Youth Culture Window
The skid marks can still be seen on the exit ramp near my (David) home in Tampa, FL where “Sarah,” a former student of mine, slammed into the guardrails while texting and driving late one night. She was fortunate enough to survive her poor decision-making that evening.
But other teens who mismanage their cell phones aren’t always quite as lucky.
Texting Puts the Mess in Messaging
Social workers, educators, lawmakers, and adults in general have wondered for several years now about the effects of text messaging on teens. For instance, researchers at Northwestern University have studied texting’s consequences on teens’ grammar skills. Those at Pew have wondered about sleep deprivation in teens due to late-night texting. Then there’s also the fact that lots of teens use their cell phones to cheat in school. And don’t forget, some even question whether or not texting hinders social skills.
I guess these are just a few of the reasons that the NY Times says “texting is taking its toll” on teens.
But two of the biggest messes associated with teens and texting are of a more apparent (and inarguable) nature: texting while driving and sexting. The first can lead to fenders benders, or worse; the second can lead to felony charges, or worse.
I (David) have written about the dangers of texting and driving several times. For several years, articles like this one and this one have shown that teenagers need plenty of help managing their cell phones behind the wheel. Understanding that the problem won’t get any better without involvement, AT&T launched It Can Wait, a program committed to saving lives by helping cell phone users make (and keep) a promise to never text and drive again. Additionally, the cell phone carrier has produced several apps – like this one called Drive Mode – that helps parents monitor and manage their kids’ cell phone use.
According to the AT&T Teen Driver Survey, a study that included 1,200 teenagers 15-19 years of age, 97% of teens say texting while driving is “dangerous,” with 75% of them claiming it is “very dangerous.” However, this study by AT&T also revealed that 43% of these same teens still text and drive anyway. (Other similar studies confirm these findings; for instance, State Farm Insurance reports that 57% of young people admit to texting and driving.)
When teens were asked what would be the greatest deterrent to help them stop texting and driving, a majority of young drivers specified things like “large fines” and “suspended licenses.”
But steep penalties don’t seem to have much impact on the “other” problem teens get into with their text messages.
“Sexting” isn’t anything new. Teenagers have been snapping and sharing nude photos of themselves (and others) since the advent of the first camera phones.
NOTE FROM JONATHAN: You’ll hear a lot of different statistics thrown around when it comes to how many teenagers are actually sexting. It’s become an emotional subject for many. I’ve seen numbers as low as 1% and as high as 39%. That’s a huge gap! For years I’ve been encouraging my readers to read beyond the headlines and watch out for “alarmist” statistics. Back in 2009 Pew Research came out with a study that cited only 4% of minors sexting. I actually called up Pew’s Amanda Lenhart and questioned her about her numbers. She happily explained that her study only included minors (up to 17 years old). When you add in 18 and 19-year-olds, the numbers increase logarithmically. (More on those numbers and that entire conversation in my blog here). Since then we have seen new studies with higher numbers. I encourage you to look carefully at the reports we link, not just the article in the LA Times, but the report cited in that article so you can read all about the survey and the ages of the kids surveyed.Often, teenagers are not thinking through the ramifications of clicking and sending. 16-year-old Michelle clicks a picture of herself topless and sends it to her 17-year-old boyfriend Danny. When they break up 3 months later, Danny decides to pass that photo around to his friends. Technically speaking, those naked images of minors qualify as “child pornography,” a felony that can carry lifelong consequences (which is why PewResearch focused their 2009 study mentioned above on minors).
The frequency of teen sexting has led to many efforts focused on stopping the dangerous practice, but in spite of those attempts, the number of teen sexters continues to rise.
For instance, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20% of teens were sexting in 2008. But this summer, The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine released a study that claimed “more than 1 in 4 adolescents” (27%) have sent a nude picture of themselves through electronic means. Furthermore, almost half of them had been asked to send a nude picture, and a third of them had asked for a nude picture to be sent to them. No surprise, guys were more likely to be on the asking end while girls were more likely to be on the giving end.
With sexting now a part of mainstream culture, lawmakers have responded with strict laws to combat the felonious crime. Many headlines like this one and this one focus on those stiff penalties – some of which are lifelong – that teens are facing for being caught with nude pics/vids of minors.
But have the laws that were meant to deter teens from sexting actually accomplished their goal?
A report published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests a disturbing answer. “The students who said they were aware of possible legal repercussions for sexting — like child porn charges and jail time — were actually more likely to have sexted someone than those who weren't aware. Just over 35% of aware students had sent a sexual image, compared to 24% of those who weren't aware of the legal risks.”
Umm…I guess Sir Francis Bacon was wrong. Evidently, knowledge isn’t power.
Sadly, too many sexting stories end in suicide, as was true in the case of Jesse Logan and Hope Witsell, a girl who lived in my own city.
Managing the Mess
If you’ve ever been tempted to just smash your teenager’s cell phone… you’re not alone. But don’t over-react. Turn your overreaction into interaction. Talk with your kids about the problem.
No, texting isn’t going away. Don’t get excited when you hear someone claim that, for the first time ever, text messaging is on the decline. It’s true, but it’s only a small dip. And frankly, if you keep your eyes on the numbers of how many texts teenagers are averaging each month, you’ll realize just how huge texting is. My (Jonathan) personal theory is that texting dipped only because 58% of teenagers now have smartphones. Now they can Facebook, Instagram or Tweet from their phone. So they’re just replacing one communication venue with another. In short—they’re still staring at their phone!
Risky texting by teens is still a huuuuuggge problem, and one that simply will not go away on its own. Adults, parents and youth workers in particular, will have to take a hands-on approach and intervene if the mess is to be managed.
- Speak up! You will need to continually talk with your teens about both of these problems. Addressing them one time won’t be enough, especially since teens send and receive thousands of texts each month. Ask yourself, “Have I ever talked with my child about the instant-yet-lasting consequences of sexting?” We know that only 22% of parents actually talk on a regular basis about safe driving practices with their teen drivers. Don’t remain silent on such important issues. Let your kids know where you stand on this topic, and then….
- Practice what you preach! The AT&T study above highlights the fact that a staggering majority of young drivers (89%) think their parents are pretty good role models for tech safety behind the wheel. That’s good news, but the waters are immediately muddied when the very next stat they provide claims that 41% of those same teens also say their parents text and drive at the same time. Don’t send mixed messages to your kids. The standard you hold them to should be sufficient for you, as well.
By the way, The Source for Youth Ministry has several resources to help parents and youth workers address these texting problems. For issues related to texting and driving, check out this great lesson wrapped around the story of a Second Chance Texter in Texas. And when it comes to sexting, here’s a powerful lesson on the lasting consequences of sinful behavior. Of course, you can also have some fun with phones that simultaneously springboard you into a discussion about cell phone use. And check out this “sneaky” text-messaging game designed to help improve future communication with your students.
Parents can also find some great guidance from Jonathan’s blog about setting up realistic guardrails, and how to respond when our teenagers break the rules.
We sincerely hope these free resources will help you continually and effectively engage teenagers in a way that will steer them clear of the consequences associated with mismanaged texting.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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