Never underestimate the power of a moral panic to turn a society upside down. One example of a kind of moral panic which often gets out of control and leads to violence and death, is the phenomenon of the witch hunt. Other kinds of moral panics are a little less disruptive, such as the craziness over Satanic ritual abuse (which never really happened anywhere on the scale that was claimed back in the 80s). Another moral panic in the 20th century a bit less disruptive and sillier than that, is the campaign against comic books.

We may think we’ve risen above irrational moral panics, but the fact is that human nature has not changed, and — even though we live in the Information Age, with the entire Internet available to us — we are still vulnerable to “the madness of crowds,” as much as we ever were.

The most recent example of this is the vilification of “sexting,” or the sending of erotic images via electronic means (usually by cell-phone picture message), usually by minors. For instance, the Hartford Courant filed this “scare-journalism” report on this insidious trend which threatens to destroy America’s moral fiber and subject teens to the whims of the criminal justice system (WebCite cached article):

Sexting’s Pervasiveness, Dangers Detailed As Police, Lawyers Offer Ways To Shield Students

As if booze, drugs and tell-all Facebook profiles weren’t sufficiently alarming, parents should now add “sexting” to their well of worries.

That was part of the message Wednesday night at a district-sponsored public forum on technology and teens that drew about 200 people to the Conard High School auditorium. They were mostly parents, some of whom brought their kids, but it was the police officers and attorneys in the crowd and onstage who underscored the topic’s gravity.

As if to hammer home the horrific nature of this unconscionable crime, the Courant goes on to report:

“Sexting” is sending or receiving text messages that include nude or sexual images, and as Lt. Donald Melanson, a West Hartford police spokesman, told the hushed crowd, such images can be criminal.

Sexually explicit images of a child under age 16 are considered child pornography, and law enforcement finds itself “in a very difficult place” when dealing with sexting cases, Melanson said.

This article dutifully adds polling data which — supposedly — demonstrates how pervasive and damaging “sexting” is:

A report on sexting last month from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, based on a survey of 800 minors, stated that 18 percent of youths aged 14-17 with cellphones reported receiving “sexually suggestive” nude or semi-nude images of someone they know. Moreover, 17 percent of teens who pay their own cellphone bills said they have sent provocative images via text messaging.

Unfortunately, polling data such as this … based as it is on self-reports … doesn’t actually prove anything. Teens have been known to make stuff up so they can brag about their behavior. (Really!)

To make this “scare” even worse, the Courant gratuitously adds that it’s not just a phenomenon of poverty … sexting is a plague that affects everyone:

State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said Wednesday afternoon that complaints about sexting have popped up across Connecticut, “across socioeconomic borders,” because young people don’t seem to realize that “a message can last for an eternity on cyberspace.”

“Once an image is sent, it cannot be retrieved,” Vance said. “You lose control over it. … Parents just don’t believe this goes on. But it does. It does.”

I could go on and relate the many scare tactics in this article. The facts of the matter, however, are two:

  1. Teens will be teens. They do occasionally trade erotic pictures. They once did this with snapshots. They now do it with camera phones. There’s nothing new here except the method they use. Figure it out, people.

  2. “Sexting” between minors is against the law in Connecticut (and I assume other states) solely because the laws against child pornography are absolute; there’s no reason an exception can’t be added for willing minors sending pictures of themselves to other people they know. Laws forbidding the sending of other children’s erotic pictures, even by other children, can be allowed to remain as is.

Really, there’s nothing to this except to encourage parents to be aware of what their kids are up to. Then again, it’s always been the case that parents should do this; nothing has changed in this regard!

Move along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.

P.S. Note that I am not in favor of kids sending erotic pictures to each other. It is a very stupid thing to do and they’re likely to regret having done it almost as soon as they hit “Send.” Nevertheless, there is no way I know of, to utterly prevent teens — or anyone of any age for that matter — from engaging in stupid behavior. The fact is that we need not frighten people or turn society upside down over it. It’s a problem that can easily be solved by proper parenting, but there is no reason why proper parenting should not be the norm, rather than the exception.

P.P.S. Memo to the Courant: I know circulation is off, but “scare journalism” is beneath Connecticut’s newspaper of record and the oldest paper in the country. Just stop already.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.