The Atlantic Offers a Serious Examination of ‘Sexting’

By Mark Walsh — November 05, 2014 1 min read
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The entire topic of sexting by teenagers understandably makes many people uncomfortable.

In the cover story in the November issue of The Atlantic, national correspondent Hanna Rosin quotes a Virginia law enforcement officer who doesn’t like the term, and he makes his investigators use the term “self-production” to describe sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves that teenagers produce and communicate to others.

“But changing the term doesn’t clarify much,” Rosin says in her serious, sobering look at the trend. Practices that horrify most adults are no big deal to many young people, she reports.

The numbers are disturbing, though she suspects teenagers are exaggerating at least a little about how many of them engage in sexting. Rosin pored through the academic research, but she also set out to find a place to conduct a case study. She found it in Louisa County in central Virginia, a place that “is traditional but not isolated,” where a sexting scandal had broken in the news.

She spoke to young people (names have been changed), parents, school resource officers, and other police officials, and lawmakers. She wanted to understand what teens think about the practice but also “help figure out how parents and communities should respond” without turning every case into a child-pornography prosecution.

She reaches a conclusion along that line. “Cases that turn up genuine signs of child pornography should of course be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Rosin writes. “But child-porn laws are designed explicitly to protect children from adults. Cases involving only minors ... deserve entirely different labels and punishments—or no punishments.”

Sexting is an issue that many educators, parents, law enforcement officials, and policymakers have had to confront whether they have wanted to or not. Rosin’s piece at least gives them a starting point for coming up with answers.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.