They carry it for security, but when used inappropriately it can be a dangerous device.

They carry it for security, but when used inappropriately it can be a dangerous device.


The cell phone, a portable link to home that keeps parents and kids connected has a downside that surfaced in Falmouth recently when six boys aged 12 to 14, were found to have distributed a picture of a 13 year-old girl exposing her breast. The picture was taken with a cell phone camera by one of the boys.


The practice, known as “sexting,” may be new to the adult lexicon, but it has become increasingly common among adolescents across the country and, in some cases, has resulted in charges of child pornography.


The practice didn’t come as a surprise to Kathleen Clarke, Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Human Services at Cape Cod Community College.


“In a way it makes sense that we’re seeing what we’re seeing,” Clarke said. “Adolescents do what they see mirrored in the greater adult society, and our values and mores about sexuality have changed.”


While some may point to the sexual revolution of the ‘60s as the source for our changing attitudes, Clarke suggests it may be more a matter of evolution.


“Our life expectancy in the United States is 85 and it’s no longer unusual for people to live to be 100, so the age at which young people are having children and marrying is all being pushed forward. The average age is 28 for men and 26 for women,” Clarke said, noting that also means more people having sex before marriage. “[Adolescents] see that in the adult population and they mirror that.”


The image that adolescents seek to mirror is one that is often distorted by the advertising and entertainment media.


“As adults we tend to screen some of those [sexual] messages out, but I think for kids it’s particularly difficult,” Clarke said, citing the “highly sexualized” lyrics of some songs, the content of some videos, the erotic nature of current dancing and young celebrities having babies.


“The messages [that adolescents receive] about sexuality are clearly not only that it’s OK. In some respects it’s encouraged,” Clarke said.


Often adding to the difficulty is an adolescent’s inability to make mature decisions. Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., conducted a study on brain development in children and adolescents and found that an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which controls impulse and judgment, is not yet fully developed in adolescents.


In an interview on PBS’ Frontline, Giedd said, “[It's] not that the teens are stupid or incapable of [things]. It's sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built.”


Studies such as one by the Centers for Disease Control showing that one of every four sexually active teenagers has a sexually transmitted disease underline that inability.


The illusion of invincibility is also a factor that can lead adolescents to dangerous and disastrous decisions.


“They’re guided by this personal fable that tells them that it’s never going to happen to me. I’m not going to get pregnant, I’m not going to get a sexually transmitted disease, I can drink and drive, or I can text a picture of myself to somebody else and it’s going to be OK,” Clarke said.


Technology can also contribute to those false beliefs.


“Teenagers who spent a lot of time in virtual reality either through sending pictures or secondlife.com (a virtual reality Web site) impair their ability to develop a sense of self in real life,” Clarke said. “A false sense of anonymity might give them a false bravado that they might not otherwise have.”


With the youngest teens it isn’t only the inability to weigh the risks, it’s also a lack of awareness of the risks.


“They don’t know the implications. Younger teens may not realize that when you take a picture you are exposing it to Internet access,” Clarke said.


The results of that impetuous action could have serious consequences for the person whose image has been sent out into cyberspace. Exposure to sexual predators is high on the list, but there are others, including the inability to cope with the humiliation that could follow.


“You and I, if we put a picture out there and go out to the public we might be embarrassed but we have enough ego strength, we’re probably going to be OK. These young kids, 12,13, 14 are really fragile,” Clarke said recalling a 13-year-old Missouri girl who committed suicide in 2006 after being harassed over the Internet.


Referring to the teenagers who circulated the revealing cellphone photo of a classmate, Clarke said, “I’m sure these kids didn’t realize they were possibly going to be accused of child pornography. They didn’t even know, perhaps, that they were breaking the law.”


Clarke said that charging the six Falmouth teens with child pornography would be highly inappropriate.


“I think that’s overkill. I think what we all want to do is change behavior. If we jump too quickly we might punish behavior but we may not change it,” she said, suggesting more appropriate consequences such as community service coupled with education.


You educate them about the law. Teach them about the risk that they put themselves in. Teach them that what they do when they’re 13 can reappear when they’re applying for college or for a job,” Clarke said.


Clarke said that teens with a strong sense of self-esteem are best able to resist external pressures, sexual or otherwise.


“And the kids with the strong self esteem are the kids who are connected in a healthy way with their family. And even though part of adolescence is working through and obtaining physical and emotional autonomy, we don’t want to see kids who are so enmeshed with their family or so detached from their family,” she said. “We want them to be securely attached to the family. Those are the kids with the healthiest self esteem.”


You can call Joe Burns of the Falmouth (Mass.) Bulletin at 508-375-4936 or e-mail him at jburns@cnc.com