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”).

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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.

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Girl’s Suicide Points to Rise in Apps Used by Cyberbullies

The New York Times

A disturbing article about a middle school aged girl in Florida.  A good reminder to have conversations with your daughters about their use of social media, especially ask.fm, Instagram and Snapchat.  All are invited to attend Middle School Technology Night on Monday, September 16 at 7 pm for more information on the topic.

Brian Blanco for The New York Times

A memorial for 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick has sprouted at the abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Fla., where she committed suicide.

By 
Published: September 13, 2013 723 Comments

MIAMI — The clues were buried in her bedroom. Before leaving for school on Monday morning, Rebecca Ann Sedwick had hidden her schoolbooks under a pile of clothes and left her cellphone behind, a rare lapse for a 12-year-old girl.

Rebecca Sedwick

Lance Speere for The New York Times

Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, said she had no idea that her daughter, who died this week, was being cyberbullied by about 15 middle-school children, a problem that first arose and was addressed last year.

Inside her phone’s virtual world, she had changed her user name on Kik Messenger, a cellphone application, to “That Dead Girl” and delivered a message to two friends, saying goodbye forever. Then she climbed a platform at an abandoned cement plant near her home in the Central Florida city of Lakeland and leaped to the ground, the Polk County sheriff said.

In jumping, Rebecca became one of the youngest members of a growing list of children and teenagers apparently driven to suicide, at least in part, after being maligned, threatened and taunted online, mostly through a new collection of texting and photo-sharing cellphone applications. Her suicide raises new questions about the proliferation and popularity of these applications and Web sites among children and the ability of parents to keep up with their children’s online relationships.

For more than a year, Rebecca, pretty and smart, was cyberbullied by a coterie of 15 middle-school children who urged her to kill herself, her mother said. The Polk County sheriff’s office is investigating the role of cyberbullying in the suicide and considering filing charges against the middle-school students who apparently barraged Rebecca with hostile text messages. Florida passed a law this year making it easier to bring felony charges in online bullying cases.

Rebecca was “absolutely terrorized on social media,” Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County said at a news conference this week.

Along with her grief, Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, faces the frustration of wondering what else she could have done. She complained to school officials for several months about the bullying, and when little changed, she pulled Rebecca out of school. She closed down her daughter’s Facebook page and took her cellphone away. She changed her number. Rebecca was so distraught in December that she began to cut herself, so her mother had her hospitalized and got her counseling. As best she could, Ms. Norman said, she kept tabs on Rebecca’s social media footprint.

It all seemed to be working, she said. Rebecca appeared content at her new school as a seventh grader. She was gearing up to audition for chorus and was considering slipping into her cheerleading uniform once again. But unknown to her mother, Rebecca had recently signed on to new applications — ask.fm, and Kik and Voxer — which kick-started the messaging and bullying once again.

“I had never even heard of them; I did go through her phone but didn’t even know,” said Ms. Norman, 42, who works in customer service. “I had no reason to even think that anything was going on. She was laughing and joking.”

Sheriff Judd said Rebecca had been using these messaging applications to send and receive texts and photographs. His office showed Ms. Norman the messages and photos, including one of Rebecca with razor blades on her arms and cuts on her body. The texts were full of hate, her mother said: “Why are you still alive?” “You’re ugly.”

One said, “Can u die please?” To which Rebecca responded, with a flash of resilience, “Nope but I can live.” Her family said the bullying began with a dispute over a boy Rebecca dated for a while. But Rebecca had stopped seeing him, they said.

Rebecca was not nearly as resilient as she was letting on. Not long before her death, she had clicked on questions online that explored suicide. “How many Advil do you have to take to die?”

In hindsight, Ms. Norman wonders whether Rebecca kept her distress from her family because she feared her mother might take away her cellphone again.

“Maybe she thought she could handle it on her own,” Ms. Norman said.

It is impossible to be certain what role the online abuse may have played in her death. But cyberbullying experts said cellphone messaging applications are proliferating so quickly that it is increasingly difficult for parents to keep pace with their children’s complex digital lives.

“It’s a whole new culture, and the thing is that as adults, we don’t know anything about it because it’s changing every single day,” said Denise Marzullo, the chief executive of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville, who works with the schools there on bullying issues.

No sooner has a parent deciphered Facebook or Twitter or Instagram than his or her children have migrated to the latest frontier. “It’s all of these small ones where all this is happening,” Ms. Marzullo said.

In Britain, a number of suicides by young people have been linked to ask.fm, and online petitions have been started there and here to make the site more responsive to bullying. The company ultimately responded this year by introducing an easy-to-see button to report bullying and saying it would hire more moderators.

“You hear about this all the time,” Ms. Norman said of cyberbullying. “I never, ever thought it would happen to me or my daughter.”

Questions have also been raised about whether Rebecca’s old school, Crystal Lake Middle School, did enough last year to help stop the bullying; some of it, including pushing and hitting, took place on school grounds. The same students also appear to be involved in sending out the hate-filled online messages away from school, something schools can also address.

Nancy Woolcock, the assistant superintendent in charge of antibullying programs for Polk County Schools, said the school received one bullying complaint from Rebecca and her mother in December about traditional bullying, not cyberbullying. After law enforcement investigated, Rebecca’s class schedule was changed. Ms. Woolcock said the school also has an extensive antibullying campaign and takes reports seriously.

But Ms. Norman said the school should have done more. Officials told her that Rebecca would receive an escort as she switched classes, but that did not happen, she said.

Rebecca never boarded her school bus on Monday morning. She made her way to the abandoned Cemex plant about 10 minutes away from her modest mobile home; the plant was a place she had used as a getaway a few times when she wanted to vanish. Somehow, she got past the high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, which is now a memorial, with teddy bears, candles and balloons. She climbed a tower and then jumped.

“Don’t ignore your kids,” Ms. Norman said, “even if they seem fine.”

Lance Speere contributed reporting from Lakeland, Fla., and Alan Blinder from Atlanta.

Beauty Is Only Skin Deep, But Instagram Is To the Bone

From The Huffington Post: 04/04/2013 1:31 pm

If you are a parent of a tween, stop right now and take this pop quiz.

Don’t worry.

There’s only one question.

Are you ready for it?

Here goes:

Is your kid on Instagram?

a) No freaking way #inserteyeroll

b) Totes! #likeduh

If you answered (a), um… you’re wrong. And I’m sorry to hear about that rock you just crawled out from under.

If you answered (b), congrats! You just earned 10 Insta points! And I so just made that up! Go ahead and pat yourself on the back, but your job is far from over. Because letting your child have an Insta (you knew they called it that, right?) without teaching them how to use it properly is like buying your kid a car without teaching them how to drive.

Or some other metaphor that’s a little less lame. Still. The point I’m trying to make here is an important one so just bear with me, k?

So… Are you on Instagram? Do you follow your child to see what he or she is doing? Is their account set to “private” with geotagging turned off? Have you instructed your children not to accept follower invites from anyone they don’t know? And to never, ever, ever give out any personal information like address, location or phone number? Like, ever?

Well done. You just earned three more Insta points.

But those were only the starter questions. Now take this next set out for a spin:

What?

Are you pissed because I said at the beginning that there would only be one question?

Well, guess what?

I lied.

You have a tween now. Get used to it.

So, have you told them yet how they should never post a picture that will hurt, embarrass or make someone feel left out? Explained to them — really sat down and explained — that any picture they post on Instagram is out there forever? And how that cute bikini pic they posted on vacay is just one screenshot away from landing in front of the wrong, creepy set of eyes?

Sad and hard to talk about, but true nonetheless.

So, did you tell them?

Did you?

If you’re anything like me, your answer falls somewhere between um, I think I did and well… kind of, sort of.

And that’s not enough.

Did you know that there are beauty pageants on Instagram?

No?

Well then you may want to sit down.

Because you know who the participants in these pageants are?

Our children.

Wait. What?

See, right now, as I sit here typing this, there is a tween girl with an iPhone somewhere making a grid out of four pictures of her besties using Instacollage or Mixel or whatever cool new app is making the rounds this week (omg Juxtaposer is sooooo amaze!)

When she’s finished, she will post that grid on Instagram, and then write something along the lines of: BEAUTY CONTEST! VOTE SOMEONE OUT!

Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? I know I did when this whole thing blew up here on the Main Line over the weekend.

And I’ll get to that in a minute.

But wait. That’s not even the worst part. Because what happens next is this: People will actually vote for who they think is the least attractive in the comments, and whichever girl’s name is written the most will be awarded a big fat X drawn across her face.

Do you want me to repeat that last part?

Of course you don’t, but I’m going to anyway.

Whichever girl’s name is written the most will be awarded with a big fat X drawn across her face.

Then the question will be repeated two more times, until there is only one gorgeous X-free girl left standing, the fairest of them all!

And you thought you had it tough in middle school because no one had invented Japanese hair straightening yet.

But don’t hate the players. They’re just kids.

And don’t hate the game. Instagram was designed to be an online photo-sharing app that let users pimp-out their pics with cool filters and then share them.

So, who do we hate?

We hate the coaches.

Because we are the coaches.

And we are failing our children by not giving them the tools they need to properly navigate this scary new world, and by not monitoring their interactions in this world closely enough once we do.

I had heard about the beauty pageants from a friend in New York a few months ago. But I didn’t realize it was going on in my own town until late Saturday night, when, after five days of being on vacay in Mexico, I finally got in bed with my iPhone and signed onto my daughter’s account to see what was going on.

Because part of the deal I have with my daughter is that until she turns 13, I can access her account any time. And if there are any followers, posts, comments or people she is following that I think are inappropriate, she will delete them, no questions asked. True story, except for the “no questions asked” part. Because she usually does have questions and/or arguments, but I am her mom and I said so.

So I started scrolling down her news feed.

And that’s when I saw them.

The beauty contest grids.

About a half dozen of them.

And there, smiling out from one of the squares, was my kid.

Holy freaking @!*&!

But when I asked her about it the next day, she said she knew someone had put her picture in a contest, but that she didn’t really care.

Impressive, I guess.

Then again, she hadn’t been voted out yet.

There were other girls who weren’t so lucky. And they were devastated, which is a ridiculous understatement, to say the least.

My first instinct was to block all the girls who had posted the grids from my daughter’s account.

But here’s the thing.

These girls were friends of my daughter’s who had been in my car, at my parties, in my house. They liked to dance, and sing camp songs and bake brownies. They weren’t Heathers. Or Reginas. Or even Monas. And if you don’t know who Mona is, you need to go watch an ep of PLL like, now.

These were good, sweet, funny girls who I knew and who I liked.

Yes, what they were doing was wrong.

But how could I blame them when they were playing a game they had never been given the rules to? My own daughter waved the grids off as all in good fun until I actually explained to her what made them so offensive and vile. In the wake of events like what took place in Steubenville, it’s becoming more important than ever for us to empower our kids with the tools they need to decipher right from wrong — both online and IRL.

And so instead of banishing the girls, I did this:

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At first, nothing much happened.

But then I noticed that the beauty grids were slowly starting to disappear from my daughter’s news feed. And in their place were things like this:

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And this:

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And this:

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Slowly but surely, this little posse of fourth and fifth grade girls — who had just spent hours feeling bad about themselves — picked themselves up and took to Instagram to post inspirational messages of their own.

Did you just get chills?

I know I did. Because if this is not just the most amazing show of tween girl power, then I don’t know what is.

Clearly, when it comes to social media, a little guidance goes a long way.

Which is why it’s time for us to take our collective blinders off and really pay attention. Because the minute we give our kids an iPhone or iPod or any other gadget that puts technology quite literally in the palms of their hands, we become responsible for whatever happens next.

So, when my kids get home tonight — they are 7 and 10 and yes, they are both on Instagram — I’m going to take a few moments before all the after-school craziness begins to really sit down and talk to them about what it means to use social media correctly and responsibly.

This is something we should ALL be doing. We potty train our kids, teach them good table manners and spend 10 minutes deciphering the food label on a candy bar. And yet, we set our kids up on social media, and then for all intents and purposes, we hang them out to dry.

Checking our kids’ news feeds to see what they are viewing, scrolling through their profiles to see what they’re posting, investigating the people who want to follow them, finding out who they’ve given their password to and monitoring all of their accounts (because most kids have more than one Instagram account, in case you didn’t know) doesn’t make us helicopter parents.

It makes us smart parents.

And there is nothing more beautiful than being smart.

Instagram Unmasked: A Teen Explains Why It’s All the Rage

Instagram Unmasked: A Teen Explains Why It’s All the Rage

From rachelsimmons.com FEBRUARY 11TH, 2013 

instagram

by Valerie Aber

I made my Instagram account when I was in 10th grade, bored one day over spring break. At first I didn’t see the purpose – who needed to spend time taking and scrolling through cell phone-quality pictures of food and flowers? But then I realized the app could be used as a photo-diary of sorts.

My Instagram profile is set to private. There are random “selfie” shots of my face and lots (LOTS) of pictures of food. There are pretty pictures of clouds and tempting pictures of Starbucks cups. And there are pictures of homework assignments scattered about – pictures of large textbooks cracked open in front of my laptop screen and pictures of papers covering the floor. (What color was my carpet again?)

You can actually learn a lot about someone just by looking at their Instagram profile. It’s more than just random pictures of things – depending on how personal they get with it, it can show their interests, ambitions, hopes and dreams. It can show the little things that make them happy, whether that means they won a special award or even that their parents ordered in Chinese for the night.

But many teens don’t always account for the power that these images can hold. I’ve also seen Instagram used for cyberbullying. With today’s smartphones, it’s easy to screenshot text messages and share them to the world.

One of my good friends was targeted in a comment on someone else’s screenshot texts – another girl had claimed she was persistent and annoying because she had sent her two or three messages asking “Hey, what’s up?” after not having heard from her in weeks. Whether such acts were “persistent and annoying” is beside the point – the commenter was being entirely rude and immature for saying such things about my friend to so many people, and the original poster was wrong for publicly sharing whoever’s text messages were being shared. The entire thing was wrong on so many levels.

Of course, all of these things could be just as easily done through other social networking services, like Facebook. But most teens realize that their parents, family members, and even potential employers and colleges can view their Facebook profiles. On the other hand, not many of those groups would probably think to check an Instagram right away. So, this leads to many of us feeling like Instagram is our own private little world, one where we get to speak our minds with little consequence. Which, as always, is false.

Instagram shouldn’t be blocked, but it should definitely be monitored, at least to some extent. Because if a parent really knows their child… well, they never really do as well as they’d like to believe they do. Some of us keep secrets. Except that they’re never really secrets, unless the people who are exposed to them are too ignorant to listen. And ignorance never mixes well with good parenting.

Parents should at least be mindful of those accounts that their child is “following,” and be willing to discuss with their kids anything they might see on there. It’s not that the parents should be constantly watching with hawk eyes – please, don’t ever do this – but they should remember to be open. If you’re a parent, remind your children: “Though you’d be in huge trouble if you ever posted anything bad, I’ll never punish you for accidentally coming across an inappropriate picture on your feed. If you find anything that makes you uncomfortable, I’m willing to talk with you about it, and I promise that I won’t negatively judge you if you do so.”

Make sure your kids know that no matter what button they might press, there is no such thing as true privacy when it comes to technology. Looking at this in a more positive light, you should actually encourage your kids to post personal achievements or things that make them happy.

As long as their settings only allow for people who they know to view their photos, this can provide for not only a safe experience, but also one that helps them to grow in a good way, one that allows them to be viewed to the outside world as someone lovely and bright.

Including, perhaps, college admissions officers. I just hope they like Frappuccinos.

Oh, and to sum everything up with a quote from Roald Dahl:

“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”

Valerie Aber is a high school junior who lives in Florida. She is active in the National Honor Society and her school’s debate team.

What Girls Really Do on Instagram

By Margaret Rock, from: Mashable

Some things don’t change as girls hit their teen years, no matter what technology is in vogue. Friends become the end-all, be-all of social life, parents are embarrassing and don’t know anything, and getting cut down by your peers is devastating.

Add phones to the mix, and they can stunt a valuable part of child’s growth: learning to relate to others, as well as understanding themselves.

Tweens’ social media use and texting may look like positive social skills, but excessive use of these activities actually hinders emotional intelligence, or EI, which researchers agree is a better predictor of successful marriages, stronger friendships and even financial success.

As Daniel Goleman points out in his pivotal book, “Emotional Intelligence,” 80% of a person’s success depends on EI — skills like identifying, understanding and managing emotions in a way to relieve stress, communicate effectively and empathize with others. These are skills parents can teach and refine.

According to Cliff Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford, girls develop EI between eight and 12 years of age, while for boys, the development occurs over a longer period. But constant device use often disrupts EI development in girls, since they’re more active media consumers at ever younger ages.

I thought about that while on a weekend soccer tournament with my own children. Streams of young girls in between games struck the all-too familiar position: heads down, concentration fixed on the smartphone, and fingers tapping away. What exactly are they doing, and how does it affect them?

So I sat down with a handful of these girls to hear, from the mouths of babes, how they use technology. After all, you hear a lot about what experts, advocates and researchers think about tweens and technology — so maybe it’s time to ask the girls themselves.

“Facebook gets boring.” – Lauren, 12

The main attraction of phones is browsing and social networking, according to the middle-school aged girls, who had either feature phones or a tablet device with Internet access.

Two of the girls did have a Facebook account, but as Lauren said, “Facebook gets boring,” and they all agreed: their favorite place was Instagram. They’ve used the photo sharing app for about a year and said it is the best place to connect with all their friends. Since they join with nicknames, they thought photo-sharing social network was more secure. None of the girls knew Facebook bought Instagram last year.

Instagram is at the forefront of a dizzying array of services designed to appeal todifferent ages and interests. They pop up and challenge Facebook, many with visual media sharing, which take away from verbal communication — a skill girls are traditionally good at.

“I can also be creative with cool pictures.” – Kayla, 12

Unlike Facebook, Instagram isn’t driven by verbal postings such as “Today is going to be a good day!” but rather with pictures. When I asked for an example of a photo they shared, Kayla showed me a picture she took on a bright, sunny day. In it, her teammates stood in a circle with one leg pointed in toward the center. She took the picture from above, making the legs look like a spokes of a wheel, or in this case, rays of the sun — each one wearing different brightly colored socks and cleats.

Kayla put thought into composing the picture — the sports she loves, her friends and an interesting visual angle. For her, putting it on Instagram was self-expression, both of her identity and her interests.

Posting photos on Instagram gives tweens like Kayla a way to express feelings that words can’t. Girls use pictures to represent themselves to their friends, as they enter an increasingly sophisticated social realm. But it also skips over the opportunity for face-to-face conversation to develop important interpersonal skills.

“Oh, there are lots of places to get pictures.” – Riley, 11

Beyond their own pictures, tweens share images from other sites too. Marissa, an 11-year-old, for example, scours Google for images of dogs and puppies to add to her Instagram page.

Others mentioned memes, the term to describe viral pictures like cats wearing sunglasses in front of a laptop. Good memes spread like wildfire, tickling people’s interest at a rapid pace, aided by the power of mobile technology.

The girls share memes with one another, or search the Internet for them with phrases like, “LOL so true,” “teenager post,” “that awkward moment” or “you just realized.” One girl said she uses iFunny, a free app, to find pictures to share. Searching the sites is nearly as fun as browsing Instagram.

The girls laugh as they mention these search terms, congratulating each other on their recommendations while adding their own. They talk in much the same way as they interact online, where they look at each other’s pages and “like” or comment on them — and they feel gratified to get lots of positive comments.

“I got a ton of likes on that one.” – Sam, 13

Sam mentioned a meme that pokes fun of parents offering contradictory advice. “I got a ton of likes on that one,” she added. The girls say it is fun when friends praise their posted images — whether a clever meme or a picture of Christmas gifts.

And even the comments on Instagram have images, thanks to the hundreds of emoji, which means pictograph, for the girls to use. Emoji, a Japanese term for picture characters, are the popular smiley faces that adorn digital communication, and a growing number of them come pre-installed on handsets.

“You can say so many different things with them,” Riley said, explaining an inside joke where she’ll insert a winking face. She’ll insert the clapping hands emoji to congratulate. A lot of sharing and affirmation goes on in these Instagram circle, but there can be a lot of drama, too.

The girls said Instagram was important to their social life: They have a sleepover and document the fun while it’s happening. And, when they feel bored, they can browse their friends’ pages and see what they’re doing.

The drama with Instagram usually arises when posted pictures exclude someone or an image expresses a controversial opinion. Arguments from school can spill over to the site too, which can host seemingly benign, but loaded, comments.

Larry Rosen, author of “IDisorder,” which explores our obsession with technology and the drawbacks it hold on us, said teens on Facebook can have narcissistic tendencies, become more prone to depression and anxiety, and suffer in learning compared to those who don’t regularly use social media.

But the girls disagree. They said they didn’t use Instagram to flirt, since boys their age rarely use the site. That gels with research that suggests girls mature faster — and develop EI — earlier than boys.

For example, at the age of 10, girls and boys tend to show aggression equally, but by the age of 13, a meaningful difference begins to show between the sexes. The emotional response of boys, for example, changes little. Girls, meanwhile, develop skills like collective banning, gossiping and indirect communication to replace outright aggression.

“I post something on Instagram every day.” – Josie, 11

Half the girls said they post to Instagram daily, while others said not every day — but almost. Some think relying on “likes” and comments makes girls vulnerable to judgment and criticism, but they said that isn’t the case with them. One girl said, “I don’t care if anyone doesn’t like my picture, I put them there because I do.”

Still, the girls had strong consensus that it’s fun to have a popular picture — it feels good when they go and check their page and see lots of likes and comments — but it feels bad when friends overlook their efforts.

Whether you like it or not — or even if you wish it were otherwise — mobile technology plays a big role in how kids build and strengthen friendships during the sometimes awkward pre-teen years. A little of that isn’t harmful, but experts say learning social skills can’t be done solely online — and developing EI takes hard work and practice.

Tweens who devote most their time staring at a two-dimensional screen fail to understand body language, tone of voice and facial cues, which happens in face-to-face encounters. And down the road, that lack of EI may cost them in misunderstood relationships and poor work performance, to name a few.

Nass pointed out that in-person and online communication are not interchangeable, and kids must actively look and listen to the people they are with, instead of their smartphones.

“Face-to-face communication was positively associated with feelings of social success,” he said, adding that it was “consistently associated with a range of positive socio-emotional outcomes.”

So if you think your tween is learning good social skills on an app, you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security. Re-evaluate that perspective and talk to your kid about Instagram, Facebook and the apps they use.

And, when you do, Nass says, don’t be afraid to say, “Look me in the eye when I speak to you,” since that’s one little way to get them to practice their emotional intelligence.

Snapchat: Good for Teenagers?

By Adam McLane

Snapchat: Good for teenagers?

A lot of youth workers have been asking me about Snapchat, a mobile picture sharing service that is popular amongst some segments of teenagers.

I know there are some innocent uses out there. I’ve even heard from youth ministry folks who use it to connect with their students and crowd-source ideas. But I also know of some horror stories. Stories of regret and exposure to things their eyes didn’t want to see.

 

Rather than respond to specific things I like or dislike about the service I think it’s better to respond with a few principles I’ve taught teenagers, parents, and youth workers for years.

  1. Everyone isn’t who you think they are online. Just ask Manti Te’o. Unless you are 100% confident that you know every single one of your Snapchat friends and they know every one of their Snapchat friends, you don’t really know who is seeing the pictures you are sending nor can you predict what you are likely to be sent.
  2. Anonymity, or perceived anonymity, never benefits teenagers. There have been hundreds of studies done about how far humans will go to punish, humiliate, and harm fellow human beings when they perceive they are inflicting harm anonymously. The most famous of which is the Milgram experiment. I’ve seen it time and again: Anonymity among teenagers leads to cyberbullying, pure and simple. When I first looked into Snapchat I thought it was another experiment, like Chatroulette was. And in fact, I’m still not sure if it’s real or if it’s another Stanford experiment… It’s just too obviously set up to gain the trust of teenagers while attracting men looking for porn to be real. It’s not hard for a grown man to pose as a 15 year old female on Snapchat. And if it isn’t hard, you know that’s what’s going on.
  3. There is no such thing as anonymity anywhere online. When I listen to teenagers talk about this service they seem to like the innocence and cuteness of it. It all just kind of goes away. Awesome. Unfortunately, everywhere your device goes online has the ability to be tracked back to you. (Relatively easily) A service can say something is anonymous and they can have intentions of keeping that private. But if a law is broken, say you see a nude picture of an underage friend, all of your usage data is able to be seen by the courts for your prosecution. Ask Kwame Kilpatrick about that. While Snapchat tries to convince users otherwise the proof is right in their privacy policy… they store everything for their own purposes and will give it out however they need to. The privacy policy details how they store your UDID, (device ID) email, phone number, MAC address, (network identifier) and all your usage data… which images you looked at, how long you saw them, if you touched the screen while you looked at it, etc.
  4. Nothing you post online goes away. Ever. Forget the marketing copy, it’s a lie. That’s just not how the internet works. A service can say it isn’t storing images but it is stored, indexed, and potentially sold. Again, the Snapchat privacy policy makes it abundantly clear that they are storing everything and will use it however it best benefits their investors within the law. Think of it like this… if I could convince you to post lots of photos of yourself which I could then use for any purpose I wanted whenever I wanted… why would I ever delete that? I wouldn’t. I’d store it and potentially use it later. And when you’re 25 and you apply for a job that does a background check, guess who is going to be seeing your embarrassing 10 year old photos? Yup, thems the breaks kid. COPPA only protects you until you’re 13. After that you can identify your flirty Snapchat self with the non-flirty MBA self trying to get a government job. Additionally, they are legally obligated to store every-single-image because if a law is broken and they’ve deleted evidence they may be criminally responsible. So they can say they are deleting stuff all they want, but they are storing it all.
  5. Things aren’t always as innocent as they appear online. Snapchat is a service targeted at 13-17 year old females. All of their promotional materials are out of casting central for a Disney Channel-esque television show. Who do you think are the vast majority of users? I’m going to guess men. Snapchat is like bait for a To Catch a Predator episode. When it was first described to me I wondered if Chris Hanson occasionally popped up and said, “Hello there Joe. I’m Chris Hanson from Dateline NBC. Can I ask you what you’re doing here?

I’ve been soft on responding about Snapchat because there hasn’t been a lot of data to back up my assumptions about the site. But I do want to point out that based on all the experience I have in working with digitally connected teenagers, all of the principles that I teach should navigate any and all students away from using this app.

Are there innocent uses? Certainly. Am I being alarmist? That’s not my style. I just don’t see the positive outweighing the negative.

All Snapchat appears to be is a teenage version of Chatroullette. It might be used innocently. But it’ll also lull you into to taking bigger and bigger risks until its too late. There’s just no upside to it. Cute and fun? I am not buying it.

What’s an alternative and why? Instead of Snapchat I’d recommend Instagram, a photo-sharing service with a more open sharing community and a proven abuse desk via Facebook.

My encouragement to students, parents, and youth workers is to help teenagers find a better platform for connecting than Snapchat. Too many unknowns and built too easily for exploitation.

Middle Schoolers and Social Networking

While social networking has many positive benefits, some middle school aged children around the country continue to struggle to make good choices on the Internet.  We recently learned about the site ask.fm, which allows members to send and receive anonymous comments and questions.  Many middle school students also use the mobile app Snapchat, which allows members to post photos and videos that disappear after a few seconds.

I recommend that you have a conversation with your daughter about her safe and responsible use of these sites.  I don’t recommend that any of the girls should use ask.fm; I can’t imagine much good that can come from a site that invites anonymous comments and questions.

Read below for some information on Snapchat:

Snapchat: Sexting tool, or the next Instagram?

Doug Gross, CNN
By Doug Gross, CNN
updated 9:20 AM EST, Thu January 3, 2013 | Filed under: Mobile
Snapchat is a fast-growing mobile app that lets users share photos and videos that quickly disappear.
Snapchat is a fast-growing mobile app that lets users share photos and videos that quickly disappear.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Competition from Facebook Poke may have spurred popularity of mobile app Snapchat
  • Snapchat lets users send images or videos that disappear after a few seconds
  • Popular with young users, Snapchat has a reputation as a “sexting” tool
  • Creators downplay its use to send nude pictures, say short-term sharing is fun

(CNN) — You may not have heard of Snapchat. But if there are teenagers or 20-somethings in your life, it’s a safe bet that they have.

Snapchat is a mobile app which lets users share images or videos that disappear after a few seconds. That’s right — they vanish forever in the time it takes you to read a tweet.

In a little over a year since it was released by a Stanford student and his recently graduated business partner, Snapchat has has quietly amassed millions of users and now claims to process more than 30 million messages a day. Some bloggers have called it the “next Instagram.”

Not bad for a mobile tool which, rightly or wrongly, is often cited for one very specific ability — the “sexting” of naughty images to other users. In an age when young people are constantly being warned not to post inappropriate things online, Snapchat offers a degree of freedom by letting users share unfiltered thoughts or images without much fear of reprisal.

“Like most people born before the 1990s, I’m not a Snapchat user, and I’ve long assumed the worst about the app — that combining cameras; young people; and secret, self-destructing messages could only mean trouble,” wrote Slate’s Farhad Manjoo last week.

But increasingly, he writes, it appears possible that “teenagers are more likely using the app to safely explore the sort of silly, unguarded, and sometimes unwise ideas that have always occupied the teenage brain … in a manner that won’t haunt them forever. In other words, they’re chatting with Snapchat precisely because it’s not like chatting with Facebook.”

Not to be outdone, Facebook last month actually launched a virtually identical social app called Facebook Poke, a mobile re-imagining of one of the site’s earliest, and ultimately most ridiculed, features. But instead of siphoning users from Shapchat, Facebook’s move appears instead to have launched the upstart app to new heights.

Both apps let users send images or short videos and messages via their smartphones. The sender can choose how long the message will be visible — up to 10 seconds — before it self-destructs.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly was part of the team that coded the Poke app, currently available only on Apple’s iOS system, in only a couple of weeks. A family photo posted by sister Randi Zuckerberg purportedly showed their family playing with the app over the holidays.

But if Facebook was looking to flex its billion-user muscle to take over the instant-chat market, it doesn’t appear to be working.

On Thursday, Snapchat was the sixth-most popular free app for Apple’s mobile devices. Facebook Poke wasn’t in the top 100. As Forbes said in a recent headline, “the kids like SnapChat because it’s NOT Facebook.”

A newer version of Snapchat for Google’s Android devices sat at a respectable No. 33 in the Google Play store, ahead of stalwarts like Draw Something, Spotify, Fandango and Amazon Mobile. Facebook Poke isn’t available for Android.

A look by analytics firm Topsy showed that mentions of Snapchat on Twitter spiraled to more than 212,000 on New Year’s Day, up from about 16,000 on December 20, the day before Facebook introduced Poke. Facebook Poke got 1,822 mentions on January 1, according to Topsy.

So, does that mean young, socially savvy users are sending millions of racy pictures of themselves through cyberspace every day?

It’s difficult to say. Technological advances and nudie shots have shared a strong, if secretive, relationship for centuries. From the printing press to pay-per-view to VCRs, new tech (particularly the kind that creates new levels of privacy) has always been followed closely by folks figuring out how to personally or professionally use it to get dirty.

There are clear, and sometimes ugly, signs that sexting is common on Snapchat.

“Snapchat Sluts,” a Tumblr blog full of nude and semi-nude images, was started up last month by a “party photographer” who says he put out an open call for salacious shots on Twitter and was overwhelmed by the response. Another Snapchat-themed blog on Tumblr is filled with complaints about male users sharing photos of their genitalia.

Snapchat users may think their naughty images will never come back to haunt them. But people can still grab screenshots from their phones, even though both Snapchat and Facebook Poke notify the sender if the recipient of an image takes a shot of it.

And last week, Buzzfeed exposed an apparent security flaw that it says lets recipients retrieve videos sent via Snapchat.

All of which should be bad news when young people and questionable decisions collide with the dark alleys of the Internet, where even the most ill-gotten of sleaze is posted.

Snapchat did not respond to an interview request from CNN. But in one of only a handful of interviews he’s given since launching, Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel told TechCrunch he thinks the sex talk about his app is overblown.

“I’m not convinced that the whole sexting thing is as big as the media makes it out to be,” he told TechCrunch. “I just don’t know people who do that. It doesn’t seem that fun when you can have real sex.”

But he also acknowledged to TechCrunch that the idea for the app, which he and Bobby Murphy hashed out after meeting at Stanford’s Kappa Sigma fraternity house, was partly inspired by U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s unfortunate decision to share racy photos via Twitter.

So, if not for naughty bits, what exactly is the purpose of sending images and videos that rapidly disappear?

In a September blog post celebrating its first anniversary, Team Snapchat shared a vision that comes off as downright wholesome.

“We believe in sharing authentic moments with friends,” it read. “It’s not all about fancy vacations, sushi dinners, or beautiful sunsets. Sometimes it’s an inside joke, a silly face, or greetings from a pet fish.

“There is value in the ephemeral,” the post continues. “Great conversations are magical. That’s because they are shared, enjoyed, but not saved.”