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Coping with Sexting

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Now that we've gotten those infernal tea-bagging parties out of the way, let's get to what's really important: sexting and teens.

I hope I don't need to explain what this trend is, because I'd just as soon leave that to Urban Dictionary or to Good Morning America, which recently held a no-holds-barred Town Hall meeting with parents and teens on the issue. One of those parents was Cynthia Logan, whose 18-year-old daughter was named Jessica.

Maybe you remember the story? Jessica sent her boyfriend a nude cell phone image of herself. After they split up, being the generous guy he is, he decided to pass the photo on to 100 close friends. Faster than you can say Facebook, Jessica's life became the modern-day equivalent of The Scarlet Letter. She was taunted, shunned. Called vicious names. The abuse was horrific. Trying to do something positive, the Ohio teen appeared anonymously on a local news show and talked about her plight. It didn't help. She was so torn up she took her own life.

GMA deserves kudos for the show. I'm always impressed when you can get teenagers to talk about anything, much less a topic as awkward as sex on national television. Experts are always suggesting that if only parents would "communicate" more with their teens about uncomfortable topics, like the wisdom of using their cell phones to share topless photos, life would be as breezy as The Cosby Show. Believe me, we do plenty of that around here and it usually involves me blabbing while the teenagers groan in horror, flee the scene, or cut me off. But you can't let that stop you, right?

Just this week I tried to initiate a conversation in the car with my daughter about sexting. And she couldn't have been more enthusiastic! Had many of her friends been sent these kinds of photos? "Of course!" she sniffed. "That's awful," I said. "Yeah, but there's nothing you can do about it," she said with the unique certainty that teens have.

So just how much a problem is sexting? I guess it depends on how you define big. According to a recent survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a third of teenage boys and a quarter of girls have seen nude or semi-nude cell phone images that were meant to be private.

This is one more example where we're scrambling to catch up with the unpredictable ways of technology. Who would have ever imagined that teens would use their cell phone cameras so creatively? Clearly not the legal system. Currently teens 18 and under who are caught sexting can be prosecuted as sex offenders, even if it's consensual. Which seems a bit excessive given how severe the penalties are. Vermont thinks so, too, and hopes to change the law so that the worst teens could be charged with is a misdemeanor. Let's hope other states follow.

But we also shouldn't close our eyes. We should treat sexting the way we do other risky behaviors teens engage in: by making them aware, and by creating programs in middle schools and high schools where it's treated as an ethical issue. Perhaps it could be part of a curriculum on sexual self-esteem? Perhaps students who've been victimized could share their experiences?

As we say around here: Don't ask me, I'm just the parent.

Teenagers do stupid and impulsive things. (Not your teenager, of course.) It's part of growing up. It's also part of what makes them so infuriating and bewildering for parents. How can you have done that? you think. But sometimes teens' stupidity has consequences they don't foresee. Consequences so terrible they shouldn't be enforced.

I think sexting is one of them.