Responsibility with Selfies

By: Neil Mufson
A colleague of mine from another school wrote me last week asking how I would respond to the situation her school is facing.  “Everyone” became aware that two individual 8th grade girls sent topless photos of themselves to two individual 8th grade boys.  While this is a behavior that is said to be common amongst about a third of older teens, it is rarer for middle schoolers, and it tends to reflect a level of precociousness that warrants concern.

After having the luxury of thinking about the situation for a couple of days, I responded to my colleague saying I would meet with each of the parents along with each of the involved girls and each of the involved boys.  I would discuss all the relevant issues with each group, including issues of responsibility, intent, and the law.  I would tell these families that I would be writing a letter to all families in grades 6-8 saying that they probably had heard about an instance of some students sending inappropriate, revealing sexts and that while the school has counseled all the parties involved, it was an important opportunity for every family to discuss the relevant issues with their children and to remind parents that they need to be vigilant about their children’s use of technology.  In the letter, I would encourage parents to read an article in this month’s Atlantic called “Why Kids Sext” by Hanna Rosin.  I would also  let families know that while the school would not be taking any disciplinary action in this case, it reserves the right to do so in cases when outside behavior comes into and disrupts the school.  I also would want to make sure that parents and kids know that in many states, possessing or sending nude  photographs of those below the age of 18 — even if the photos are of yourself that you have taken — is a felony, as many jurisdictions have yet to figure out how to differentiate such cases from cases of child pornography.  I said I would also arrange, “once the dust settled,” for a parent speaker on the topic of middle schoolers’ typical use of technology (we, in fact, did that last school year) and figure out how to address the topic of sexting in life skills classes.

While I don’t envy these kids’ and this school’s experience, it gave me a good opportunity to think through the issue.  In fact, before receiving my friend’s query, I had just read the Rosin article and thought it is an excellent resource that raises many related issues.  Every middle school parent should read it, and those with even younger children would benefit from it, especially since related issues are moving down to ever younger grades.

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