Teenage girls are having sex. This is not a new phenomenon, but with smart phones and social media, sharing every aspect of life is not seen as abnormal. When teens share on the Internet, they're going to share about their sexuality as well, an important part of their identity and self-expression. Technology evolves so fast that education and legislation can't keep up. Young women continue to receive conflicting messages about sex from all sides. Schools aren't providing real sex education, and rarely teach about sex and technology. Currently, it is a crime to send or even take sexual pictures of yourself if you're under 18. If we want to actually address issues like teen pregnancy and redefining consent in a socio-techno world, different generations must work together to understand the differing needs of today's young people.
I grew up with computers. Google became public when I was one. By the time I reached high school, everyone was getting a smart phone. Facebook really took off during my freshman year -- before that everyone was on MySpace.
Not only did I grow up with access to many emerging technologies, I went to school at a time when people began questioning the sex ed in the United States. The National Conference of State Legislators claims that only 22 states and the District of Columbia require that public schools teach sex education. Only 33 states and the District of Columbia require HIV/AIDS instruction. Only 19 states specifically require sex education that is medically, factually or technically accurate.
Definitions of medically accurate vary by state. Some mandate that the Department of Health review curriculum, while others vaguely require that the curriculum be based on information from published authorities that medical professionals rely on.
I attended the same school for 13 years and had sex-ed at four different grade levels. I would classify this level of education as against the norm and pretty thorough. Yet, we never discussed definitions of consent, sexuality in the media or emerging technologies.
While doing research on this topic, I read a few different academic papers about sexting and teenage girls' use of technologies to express their sexuality. Current legislation not only ignores young people's safety concerns and needs, but also has already become obsolete because of the rapid pace of innovation in the tech world.
One of the main pieces of legislation regarding the Internet and young people, The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), was signed into law in 2000, four years before Google went public and the Internet completely changed. One of the premier researchers in the field of young people and sexting, danah boyd, wrote in 2011 that CIPA actually encourages parents to help their children lie about their ages online.
Think about how many Facebook users you know who are under 13. This is the age at which CIPA requires that a website obtain consent from parents before gathering user data. Because actual regulation would be too costly and not time-effective, sites like Facebook include an age restriction in their terms of service, getting around the CIPA rule. Then the site assumes that its users are being truthful about their age.
Young people aren't being educated about why these laws and exist, and neither are parents. All users should take more responsibility about protecting their data, especially when it's sensitive, but instead of educating people about the Internet, we've framed it as something to be afraid of.
One of the reasons the Internet has become this big bad realm is because so many harbor misconceptions about its use. I never had a MySpace, but when we were 15, all my friends were using it. The point of the site was to connect with people who had similar interests, which you could tell by how they designed their site, what kinds of ideas they were writing about and what music they were posting.
In theory, it was a great way for young people to connect to other young people around them who they wouldn't have been able to meet without the Internet. In practice, many of my peers would post sexually provocative photos to get the attention of random men they met online. Not only was this an example of unsafe Internet use, but it was detrimental to the sexual development of the girls who participated.
Sexting can be empowering, as can social media. Magazines like Cosmo always preach how sexting can spice up a relationship for adults and allow women to express their sexual needs, things they might not feel comfortable expressing in person. Social media can allow youth a place to connect with others like them and feel more comfortable in their own skins. But without formal education about consensual sexting practices, we get a generation of women idolizing Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, and a lesson that not only is using her body the only the way a girl can get famous, but also that distribution of private sexual material should be expected. We see women being shamed for their sexuality rather than those who violated their privacy.
So what has changed? Women have always been over sexualized in the media. They have always been given contradictory messages telling them to act like a naïve vixen. What has changed is that with social media, there is finally a way of seeing firsthand the effects of the messages sent to young women. I'm not saying that sexualization is to blame for sexting, or that young women are the ones responsible for stopping improper sexting. We need a full reconstruction of the law and educational methods that address young peoples' use of technology to express themselves sexually that focuses on privacy and consent.
Alexandra Levy is a senior at Wellesley College studying Media Arts and Sciences.