of the realm of child pornography and provided prosecutors with a gentler alternative. But they have also created deeper cultural confusion, by codifying into law the idea that any kind of sexting between minors is a crime. For the most part, the laws do not concern themselves with whether a sext was voluntarily shared between two people who had been dating for a year or was sent under pressure: a sext is a sext. So as it stands now, in most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it’s a matter for the police.

Five years after the sexting scandal in Pennsylvania, cases still arise that betray shockingly little clarity about who should count as the perpetrator and who the victim. In another Pennsylvania case this year, two popular girls persuaded an autistic boy to share a picture of his penis with them, then forwarded the picture to a wide circle of schoolmates. The district attorney decided to go after the boy, according to Witold Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which intervened in the case. A recent study published in Pediatrics broke down how police departments handle “youth-produced sexual images.” About two-thirds of the cases that have received police attention involved “aggravating circumstances,” meaning an adult was involved, or one teen had blackmailed or sexually abused another, or had “recklessly circulated” the image without the person’s consent. The remaining third were what the authors, who are associated with the Crimes Against Children Research Center, defined as having “no malicious elements”; those “may best be viewed as adolescent sexual experimentation.” Nonetheless, in 18 percent of those cases, police departments reported making an arrest.

Virginia is not one of the states that has passed specific teen-sexting laws, and so Major Lowe was looking, potentially, at hundreds of felonies. Every boy who had a photo on his phone, every girl who’d snapped one of herself—all could be prosecuted as felons and sex offenders. If Lowe made an arrest, the case would land with Rusty McGuire, the main prosecutor for Louisa County. McGuire wouldn’t talk with me about this situation specifically, but he expressed his concern more generally about nude pictures of minors landing in the wrong hands: “What do you do? Turn a blind eye? You’re letting teenagers incite the prurient interest of predators around the country,” fueling a demand that “can only be met by the actual abuse of real children.”

McGuire has successfully prosecuted several actual pedophiles over the years, including a local man who had posed as a teenage girl on Facebook and solicited young boys for sex, and another man—a trusted teacher—who had been part of a ring whose members offered up their own children to other members for sex. When he talks about the awful details of these crimes, it’s hard to get them out of your head. The Virginia legislature has long failed to pass a sexting law largely for fear of being soft on child porn, says Dave Albo, the chairman of the state Courts of Justice committee. Still, the absence of any obvious lesser alternative put Lowe in a difficult spot. “They’re not violent criminals,” he told me. “If these kids just made a dumb-ass mistake, we don’t want to ruin their future.”

Junior-varsity football players check their phones before a game.
“She’s a whore. I’ve totally heard that she’s a whore.”

That comment came quickly, from a senior girl whose style was generally more refined. “She” was Briana, a sophomore softball player who, in school lore, was the one who’d started all the trouble.

“I have to show you something.” Briana’s friend had stopped her between classes one day and showed her a picture on Instagram, the same morning Jennifer, Jasmine’s mom, contacted the police. It was a picture of a pair of breasts, and Briana, who is now a junior, recognized them as her own. Pretty much anyone at the high school would have. She was the only girl who had so many freckles going down her shoulders and arms, and it didn’t take too much imagination to guess where else. Briana went to a young teacher she trusted. “I said, ‘There’s this picture of me up on Instagram.’ ” The teacher informed the principal, who eventually called the police. No one at school knew that Jennifer had already reported the account that morning.

While police were calling kids into a makeshift interview room at the high school, one by one, a more unruly drama was unfolding in the hallways. Because the Instagram accounts had been up for only a short time, not everyone had seen them. Rumors spread about which girls had appeared in photos and what they’d been doing. One was supposedly making out with her sister (not true). Another was “messing with, like 10, 15 dudes” (also not true). A group of sociologists led by Elizabeth Armstrong has studied the class dynamics of the term slut as used by young college women. High-status women from affluent homes associate slut with women they call “trashy” and not “classy.” To women from working-class families, upper-class women are “rich bitches in sororities”—whom they also commonly think of as sluts. The girl who called Briana a whore is a potential future sorority-chapter president. She and several other more affluent students described everyone associated with the Instagram accounts to me as “ghetto,” which in this context had mild racial connotations but generally stands for “trashy” or “the lower crowd.” The role of ultimate, quintessential slut fell to a “redneck” girl who appeared on Instagram. In the post-sexting-scandal lore, she “supposedly slept with her brother” (surely not true).

To the elite girls, the girls on Instagram were sluts not necessarily because they were sleeping around but because of what they looked like or how they acted. “Let’s just say people have different body types,” one girl told me. Others, speaking about girls in the photos, said, “You obviously have a little too much confidence,” or just “Butter face” (as in: nice body, but her face … ). In their college study, Armstrong and her team identify this brand of sniping as a way girls police one another and establish a sort of moral superiority without denying themselves actual sex, and something similar seemed to be happening here. Well-off, popular girls were most certainly in the Instagram photos, but none would admit as much unless I knew otherwise. Briana was, in many ways, on the opposite end of the spectrum—she lacked that kind of standing, and, because she had gone to the principal, she was the girl most widely associated with the accounts, and therefore the main character in the morality tale that was being stitched together between classes.

I met Briana in early June, just after school had ended. She was in a summer program for geometry remediation because she’d gotten a C in math. She told me that she had ADD and took Adderall, and that she loved history but hated math with a passion. “I don’t know. I try hard. I’m just more into sports.” On the day we met, she wore a purple tank top and not-too-tight shorts, and her long hair was down. She had a sunburn on her shoulders that was bothering her a little. She told me she ran track and played volleyball and softball. Mostly she seemed nervous and eager to please—“No, ma’am.” “Yes, ma’am”—and to make me understand that she was not a bare-your-breasts kind of girl.

“Just let me see them, please?” She texted back, “No,” she told me. He was a junior, one year ahead of her. She didn’t consider him her boyfriend, just someone she talked with at school sometimes. Plus she felt “self-conscious.” Briana is tall and fit but doesn’t exude that sexy sheen some high-school girls do. He asked a dozen more times, in different ways, and one night the text came as she was getting out of the shower. “What are you doing?” he texted. “I just got out of the shower and I’m about to go to sleep.” “Send me a picture, PLEASE.” She caved. She sent it over Snapchat and said he had to let it erase right away. He said he did.
Cellphones confiscated at the high school filled
multiple evidence bins.
For days after the investigation began, Briana felt that people were staring at her, talking about her, blaming her for the fact that the high school seemed like a prison, or that they were being hauled into a police interview, or—worst of all—that they had to hide their phones or have them confiscated for God knows how long. “It was getting 10 times bigger,” she told me. “As each day went by, more phones were being taken. It all went really, really fast—way faster than I expected.” Sometimes her friends would tell her, “Hey, they were talking about you in second period.”

Briana was prepared for part of the reaction: that everyone would think “if I show my boobs then that means I would do anything.” But the worst part was “everyone calling me a snitch. Everybody, like, hated me because they knew I had told. It was so bad that I didn’t want to go to school.”

Briana and Jasmine are friends, and the day after the police arrived, Jasmine also wanted to stay home from school. She had sobbed and thrown up when she saw her photo on Instagram. But Jennifer wouldn’t let her stay home. In fact, she told her daughter she would be punished if she cried in school or showed in any way that she was upset: “They already got a piece of you,” Jennifer told her. “Don’t let them get any more.” So Jasmine stayed stone-faced, and nobody said a thing to her. The future sorority girl told me she’d caught Jasmine’s eye that first week and thought, “She must be thinking, You’ve seen me naked,” but she also noted that Jasmine didn’t betray anything. “She was just walking around the school as if nothing happened.”

Briana was not so lucky. The incident always seemed to be there, at school and at home. When she and her mother were watching TV and a romantic or sexual scene came on, her mother would leave the room. During arguments she’d say, “You have no reason to have an attitude after everything you’ve done.” One time, after her younger sister had misbehaved, her mom yelled, “Don’t end up like your sister!” while Briana stood close by. (Her mother later apologized.) Briana told me she has tried to make amends. She cleans up the kitchen every night after dinner, cleans the bathrooms. “Some days we’re okay, and some days I think it’s all she thinks about. She sent me a note: ‘I still think of you as my little girl.’ I understand where she’s coming from. But I’m not a little girl. I think she hasn’t accepted the fact that I’ve grown up yet.”

About a month after the investigation, Briana got into a fight with a boy on the bus. She was still “stressed out,” she said, and he kept singing a song she found annoying, and she asked him to please stop. He told her, “Nobody even wants you here” and called her a bitch, and she said, “I’m gonna beat the effing crap out of you,” and she hit him, and got suspended for three days. Those happened to be the days of softball tryouts, so she almost didn’t make the team. Then, when the coach did let her join the team, a teammate accused Briana of putting her college scholarship in jeopardy because her phone had been confiscated and maybe the school would rescind its offer. Briana used to babysit for one of the teacher’s kids, “but then his wife wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

Studies on high-school kids’ general attitudes about sexting turn up what you’d expect—that is, the practice inspires a maddening, ancient, crude double standard. Researchers from the University of Michigan recently surveyed a few dozen teenagers in urban areas. Boys reported receiving sexts from girls “I know I can get it from” and said that sexting is “common only for girls with slut reputations.” But the boys also said that girls who don’t sext are “stuck up” or “prude.” The boys themselves, on the other hand, were largely immune from criticism, whether they sexted or not.

Sometimes in Louisa County, between interviews, I hung out with a group of 15-year-old boys who went to the library after school. They seemed like good kids who studied, played football, and occasionally got into fights, but no more than most boys. They’d watch videos of rappers from the area and talk about rumors in the rap world, like the one that the Chicago rapper Chief Keef, a rival of D.C.’s Shy Glizzy, had gotten a middle-school girl pregnant. They’d order and split a pizza to pass the time while waiting for their parents to leave work and pick them up. I started to think of them as the high school’s Greek chorus because, while I recognized much of what they said as 15-year-old-boy swagger—designed to impress me and each other, and not necessarily true—they still channeled the local sentiment. This is how one of them described his game to me: “A lot of girls, they stubborn, so you gotta work on them. You say, ‘I’m trying to get serious with you.’ You call them beautiful. You say, ‘You know I love you.’ You think about it at night, and then you wake up in the morning and you got a picture in your phone.”

“You wake up a happy man,” his friend said.

“Yeah, a new man.”

“Yeah, I’m the man.”

How do you feel about the girl after she sends it?, I asked.

“Super thots.”

“You can’t love those thots!”

“That’s right, you can’t love those hos.”

“Girls in Louisa are easy.”

And thus it was with Briana and her seducer: “He was a jerk. He didn’t talk to me anymore. And he just flirted with other girls.”

Louisa County teens, geographically spread out and chronically over scheduled, have relatively few opportunities to simply hang out with one another. Much of the high school’s social life takes place online.
Why do kids sext? One recent graduate told me that late at night, long after dinner and homework, her parents would watch TV and she would be in her room texting with her boyfriend. “You have a beautiful body,” he’d write. “Can I see it?” She knew it would be hard for him to ever really see it. She had a strict curfew and no driver’s license yet, and Louisa County is too spread out for kids to get anywhere on their own without a car.

“I live literally in the middle of nowhere,” the girl told me. “And this boy I dated lived like 30 minutes away. I didn’t have a car and my parents weren’t going to drop me off, so we didn’t have any alone time. Our only way of being alone was to do it over the phone. It was a way of kind of dating without getting in trouble. A way of being sexual without being sexual, you know? And it was his way of showing he liked me a lot and my way of saying I trusted him.”

In the Texas high-school study, boys and girls were equally likely to have sent a sext, but girls were much more likely to have been asked to—68 percent had been. Plenty of girls just laugh off the requests. When a boy asked Olivia, who graduated last year from Louisa County High, “What are you wearing?,” she told me she wrote back, “Stinky track shorts and my virginity rocks T-shirt.” A boy asked another student for a picture, so she sent him a smiling selfie. “I didn’t mean your face,” he wrote back, so she sent him one of her foot. But boys can be persistent—like, 20-or-30-texts-in-a-row persistent. “If we were in a dark room, what would we do?” “I won’t show it to anyone else.” “You’re only sending it to me.” “I’ll delete it right after.”

When surveyed, by far the most common reason kids give for sexting is that their boyfriend or girlfriend wanted the picture, and my interviews in Louisa County support that. In a study of 18-year-olds by Elizabeth Englander, 77 percent said the picture they sent caused no problems for them. The most common outcome of a sext, says Englander, is “nothing”: no loss, no gain. Most girls (70 percent) reported feeling some pressure to sext, but Englander singles out a distinct minority (12 percent) she calls the “pressured sexters,” who say they sexted only because they felt pressure. These girls are more vulnerable. They tend to start sexting at a younger age, and to sext because they think they can get a boyfriend, as opposed to because they already have one. They have a fantasy that “if they sext, the popular people will see them as daring and self-confident, and they could get a boyfriend they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten,” Englander says. But generally that doesn’t work out. Pressured sexters are much more apt to feel worse after sexting than other teens are—her interviews reveal them to be less self-confident about their bodies and less assured about their place in the social hierarchy after sending a sext.

One recent study found that young adults who engaged in sexting were more likely to report recent substance abuse and high-risk sexual behavior, like unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. Another found exactly the opposite, that “sexting is not related to sexual risk behavior or psychological well-being.” In Englander’s study, many of the worrisome behaviors associated with sexting showed up more in those who had been pressured. They were more likely, for example, to engage in a practice researchers call self-cyberbullying, a disturbing phenomenon in which teens post mean things about themselves on social-media sites, usually to get sympathy or attention. Pressured sexters were also more likely to have had problems with sexual violence in dating.

A consistent finding is that sexting is a pretty good indicator of actual sexual activity. This year, researchers in Los Angeles published a study of middle-schoolers showing that those who sent sexts were 3.2 times more likely to be sexually active than those who didn’t. A story in the Los Angeles Times described the study as proof that “sexting is not a harmless activity.” But in fact the findings seem a little obvious. Since most kids who sext report doing so in the context of a relationship, it makes sense that sex and sexting would go together. As Amy Hasinoff, the author of the forthcoming book Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent, points out, “Sexting is a form of sexual activity,” not a gateway to it.

But kids also sext, or ask for a sext, or gossip about sexting, for reasons only loosely related to sex. A recent New York Times story explored the practice of “vamping,” or staying up after midnight to check in with friends online. The kids in Louisa County, like kids everywhere, are chronically overscheduled. They stay late at school to play sports or to take part in other after-school activities, then go home and do their homework. Nighttime is the only time teens get to have intimate conversations and freely navigate their social world, argues Danah Boyd, the author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. For the Louisa County kids, that means checking up on the latest drama on Twitter—“Anyone still awake?” is a common post-midnight tweet—and filling up their Instagram accounts, or asking a girl for a pic.

In the vast majority of cases, the picture lands only where it was meant to. Surveys consistently show that very few recipients share explicit selfies— without the sender’s consent. Englander’s surveys show that pictures resulting from pressure are much more likely to be shared, and that rarely ends well. In the worst-case scenario, the girl is devastated, and in rare instances takes drastic action. In 2008, Jessica Logan committed suicide after her nude photo circulated around her Ohio town, and there have been several similar suicide cases since then. A few people in Louisa County recalled the time a popular, pretty girl at school sent a picture to her boyfriend that he then sent out to his friends, and “by second period,” according to Olivia, “she was so upset that the guidance counselor had to send her home.” But mostly, even a picture that’s shared without consent travels between just two or three cellphones, and plays only a fleeting role in the drama of coming of age.

“The only reason to regret it is if you get caught,” one girl told me. And while getting caught—by parents, teachers, future employers—is no joke, police departments would still do well to remember that. Whether a sext qualifies as relatively safe sexual experimentation or a disaster often depends on who finds out about it. Marsha Levick, a co-founder of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, sees many cases where the police investigation does much more harm than the incident itself. “The rush to prosecute always baffles me,” she says. “It’s the exponential humiliation of these boys, or more often girls, in an official setting, knowing their photos will be shown to police officers and judges and probation officers. And the reality is, a lot of these officials are going to be men. That process itself is what’s traumatizing.”

As the new school year began, few people attended an evening community meeting on teen sexting held by Rusty McGuire, Louisa County’s main prosecutor.
About a month into the investigation, Donald Lowe concluded that the wide phone-collection campaign had added up to one massive distraction. Yes, the girls who appeared on Instagram had done something technically illegal by sending naked photos of themselves. But charging them for that crime didn’t make any sense. “They thought they were doing it privately,” he told me, reaching much the same conclusion as Levick. “We’re not helping them at all by labeling them at an early age.” Lowe recalled to me a girl in his own high-school class who had developed a reputation as “the county slut, and it took her years and years to overcome that.” These girls didn’t need their names in the paper to boot.

By June, Lowe had made the decision to wipe the photos off most of the phones and return them to the girls, and most of the boys, with a warning: “We don’t want to put anything on your record, but the next time we come around, we’re not going to be so nice about it.” He held on to a few phones and got search warrants for a few more, and began to focus on what seemed more like the actual crime: the posting of explicit photos without consent on Instagram.

Within the first day or two of the investigation, Lowe had developed a pretty good suspicion of who was behind that. A few of the boys he talked to—and a couple of girls as well—had told him they’d sent photos directly to boys who they thought had set up the accounts. A few others had sent them to a go-between, but still had a decent idea of who was setting up the accounts. The organizers had apparently spent weeks gathering photos. They said they would open the accounts only when they had a lot of pictures in hand, and that anyone who sent one in would be guaranteed access. Lowe wasn’t sure whether it was just a couple of boys working together or with a slightly larger group of accomplices. His investigators subpoenaed Instagram for the IP address of the accounts’ originating computer, but because of a technical aberration, that turned out to be inconclusive. He continued to search for other, solid evidence.

Lowe would not confirm to me the identity of the main suspects in the investigation, but according to some of the kids and parents, they are two brothers—one a student at the school, one a recent graduate. One was a troublemaker known for hitting people on the bus, and the other a popular kid. One was under 18 and the other over, meaning that if they were charged, they could be subject to very different legal treatment. The key would be to figure out their intent—were the boys trying to make porn available to adults, or was it a “me and my buddies want to collect a bunch of pictures” kind of deal?

Lowe strongly suspected the latter, that this was about “raging hormones and bragging.” Kids, after all, described the accounts to him, and to me, as “funny,” “just something to laugh at,” “just a bunch of friends sitting around having a laugh.” If that were true, at least for any minors involved, a child-porn charge seemed too “Big Brother” to Lowe, and he and the local prosecutor might want to come up with a lesser charge or even no charge at all, especially because the account had been closed down so quickly and had been seen by relatively few people, limiting potential harm. But largely because of community pressures, he had to consider the possibility that he’d just discovered “the tip of an iceberg of some organized-crime thing.”

In late July, rumors were spreading among parents that the boys who had set up the Instagram accounts might be part of a gang. There had been some prominent gang activity in the area lately, and one local crew had been involved in the shooting of a cop. Maybe these gangs were also involved in child trafficking; maybe they would use the young girls’ pictures as an advertisement to lure johns. There was no evidence at all that whoever was behind the accounts was part of a gang, or that local gangs were involved in sex trafficking. In fact the theory seemed pretty far-fetched. But the mere mention of it was enough for Lowe to say—or feel pressured to say—that he couldn’t “rule it out.” At the time of this writing, in mid-September, the investigation was ongoing.

Many teen-sexting cases are aggravated by vague fears of predation and pedophilia, at times creating irresistible momentum. But “the conjecture that the Internet or sexting has increased the number of molesters or their motivation to offend has not really been supported by the evidence,” says David Finkelhor, who runs the Crimes Against Children Research Center. In fact, all of the evidence suggests that child molesting and sex offenses in general have declined over the period in which sexting has become popular, Finkelhor says. His group analyzed seven major sources of data about violence against children and found large declines in sexual abuse of children since the early 1990s. From 2003 to 2011, a span that coincides almost exactly with the rise of sexting, sexual-victimization rates of minors declined by 25 percent. Finkelhor cites a handful of possible factors but, ironically, one is that kids have started to do their “risk taking” and “independence testing” online, which could minimize their exposure to actual violence and physical harm.

“The rush to prosecute always baffles me. It’s the exponential humiliation of these boys, or more often girls, in an official setting … That process itself is what’s traumatizing.”
Cases that turn up genuine signs of child pornography should of course be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But child-porn laws are designed explicitly to protect children from adults. Cases involving only minors fall into a different category, and deserve entirely different labels and punishments—or no punishments. Getting these standards right is important, because the investigation itself causes its own trauma, because not every law-enforcement officer is as considered as Donald Lowe, and because something that a third of older teenagers do routinely shouldn’t remain a crime, much less a crime on the order of child porn.

Many legal-reform advocates say the key is to distinguish between voluntarily sharing a photo and having it shared without your consent. “We should draw the line between my daughter stupidly sending a photo of herself to her boyfriend and her boyfriend sending it to all his friends to humiliate her,” Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, told Slate last year. “The first is stupid. The second is more troubling and should be criminal.” Levick’s group has been trying for years to get states to recognize the difference between sexting that’s part of normal sexual exploration and sexting that’s coercive or violates privacy.

And yet few lawmakers are willing to concede that naked pictures of teenagers, even if voluntarily shared, are in any way acceptable. As Levick says, “I think this is coming from grown‑ups who fear that their kids are doing things they don’t understand. The technology is both hyper-visible and invisible, and parents are spooked by it. So kids are finding what’s a normal part of adolescent experimentation being criminalized.”

In cases involving only minors, the poles at either end of the continuum of all that a sext can represent seem pretty clear. Uploading another minor’s naked picture to the Web, where anyone might eventually find it, should be a criminal act, though not one that should necessarily be prosecuted as child porn. Taking a selfie and sending it to someone who might be receptive to it, or receiving a selfie and keeping it, should not be criminal at all. What’s in between—such as forwarding a selfie to one or 10 friends without consent—is more difficult. In Louisa County, the deputies gave an especially stern lecture to the boys they sensed had solicited pictures so they could forward them on to friends, taking advantage of the vulnerability of certain girls. The nonconsensual sharing of pictures, even among just a few people, should probably count as a criminal act, as long as there is prosecutorial discretion. But even in these instances, the policing should, if possible, be left to teachers and parents, not to the actual police. Or in some cases to no one, because since when was any version of adolescent sexuality fair and free of pain?

Michael Harmony, the commander of the southern-Virginia branch of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, says that as teen sexting has become more pervasive, cases involving large numbers of kids have multiplied quickly.
Shortly before the police got involved in Louisa County, Ryan, a quiet junior known as a math whiz, received the picture of Briana’s breasts from a friend at the beginning of lunch. “Guess who ??? wht do u think?” Throughout the whole afternoon, he could not get the photo out of his head: the size and shape of the breasts—which he described, improbably, as floating “like the Nerf ball I once threw too far into the waves”—and also all the freckles, suggesting summer and romantic surprises. Ryan had only one other similar photo, which a generous friend had sent his way. But being out of that game, as he saw it, had its advantages. He was free of the never-ending status competition at school—who had a new picture, who had the most, who had one no one else could get—and could just let his imagination wander.

He waited until late at night, when his mom was watching TV, to look at the photo again. Seated on his bed, he pulled out his phone. The first thing he noticed was that his battery bar was red. Now there was the problem of finding the power cord, and stretching it as far as the center of the bed. He noticed a text from his coach—had he forgotten a practice? Was there some piece of equipment he had to remember to bring in the next day? Finally he pulled up the picture. He knew Briana; he’d helped her with math once. And he couldn’t get the image of the girl sitting in class, puzzling over a problem, out of his head. He suddenly felt guilty, and also—because he’d heard about some boys collecting photos for an Instagram account—a little afraid. He hesitated, and then deleted the picture and got up to retrieve his laptop. He opened the first free porn site that popped into his head and typed in milf. Immediately, dozens of images flirted for his attention. He considered one in the second row, but then scrolled down a little further to find a curvier type, although a few weeks later, when he was recounting the moment to me, he couldn’t remember any other details beyond “long brown hair” and “big boobs.”

Briana’s parents—and Briana herself—would probably be creeped out if they knew how this scene had played out. And most parents would be upset if they learned that a naked picture of their daughter had showed up on a boy’s phone, even if he did delete it. But that such a photo should come to light doesn’t mean the girl and the boy are having sex, or that the boy is a stalker, or that the photo is going to show up on the Web.

Outside of actual romantic relationships, sexts usually seem to play a very minimal role in anyone’s sex life. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese’s 1981 book about the sexual revolution, a teenage boy spends hours looking at his favorite picture in a photographic-art magazine, treating the image with an archivist’s care. But the high-school boys I spoke with barely glance at the sexts they receive. They gloat inwardly or brag to friends; they store them in special apps or count them. But actual fantasies come from porn, freely and widely available on the Internet. “Guys would pile them up,” one girl who had graduated a year earlier told me, referring to sexts they’d gotten. “It was more of a baseball-card, showing-off kind of thing.” Olivia described it as “like when they were little boys, playing with Pokémon cards.”

So how should parents think about sexting, especially when their daughters are involved? The research suggests that if your child is sexting but not yet in high school, you should worry more. And that you should do the same if your daughter has no real relationship with the boy she’s sending sexts to, but is pursuing a relationship, or just responding to repeated requests for a photo. Sexts don’t create sexual dynamics; they reveal them. Parents should use the opportunity to find out what those dynamics are, lest they accidentally make things worse.

What bothered Jennifer, Jasmine’s mother, about her daughter’s picture was not that her little girl was all grown up. It was the awkwardness of her daughter’s pose, the fact that she had to be really talked into sending that photo. Jennifer fits no one’s image of a perfect mother. As a kid, she had done drugs and gotten into fights and had a baby at 15. But life experience has made her a very perceptive parent. Another one of her daughters, who is two years younger than Jasmine, “is rebellious as hell. If she sent a picture, it’s because she damn well wanted to. She’d be like, snap, snap, ‘This is me,’ all over the place. If she didn’t want to, she’d send a picture of a cat and say, ‘That’s the only pussy you’re gonna get!’ But this one”—meaning Jasmine—“she’s a pushover. She would do anything for anybody. Even with stupid things, like her sister asks her to fold the laundry even though she folded the last 20 loads, and she’ll say, ‘Sure.’ It infuriates me. Girl, stand up for yourself! You should do something because you want to do it, not because somebody pushed you into it.”

Danah Boyd, the author of It’s Complicated, often talks about social media as a window into the teenage world. A parent who reacts purely by scaling up the restrictions is missing a chance to know what’s actually going on with their child, to know things that in previous eras would have stayed hidden from them. In her talks, Boyd advises parents not to, for example, shut down accounts. Kids will just find ways to open new ones under names that have nothing to do with their real ones, that their parents could never track, or they will migrate to new platforms. (Many of the kids I met in Louisa County used inventive, inscrutable names for their Instagram accounts, names only their peers knew about.) Instead, parents should take a deep breath—even in the most uncomfortable scenarios—and ask questions. Kids can have a million motivations to send a naked picture of themselves, and unless you ask, you won’t know whether the one that was in their head seems more like reasonable experimentation or something else.

A recent review of 10 official sexting-education campaigns concluded that all of them erred on the side of what the researchers called “abstinence”—that is, advising teens not to sext at all. These tend to link sexting tightly to ruinous consequences, but that’s a problem, because ruination doesn’t normally follow the sending of a sext. “If we present it as inevitable, then we’ve lost our audience,” says Elizabeth Englander, who leads groups about sexting in middle and high schools, “because they know very well that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t happen.” If you say otherwise, “then the kids know immediately that you don’t know anything.”

In the vast majority of cases, the picture lands only where it was meant to. But pictures sent as a result of pressure are much more likely to be shared, and that rarely ends well.
Instead, Englander eases kids into the dangers slowly. She usually starts out by talking about how in life, it’s sensible to avoid risk. You wear a seat belt even though the chances of a fatal crash are slim. This way, she says, the kids understand that she knows the risks of a picture getting out are rare, but they also understand that if it does get out, the effects on their social life and future could be catastrophic. She gets the kids talking about why they send the pictures, so she can narrow in on the more risky situations she has identified from her research—namely, ones involving lots of pressure and very little trust.

Teens in Louisa County, like teens everywhere, hear a lot about sex, but really know only a little about it. Briana’s Twitter feed is a mix of little-girl cute and grown-woman sexy: a fuzzy kitten, inspirational quotes from Athletes for Christ, an ass in a bow thong. Any senior at Louisa County High School can tick off the names of girls who got pregnant in the past year. But the kids in Louisa County are also part of a generation that’s seen teen pregnancy decline to a record low. Teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past. The majority now report that their first sexual experience was with a steady partner. Given how inundated and unfazed they are by sexual imagery, perhaps the best hope is that one day, in the distant future, a naked picture of a girl might simply lose its power to humiliate.
Homecoming at Louisa County High
In late August, about two weeks after the new school year started, Rusty McGuire, the Louisa County prosecutor, gave an evening community presentation at the middle school about sexting. He cited statistics showing how popular it was and explained that under Virginia’s child-porn laws, it was a serious crime. However, he acknowledged that sternly explaining to kids that it’s illegal or has long-term consequences “isn’t working.” As an alternative, he suggested humor, and showed a campaign called “Give It a Ponder,” run by LG. The series involves the actor James Lipton pinning a beard on kids who are about to sext, so they pause for a sober second thought, and it is, indeed, pretty funny. But only about a dozen parents and kids were there to see it.

Instead, the entire community seemed to be outside on the vast fields near the high school and middle school, seduced by the Thursday-night pause before the first home football game of the season, which would take place the next night. The sun was dropping and taking the worst of the August heat. Little kids were kicking up dirt on the baseball field or practicing their cheerleading (“Time to get loud! Time to represent!”). Parents were leaning against their bumpers drinking water or soda, and teenagers were using their bodies in ways the parents could admire: slamming into tackling dummies at the final pregame practice, doing sumo squats, running around the track.

Briana was there; her volleyball team had just won its game in three sets. “New me, new life, gotta get my shit together,” she’d retweeted before the start of school. Her profile picture showed her in a bikini, but she was staying clear of trouble. So far she’d earned all A’s. Her mom was trusting her to get her learner’s permit and even asked her why she’d decided to go to homecoming with a friend instead of a boyfriend. (“That’s the last thing on my mind,” she’d replied.) Coming out of the gym after the game, she and her friends were as loud and boisterous as the football players who were psyching themselves up for the following night’s game. A mom came up and pinched her butt: “Good job, Bri!” Nearby, a boy and a girl from school were enacting an airport-worthy goodbye.

Briana and two teammates leaned into each other and took a picture. “Photobomb!” a boy yelled behind them, but they barely paid him any attention. It was just another picture, and this one was theirs.

Want to Ace That Test? Get the Right Kind of Sleep

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Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she <a href="http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/to-keep-teenagers-alert-schools-let-them-sleep-in/">successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school</a>.
Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school.Credit Dan Gill for The New York Times

Sleep. Parents crave it, but children and especially teenagers, need it. When educators and policymakers debate the relationship between sleep schedules and school performance and — given the constraints of buses, sports and everything else that seem so much more important — what they should do about it, they miss an intimate biological fact: Sleep is learning, of a very specific kind. Scientists now argue that a primary purpose of sleep is learning consolidation, separating the signal from the noise and flagging what is most valuable.

School schedules change slowly, if at all, and the burden of helping teenagers get the sleep they need is squarely on parents. Can we help our children learn to exploit sleep as a learning tool (while getting enough of it)?

Absolutely. There is research suggesting that different kinds of sleep can aid different kinds of learning, and by teaching “sleep study skills,” we can let our teenagers enjoy the sense that they’re gaming the system.

Start with the basics.

Sleep isn’t merely rest or downtime; the brain comes out to play when head meets pillow. A full night’s sleep includes a large dose of several distinct brain states, including REM sleep – when the brain flares with activity and dreams – and the netherworld of deep sleep, when it whispers to itself in a language that is barely audible. Each of these states developed to handle one kind of job, so getting sleep isn’t just something you “should do” or need. It’s far more: It’s your best friend when you want to get really good at something you’ve been working on.

So you want to remember your Spanish vocabulary (or “How I Met Your Mother” trivia or Red Sox batting averages)?

Easy. Hit the hay at your regular time; don’t stay up late checking Instagram. Studies have found that the first half of the night contains the richest dose of so-called deep sleep — the knocked-out-cold variety — and this is when the brain consolidates facts and figures and new words. This is retention territory, and without it (if we stay up too late), we’re foggier the next day on those basic facts. I explained this to my daughter, Flora, who was up until 2 a.m. or later on many school nights, starting in high school. She ignored it, or seemed to. Learning Arabic is what turned her around, I think. She wants to be good at it, and having to learn not only a new vocabulary but also a completely different writing system is, in the beginning, all retention.

“I started going to bed earlier before the day of Arabic tests, partly for that reason,” Flora said (when reached by text). “But also, of course, I didn’t want to be tired.”

And you want to rip on the guitar, or on the court, right?

Just as the first half of a night’s sleep is rich with deep slumber, the second half is brimming with so-called Stage 2 sleep, the kind that consolidates motor memory, the stuff that aspiring musicians and athletes need. This is not an excuse to sleep through Period 1. Rather, it’s a reason not to roll out of bed too early and miss the body’s chance to refine all those skills learned while kicking a soccer ball off the garage or practicing dance moves.

For an older, teenage student, these two learning stages of sleep offer something more: a means of being tactical about sleep, before an important test or performance. If it’s a French test, then turn off the lights at your normal time, and get up early to study. If it’s a music recital, do the opposite: stay up a little later preparing, and sleep in to your normal time in the morning. If you’re going to burn the candle, it’s good to know which end to burn it on.

What about math tests? I hate those.

Math tests strain both memory (retention) and understanding (comprehension). This is where REM sleep, the dreaming kind, comes in. Studies find that REM is exceptionally good for deciphering hidden patterns, comprehension, and seeing a solution to a hard problem. If the test is mostly a memory challenge (multiplication tables, formulas), then go to sleep at the usual time and get up early for prep. But if it’s hard problems, then it’s REM you want. Stay up a little later and get the full dose of dream-rich sleep, which helps the brain see hidden patterns.

“Mom, I’m tired of studying – I’m going to have a nap.”

By all means. Napping is sleep too, and it’s a miniature version of a full night’s slumber. An hourlong nap typically contains deep sleep, REM and some Stage 2. One caution: napping can interfere with some children’s sleep schedule, and it’s important to make sure day sleep doesn’t scramble the full serving at night. But the central point is that a sensation of exhaustion during a period of work is the brain’s way of saying, “O.K., I’ve studied (or practiced), now it’s time to digest this material and finish the job.”

If a child can nap without losing a handle on his or her natural sleep rhythm, then let it happen.

The upshot is that, for any young student who wants to do better — in school, in sports, in music or even in the social whirl (yes, that’s learning too) — knowing the science of sleep will help them respect slumber for what it is: learning consolidation. Of the best and most natural kind.

Read more about sleep on Motherlode: On Sleep Research, My Children Didn’t Get the Memo; We Tell Kids to ‘Go to Sleep!’ We Need to Teach Them Why.; and ‘What Do Students Need Most? More Sleep.

Why Teenagers Act Crazy

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CreditGary Panter

ADOLESCENCE is practically synonymous in our culture with risk taking, emotional drama and all forms of outlandish behavior. Until very recently, the widely accepted explanation for adolescent angst has been psychological. Developmentally, teenagers face a number of social and emotional challenges, like starting to separate from their parents, getting accepted into a peer group and figuring out who they really are. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to realize that these are anxiety-provoking transitions.

But there is a darker side to adolescence that, until now, was poorly understood: a surge during teenage years in anxiety and fearfulness. Largely because of a quirk of brain development, adolescents, on average, experience more anxiety and fear and have a harder time learning how not to be afraid than either children or adults.

Different regions and circuits of the brain mature at very different rates. It turns out that the brain circuit for processing fear — the amygdala — is precocious and develops way ahead of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reasoning and executive control. This means that adolescents have a brain that is wired with an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety, but is relatively underdeveloped when it comes to calm reasoning.

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CreditGary Panter

You may wonder why, if adolescents have such enhanced capacity for anxiety, they are such novelty seekers and risk takers. It would seem that the two traits are at odds. The answer, in part, is that the brain’s reward center, just like its fear circuit, matures earlier than the prefrontal cortex. That reward center drives much of teenagers’ risky behavior. This behavioral paradox also helps explain why adolescents are particularly prone to injury and trauma. The top three killers of teenagers are accidents, homicide and suicide.

The brain-development lag has huge implications for how we think about anxiety and how we treat it. It suggests that anxious adolescents may not be very responsive to psychotherapy that attempts to teach them to be unafraid, like cognitive behavior therapy, which is zealously prescribed for teenagers.

What we have learned should also make us think twice — and then some — about the ever rising use of stimulants in young people, because these drugs may worsen anxiety and make it harder for teenagers to do what they are developmentally supposed to do: learn to be unafraid when it is appropriate to do so.

As a psychiatrist, I’ve treated many adults with various anxiety disorders, nearly all of whom trace the origin of the problem to their teenage years. They typically report an uneventful childhood rudely interrupted by adolescent anxiety. For many, the anxiety was inexplicable and came out of nowhere.

OF course, most adolescents do not develop anxiety disorders, but acquire the skill to modulate their fear as their prefrontal cortex matures in young adulthood, at around age 25. But up to 20 percent of adolescents in the United States experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder, like generalized anxiety or panic attacks, probably resulting from a mix of genetic factors and environmental influences. The prevalence of anxiety disorders and risky behavior (both of which reflect this developmental disjunction in the brain) have been relatively steady, which suggests to me that the biological contribution is very significant.

One of my patients, a 32-year-old man, recalled feeling anxious in social gatherings as a teenager. “It was viscerally unpleasant and I felt as if I couldn’t even speak the same language as other people in the room,” he said. It wasn’t that he disliked human company; rather, socializing in groups felt dangerous, even though intellectually he knew that wasn’t the case. He developed a strategy early on to deal with his discomfort: alcohol. When he drank, he felt relaxed and able to engage. Now treated and sober for several years, he still has a trace of social anxiety and still wishes for a drink in anticipation of socializing.

Of course, we all experience anxiety. Among other things, it’s a normal emotional response to threatening situations. The hallmark of an anxiety disorder is the persistence of anxiety that causes intense distress and interferes with functioning even in safe settings, long after any threat has receded.

We’ve recently learned that adolescents show heightened fear responses and have difficulty learning how not to be afraid. In one study using brain M.R.I., researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College and Stanford University found that when adolescents were shown fearful faces, they had exaggerated responses in the amygdala compared with children and adults.

The amygdala is a region buried deep beneath the cortex that is critical in evaluating and responding to fear. It sends and receives connections to our prefrontal cortex alerting us to danger even before we have had time to really think about it. Think of that split-second adrenaline surge when you see what appears to be a snake out on a hike in the woods. That instantaneous fear is your amygdala in action. Then you circle back, take another look and this time your prefrontal cortex tells you it was just a harmless stick.

Thus, the fear circuit is a two-way street. While we have limited control over the fear alarm from our amygdala, our prefrontal cortex can effectively exert top-down control, giving us the ability to more accurately assess the risk in our environment. Because the prefrontal cortex is one of the last brain regions to mature, adolescents have far less ability to modulate emotions.

Fear learning lies at the heart of anxiety and anxiety disorders. This primitive form of learning allows us to form associations between events and specific cues and environments that may predict danger. Way back on the savanna, for example, we would have learned that the rustle in the grass or the sudden flight of birds might signal a predator — and taken the cue and run to safety. Without the ability to identify such danger signals, we would have been lunch long ago.

But once previously threatening cues or situations become safe, we have to be able to re-evaluate them and suppress our learned fear associations. People with anxiety disorders have trouble doing this and experience persistent fear in the absence of threat — better known as anxiety.

Another patient I saw in consultation recently, a 23-year-old woman, described how she became anxious when she was younger after seeing a commercial about asthma. “It made me incredibly worried for no reason, and I had a panic attack soon after seeing it,” she said. As an older teenager, she became worried about getting too close to homeless people and would hold her breath when near them, knowing that “this was crazy and made no sense.”

B. J. Casey, a professor of psychology and the director of the Sackler Institute at Weill Cornell Medical College, has studied fear learning in a group of children, adolescents and adults. Subjects were shown a colored square at the same time that they were exposed to an aversive noise. The colored square, previously a neutral stimulus, became associated with an unpleasant sound and elicited a fear response similar to that elicited by the sound. What Dr. Casey and her colleagues found was that there were no differences between the subjects in the acquisition of fear conditioning.

But when Dr. Casey trained the subjects to essentially unlearn the association between the colored square and the noise — a process called fear extinction — something very different happened. With fear extinction, subjects are repeatedly shown the colored square in the absence of the noise. Now the square, also known as the conditioned stimulus, loses its ability to elicit a fear response. Dr. Casey discovered that adolescents had a much harder time “unlearning” the link between the colored square and the noise than children or adults did.

IN effect, adolescents had trouble learning that a cue that was previously linked to something aversive was now neutral and “safe.” If you consider that adolescence is a time of exploration when young people develop greater autonomy, an enhanced capacity for fear and a more tenacious memory for threatening situations are adaptive and would confer survival advantage. In fact, the developmental gap between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex that is described in humans has been found across mammalian species, suggesting that this is an evolutionary advantage. This new understanding about the neurodevelopmental basis of adolescent anxiety has important implications, too, in how we should treat anxiety disorders. One of the most widely used and empirically supported treatments for anxiety disorders is cognitive behavior therapy, a form of extinction learning in which a stimulus that is experienced as frightening is repeatedly presented in a nonthreatening environment. If, for example, you had a fear of spiders, you would be gradually exposed to them in a setting where there were no dire consequences and you would slowly lose your arachnophobia. The paradox is that adolescents are at increased risk of anxiety disorders in part because of their impaired ability to successfully extinguish fear associations, yet they may be the least responsive to desensitization treatments like cognitive behavior therapy precisely because of this impairment.

This presents a huge clinical challenge since young people are generally risk takers who are more prone to exposure to trauma as a direct result of their behavior, to say nothing of those who were exposed to the horrors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the mass shootings like those in Newtown and Aurora. Many of them will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which is essentially a form of fear learning. Now we have good reason to think that exposure therapy alone may not be the best treatment for them. A recent study of children and adolescents with anxiety disorders found that only 55 to 60 percent of subjects responded to either cognitive behavior therapy or an antidepressant alone, but 81 percent responded to a combination of these treatments. And in another study, there was preliminary evidence that adolescents responded less well to cognitive behavior therapy than children or adults.

This isn’t to say that cognitive therapy is ineffective for teenagers, but that because of their relative difficulty in learning to be unafraid, it may not be the most effective treatment when used on its own.

And there is potentially something else to worry about with our anxious adolescents: the meteoric rise in their use of psychostimulants like Ritalinand Adderall. In theory, stimulants could have a negative impact on the normal developmental trajectory of anxious teenagers.

According to the health care data company IMS Health, prescription sales for stimulants increased more than fivefold between 2002 and 2012. This is of potential concern because it is well known from both human and animal studies that stimulants enhance learning and, in particular, fear conditioning. Stimulants, just like emotionally charged experiences, cause the release ofnorepinephrine — a close relative of adrenaline — in the brain and facilitate memory formation. That’s the reason we can easily forget where we put our keys but will never forget the details of being assaulted.

Might our promiscuous use of stimulants impair the ability of adolescents to suppress learned fear — something that is a normal part of development — and make them more fearful adults? And could stimulants unwittingly increase the risk of PTSD in adolescents exposed to trauma? In truth, we haven’t a clue.

But we do know this: Adolescents are not just carefree novelty seekers and risk takers; they are uniquely vulnerable to anxiety and have a hard time learning to be unafraid of passing dangers. Parents have to realize that adolescent anxiety is to be expected, and to comfort their teenagers — and themselves — by reminding them that they will grow up and out of it soon enough.

A Gossip App Brought My High School to a Halt

Here’s an article from New York Magazine about social networking gone awry at Staples HS in Westport.  Warning, the article contains some graphic language.

M., a high school junior, was rushing to class last Thursday morning when a friend stopped to ask if she was okay. Taken by surprise, she laughed and answered that she was fine. Continuing down the hall, she was met by strange glances and similar inquiries. She was at a loss. What had she done to become a celebrity overnight? It wasn’t until she sat down for her first period class that someone finally told her about Yik Yak.

Yik Yak is an application that allows individuals to post comments anonymously, essentially operating as a Twitter without handles. Sitting at her desk, M. grabbed a friend’s phone and began scrolling through a feed of posts.

“L. M. is affiliated with Al Qaeda.”

“The cheer team couldn’t get uglier.”

“K. is a slut.”

“J. N. is a fag.”

“The fact that O. P. has diabetes makes me happy.”

“S. D. + 10 years = trailer park.”

“Nobody is taking H. to prom because nobody has a forklift.”

“J. T.’s gonna get lynched at SMU.”

“How long do we think before A. B. kills herself?”

“N. likes the taste of thick pussy and wheelchair pussy.”

“99% of guys have tits bigger than J.”

“I probably heard about 10–15 nasty things written about me, some of which I couldn’t even finish reading,” M. says. “M. will let anybody anally finger her.” “M. gave dome for $6.” She had come under more intense attack than most students, but her experience on Thursday was similar to those of dozens of students at Staples High School.

I’m a student at Staples, too. It’s a good, medium-sized public school in Westport, Connecticut. We don’t walk through metal detectors on our way to class, and the main job of our school “security force” is to hand out tickets when students’ Jeeps and Audis park in staff parking spaces. John Dodig, our genial and openly gay principal, greeted my freshman class in 2010 by welcoming us to a school that was “different,” a school that rose above petty high school malice. And as a senior, I’ve found Staples to be a happy, functional, though complexly hierarchical place. The three most popular senior girl groups are the Bots, the Bedfords, and Acrimonious. There are Albone and the Rowdies, both popular senior boy groups. There are the Amigos (popular junior girls), the Cool Asians (none of whom are actually Asian), the Fairies (the soccer team, not the theater kids), the Players (the theater kids, not the soccer team), and many others.

Yik Yak arrived at Staples from Fairfield, the neighboring town, by way of the Dominican Republic, where students from Staples joined students from Fairfield Warde High School on a service trip earlier this month. Fairfield had already been rocked by the app. Students described a scene of pandemonium that eventually resulted in legal action against some who were charged with cyber-bullying. After the service trip was over and the volunteers returned to Staples, word of Yik Yak spread fast.

When you watch stupid movies about teenagers in high school, you roll your eyes at the classic fallout scene in which the hallways are filled with whispering students all gossiping about the same thing. This was exactly what Thursday afternoon looked like at Staples. “Walking through the hallways, everyone was staring at their phones,” says one target. In the course of a few periods, the most private, deplorable thoughts of the Staples student body had been put into writing. And the worst part was that no one knew who was writing this stuff — maybe the asshole you’d expect it from, or maybe the quiet girl in the back of Spanish class.

In the period after lunch, everyone was waiting for the next post. Feeds were refreshed; new batches of unsigned obscenities entertained the student body. “I remember sitting there in class refreshing the page, waiting for someone to say something horrible and awful about me,” said one junior girl. Ms. S. was fully aware of the cause for her European History class’s distraction, as apparently many teachers had downloaded and perused the app during their lunch period. With each post, another girl left class to cry in the bathroom, vent to her guidance counselor, or drive home. “I was shocked, mortified, and embarrassed,” M. says. “I then called my mom and told her I was leaving school.”

During the last period of the day, a demoralized voice came over the loudspeaker: Principal Dodig had decided to address the school. Staples has dealt with social media explosions in the past, most notably the spread of Snapchat sexting and a Facebook cyber-bullying incident whose sexual depravity made high school boys blush. But I’ve never seen Principal Dodig as upset before. Between his sentences were heavy sighs and moments of reflection.

“To all the students in the school, I urge you at least not to look at the site,” he said. “I’ve heard several people today have read some things about them and they’re in tears. Don’t look at it. And if you don’t see it, it won’t bother you.”

His announcement gave Yik Yak new momentum.

“Mr. Dodig molested me with a weed wacker.”

“John Dodig touched my no-no parts.”

*

Yik Yak has been available for download since last November, and anonymity has existed since the dawn of the internet. So why did the app literally bring Staples to a halt last week? Maybe it was a form of emotional release for students who were beginning to relax after months of academic stress. Perhaps it was a way for students to get their bitterness out about their classmates, teachers, and administrators. Or perhaps it was simply the newest, must-have social media thing.

One student told Inklings, the school newspaper, that “kids are just mean these days, and they needed a new way to insult each other.” Maybe. I remember when Formspring and Honesty Box infiltrated my middle school hallways. But Yik Yak felt different. It wasn’t just a new tool for the school’s bullies; it was also an equalizer. No one was safe, regardless of his or her place on the social pyramid. Bots and Amigos were targeted just as much, if not more, than the gays, the fat kids, the nerds, the friendless. “K. sounds like she has a cock in her mouth 24/7,” went a typical attack on an Amigo. Staples Guidance counselor Victoria Capozzi says that one student, prior to finding himself the target of a homophobic post, was completely unaware that his peers even questioned his sexuality. Suddenly, the social 1 percent was subject to the same sort of cyber torment that had in the past been directed at the students at the bottom of the pyramid. Yik Yak gave everyone a chance to take down enemies, reveal secrets, or make shit up in order to obliterate reputations. You didn’t need internet popularity in order for your post to be seen; you just needed to be within a 1.5-mile radius of your target and your audience.

Over the weekend, targets turned to their friend groups for comfort. Group chats were flooded. A sample from one of the popular groups:

“Why am I getting ripped apart?”

“I feel like I’m in Mean Girls.”

“I was really rattled and red in school, I left for last period.”

“I cried.”

“H. will be forever known as the fat girl.”

M. still wasn’t in school on Friday. A senior girl who had also been attacked on Yik Yak told me over the weekend that she dreaded going back. “How do you look a classmate or teacher in the eye knowing that they might have read something about you? Or worse, they might have written something about you?”

Some students want to see the IP addresses of the authors identified. I would too, though I have the depressing suspicion that the students who wrote the worst posts don’t care about the lasting impact that they have had on peoples lives. In conversations with our teachers, guidance counselors, and parents, we constantly hear, “We didn’t have this when we were growing up.” Well, neither did we. Yik Yak and its capacity for anonymous, targeted destruction is new to all of us. By the end of the week Yik Yak had been blocked on Staples property, but it also had raised $1.5 million in funding. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a competitor to Yik Yak on everyone’s phones next week. Are we just supposed to ignore it? I see no solution in sight, and personally, I am thrilled to be graduating in a few weeks.

*Names have been anonymized, and one or two details have been altered slightly, to not make it even worse.