by Barry Chudakov on August 19th, 2010

Sexting, Texting and Metalife

Phillip Alpert, an 18-year-old from Orlando, took a sleeping pill late one night in 2008 after fighting with his former girlfriend. Perhaps it was the fog of the sedative, perhaps a stab of dark emotion coupled with anger over the way she had talked to him. But when he awoke a few hours later, Phillip thought of the nude photos his girlfriend had sent him when they were dating. He went to his computer and e-mailed those photos of the girl, who was then 16, to her ‘contact list,’ which included her parents, grandparents, and teachers.

As soon as he got up the next morning, Phillip knew that he had made a huge mistake. Three days later, he found out exactly how huge it was. His sexting was reported to police and Alpert was charged with transmitting child pornography. Now 20, he is a registered sex offender, Florida Department of Corrections No. x61836.

 

Registered Sex Offenders, Flickr, War Crimes, Creative Commons license.

 

Sexting Is ‘Relationship Currency’

Phillip has become a poster child for the crime of sexting. A blend of the words sex and texting, the term can apply to sexually explicit messages or images sent via text message, e-mail or Internet sites. According to “Sex and Tech,” a report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 39 percent of teens and 59 percent of young adults have sent or posted sexually suggestive emails or text messages. The report also said that 20 percent of teens and 33 percent of young adults have sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves.

Another study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that teens who are “more intense users of cell phones are more likely to engage in sexting.” And “teens who keep their phones on almost all the time are more likely to receive texts with suggestive images.”

In other words, when the phones are turned on, a lot of kids are getting turned on. But sexting conveys something else: value. Amanda Lenhart, author of the Pew Center’s Teens and Sexting report, says, “Teens explained to us [that] sexually suggestive images have become a form of relationship currency.” A sext provides a convenient token, a unit of exchange that stands for a relationship, just as coins and banknotes are traded in the marketplace.

 

Do I look like I'm made of money?, Flickr, Talia Twilight Photography, all rights reserved.

 

Crime and Pornishment

Today teen ardor and indiscretion are colliding with laws established before modern communications technology was in the hands of so many young people. Sexting is a crime because, where minors are involved, it can be construed as the transmission of child pornography. Some constitutional law experts such as Lawrence Walters, an Orlando attorney who practices First Amendment and Internet law, counsel reasonableness. “It’s a new phenomenon … kids shouldn’t be engaging in this type of behavior,” Walters told the Associated Press last year. “But using these harsh criminal laws for child pornography is a bit of overkill.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida agrees. The ACLU does not want any law on the books that would categorize sexting between minors as a crime, according to its public policy director Courtenay Strickland. A bill that would have made sexting between minors a non-criminal offense—at least the first time they get in trouble – was filed in the Florida Legislature this spring, but didn’t pass.

 

Texting, Flickr, Stitch.

 

Sexting and Texting: A Perfect Storm

Sexting cannot be divorced from the now nearly ubiquitous culture of texting. On average, teens report texting about 50 times a day. About one-third of them send 100 texts a day. And 15 percent reported sending more than 200 texts a day. One in 4 also admitted texting while driving. The Pew Center’s “Teens and Mobile Phones” report concludes: “text messaging has become the primary way that teens reach their friends.” That creates opportunities – good and bad — that previous generations of teenagers could not even have imagined. Says Lehnart: “The desire for risk-taking and sexual exploration during the teenage years combined with a constant connection via mobile devices creates a ‘perfect storm’ for sexting.”

While sexting may be a new coin of the romantic realm, there are more pervasive—and more typical—quandaries happening here. As they do for all of us, the communications tools themselves in the hands of teenagers create new behaviors and responsibilities. They also stretch and confound boundaries. If my girlfriend sent me this, is it mine or hers? Is it private? How private? Can I show it to my friends? When I push the ‘send’ button, why are the consequences of that action in the moment seemingly so inconsequential?

 

iEye, Flickr, h. andras_xms, all rights reserved.

 

Assuming a Metalife

These questions begin to describe how our world has changed in the last few decades as gadgets and widgets play ever greater roles in our lives. From alphabets to TV to the Internet, communications tools change our attitudes and behaviors. Unless we are mindful of how we think and act through these tools, they can bend our intentions, turning us suddenly into someone we didn’t think we were. I characterize the life form we assume (often inadvertently) in the cyber world as a metalife.

The sexting metalife happens instantly with a thumb-click. Then a virtual body, the new relationship currency, embarks on a journey with far-reaching consequences. One is the sext’s unforseen permanence or indelibility. Recorded in various databases or conveyed by someone’s device, it is not easy to run away from your metalife.

Ask Phillip Alpert. The consequences of a few key strokes in the middle of the night placed him on a sex offender list until he is 43. Alpert’s dream of being an animator has been dashed because of the tight restrictions placed on his Internet use as a registered sex offender. Because of his lack of privacy, Alpert is afraid even to email his lawyer. Should his probation officer decide that an email was not work- or school-related, Alpert could go to prison for five years.

While the Alpert story may represent an extreme, it is now imperative for us to appreciate the wider implications of communication tools in the hands of adolescents and teens. These tools can change our sense of who we are and how we relate to others. As we’ve seen they can also radically alter lives.

Phillip’s cyber tattoo is not a metaphor. His story speaks to the bewildering new world of preteens and teenagers, with children as young as 12 engaging in sexting. In Ruskin, Florida a 13-year-old girl made yet another decision to sext photos of herself to her latest crush. When the recipient of her sexting affections left his phone unattended, the picture went viral, leading to hallway sexual taunts and bullying. Two weeks later the young girl hung herself in her bedroom.

 

Stairs, Flickr, Michael Kaven.

 

The Other Level

For the sake of our children—and our own sanity—we would be wise to consider how sexting, texting and other behaviors are similarly affected by our communications tools. I call sexting and texting metalife behaviors because when we use communication tools, the arena of that change is not remote: what we value changes, our behaviors change, our life changes. The metalife that emerges entails a rerouting of our focus and attention, often altering us in ways we may not fully consider. Our tools enable that rerouting. Until we go beyond the notion of raging hormones and acknowledge this fact, we may be unable to fully understand sexting and prepare ourselves for its consequences.

At the literal level, Phillip’s story and sexting generally are fraught with poor judgment, emotional immaturity, failure to perceive and respect boundaries, ignorance and confusion over ownership of an image (“Could it be mine if she gave it to me, or is it still hers?”), as well as lack of respect for the other(s) or a full awareness of legal, moral and interpersonal consequences.

But there is another level. This is the level we typically ignore. We operate at this level when we are not mindful about how we use and then integrate our lives with our communication tools. At this level our actions in a given situation are dictated by the ease-of-use and handiness of our tool. We can see that other level clearly, seeing sexting as a tool-induced behavior, by comparing it to another tool-induced hazard: talking on a cell phone while driving.

According to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, 38% of drivers say they’ve been hit or almost hit due to others who won’t get off their cell phones while driving. One in four American adults say they have texted while driving, the same proportion as teens who say they have texted while driving. Scientists (and now Oprah) have determined that our concentration is seriously compromised by trying to multitask behind the wheel. This leads these scientists to ask why people, knowing the risk, continue to talk on phones while driving.

Similarly, we might ask why teens, knowing the risk, continue sexting. You might think the answer lies in typical teenage risky business. But I would argue the answer also lies in the communications tool. These statistics are from Sex and Tech:

• 75% of teens and 71% of young adults say sending sexually suggestive content “can have serious negative consequences.”

• Yet, 39% of teens and 59% of young adults have sent or posted sexually suggestive emails or text messages—and 20% of teens and 33% of young adults have sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves.

• 44% of both teen girls and teen boys say it is common for sexually suggestive text messages to get shared with people other than the intended recipient.

Sexting teenagers are behaving just like adult drivers on cell phones. They do know better, but when 47% of teens are sending 50 to more than 100 texts a day, things can occasionally go awry.

John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and a specialist in the science of attention, says that when people use digital devices, they get a quick burst of adrenaline, “a dopamine squirt.” In other words when we use these tools, they take over our attention, even our intention: we are voluntarily distracted, where we put our attention changes—and then our lives change. This is the metalife conundrum.

 

Faceless, Flickr, Anna Hendy, all rights reserved.

 

What is new and confounding in the ongoing sexting story is the remove: many communication technologies hide the other or seemingly remove us from him or her; they effortlessly create a disconnect between an action and the repercussions of that action. Our tools can distract or disrupt what we might call a consequence-response. We often don’t think about that disconnect until we crash into our metalife as Phillip did or the texting driver does. I believe once we fully understand this, then we are better prepared to address the full implications of our tool-affected actions.

Overnight, it seems, the intersection of our lives and our communications tools has gotten complicated. We’re seeing the complexity more often because these tools are reaching deeper into our lives, and they are now fundamental to how we touch and value each other. This entails more than simply acting on impulse. When we use communication tools, if we are not careful, we think and act at their speed and in their logic, instead of fully considering what we’re doing. In this scenario, the logic of the tool becomes the logic of our behavior. We need greater awareness of this process and how it changes us.

This is our metalife. We need to become acquainted with it.

 

Update: Sextortion

Since first writing “Sexting, Texting and Metalife,” a new sexting phenomenon has appeared. Known as “sextortion” it is essentially online blackmail. As described by Bruce Baker here, the process is quick but far from painless:

Teenagers take nude photos of themselves, in what appears to be fun and games or a consenting, harmless act. They then send them via cell phone in a text message (sexting) or post them on video chat rooms in the act of having fun. However, the nightmare ensues as the photos, that are literally impossible to remove off the internet, become a tool of exploitation or extortion.

While researching the broader topic of online identity and behaviors, Metalifestream spoke with Parry Aftab, Executive Director of WiredSafety.org. Ms. Aftab’s comments regarding how quickly a sext can turn to ‘sextortion’ are worth noting: “Kids are putting their head in the lion’s mouth every time they do this …. ”

Finally, here is a reasonable assumption regarding sexting and texting: privacy and protection of personal information (whether on the Internet or sent from person to person) doesn’t exist.

 

 

Thumbnail image: Sexting, Flickr, madii bahr, all rights reserved.

 

A version of this article first appeared on FloridaThinks.

 

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