A small town in Colorado was recently shocked by a “sexting” scandal involving 100 high school and middle school students sharing nude photographs of themselves and other students. School officials, parents and police are at a loss to understand and respond–as I can well imagine!
I immediately thought about Brenda Vicars, an Austin area author who wrote Polarity in Motion, a YA mystery that revolves around the issue of sexting. Brenda is an experienced educator, a former teacher and school administrator. She gave me the following interesting interview.
EB: Brenda! Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions. First of all, I guess I thought sexting was a passing fad, and assumed most teenagers would not be involved in this kind of thing. But I just read that more than half of all college students report that they sexted before the age of 18. Does that surprise you?
BV: Yes–that number is way larger than I expected, which may be partially attributed to the loose interpretations of what “sexting” actually means. I still believe that lots of teens don’t want their nude pictures shared–especially with more than the one person who was the intended recipient.
EB: How long has sexting been around? When did you first become aware of it?
BV: I first became aware of it about ten years ago when guidance for parents and educators started being published.
EB: What do you think is an appropriate response to a discovery like the one in Colorado, where such a large sexting ring has been uncovered?
BV: There should definitely be consequences, but I think felony charges are too extreme when students are voluntarily sharing their pictures with other minors. The felony level category was probably established to apply to adults who deal in child porn.
EB: How serious is this issue? Is it harmful? Is it risky? How concerned should parents of teenagers be?
BV: It might not be any more serious than streaking of the 60s or flashing of the 90s if the pictures were seen only by the intended recipients. However, once a picture is out there, it can literally go anywhere–including onto child porn sites. The potential for harm is unlimited both in scope and time.
EB: The legal response to sexting can be quite severe, since having and sharing nude pictures of minors qualifies as possessing and distributing child pornography. is this right? is sexting tantamount to dealing in child pornography?
BV: That’s a great question–and there is no easy answer because the degree of lewdness and the quantity of distribution are different in every instance. In Texas when sexting first reared its head, it fell into the felony level offenses. But several years ago, Texas statute changed so that minor sexting, first offense, can be a misdemeanor. But even with this reduction of severity, sexting incidents still keep schools, the legal system, and parents challenged.
And, in addition to legal consequences, there can be repercussions at school ranging from community service, suspension, or even expulsion. Sometimes students believe that since their phone is their private property, it is immune from school regulations. But, when sexting interferes with activities at school, even if the sexting happened at night, Texas schools can take action.
EB: What a nightmare for parents! I suppose one reason we never sexted in my day was that we didn’t have camera phones, smartphones, or digital photography. We had to take film in to be developed–and who is going to do that with a nude picture?
In your book, Polarity in Motion, a teenage girl is horrified to learn that a nude picture of her is circulating throughout her school. It’s a tantalizing mystery, since she has no idea when or how the picture was taken, and you use it to explore a lot of complex issues involving teenagers. Can you discuss some of the issues you find most compelling?
BV: I’ve always been hung up on the numbers of innocent people who, in spite of our well-planned legal system, get incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit. News stories about cases being reopened and the innocent being released always strike a note of fear in my heart. What if these same mistakes happen to students? Are there cases of high school students being suspended or expelled when they are actually innocent? I hope none of the students I worked with were unjustly punished, but Polarity in Motion is a story of how it could happen.
It’s a thought-provoking book and a great read–146 reviews, of which two-thirds are 5-stars and more than 90% are fours or fives! If you have teenagers on your Christmas list, consider giving them Polarity in Motion, by Brenda Vicars.
Elizabeth Buhmann is the author of Lay Death at Her Door.
“…blood is shed along the way to a jaw-dropping, but logical, climax that will make veteran mystery readers eager for more…” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)