About 20 Kings Park High School students have been suspended for viewing a "sext," and two 14-year-old Smithtown boys face felony charges. If you're a parent of a teen, you probably saw something like this coming.
Who among us hasn't heard about a sexy photo meant for one amour's cellphone but forwarded to many others? To people in my generation, this is an occurrence that ruins a reputation and marks a girl as someone boys can approach for more of the same. A girl who wants sex, someone "easy."
But I'm accepting the fact that sexting is becoming commonplace among teens, and it has lost its sense of shame for many if not most of them.
I don't mean to say kids are sharing videos of themselves engaging in a sex act, as allegedly is the case in Kings Park. But still photos, often naked, are going around.
Whether that's a good or bad development is, like many things with teenagers, out of parents' hands. We have to accept the reality and talk to our kids about how not to end up like these unfortunate Kings Park and Smithtown teens. Like sober driving and safe sex, this is one more conversation we need to have: Be smart about sexting.
This is a lesson better learned at home than school.
From what I've gathered this week since this story broke, many teens already have rules and rituals about sexting. It's acceptable to send your boyfriend or girlfriend a "nude" to keep on their phone. If they forward it to someone else, that's a betrayal of your trust -- although, how that disincentive works after a breakup, I can't imagine. Boys send pictures of their genitals to girls in the hope of receiving a photo in return. And, of course, it's a sign of high-status boyhood to have "nudes" on a cellphone -- and a huge temptation to distribute them or show them to friends.
In Colorado, at Canon City High School, students reportedly exchanged hundreds of naked photos of themselves, prompting a felony investigation by police and forfeiture of a football game because many players have been implicated. Like on Long Island, underage students were involved, and police are asking whether they were coerced.
I knew this was an emerging issue about a year ago when I was speaking to a high school administrator, and he mentioned boys could face felony charges for sharing sex videos on their phones -- girls, too, I imagine. I thought to myself, how does he know that in such specific detail? And I realized this was something he had had to confront: When a clutch of boys is gathered in the school hallway around a cellphone, should he put their future on the line by bringing in the police?
Apparently, the administrators in Kings Park felt this video -- reportedly, a boy and girl engaging in a sex act and a second boy recording it -- was so far beyond what they usually encounter, that they decided to investigate, talk to police and punish.
The school superintendents for Kings Park and Smithtown have posted pleading letters on websites, urging parents to speak to their children about sexting. A friend who's a school principal said this problem will only get worse unless parents are willing to monitor their children's use of the Internet and work with schools to hold students accountable "without turning us into CSI."
What to say to teens? I like the suggestion of my colleague cartoonist Matt Davies, who also has teenage daughters. He tells them, any time you share an image of yourself, you've lost control of it.
It's hard to get teens to think through the consequences of their actions. But the Kings Park-Smithtown story in the newspaper will give parents a visual aid when we talk to our kids. Too bad it involves real kids with real futures.