There are simple steps we usually follow when we first meet someone. We generally ask where they're from, or what type of work they do or which school they attend; and, over time, the questions delve deeper into family and more personal issues. Sounds logical, right? Well, technology is changing our dynamic, including how we start our relationships and when we choose to share certain pieces of private information.
Today's youth, the most tech-savvy and information-sharing generation in human history, have become so used to exchanging information digitally that they're immune to how fast it can spread (and how long it will remain archived and searchable online). The millennial generation has redefined expectations of 'privacy' by openly sharing some of their most personal attributes - from sultry sexual stories to nude pictures of themselves - in a new form of e-flirting called "sexting". A recent survey indicates that as many as one out of every five teens engage in sexting, making this type of communication prevalent and commonplace amongst peer groups.
As adults, we frequently remind ourselves to be careful with our information online. For example, we create high-security passwords, clean out our browsing history, and verify websites before entering payment information. We're paranoid about identity theft and understand the need for maintaining a clean professional reputation on the internet. Teenagers, however, without their own personal finances to manage or career path to develop, see no consequence in making obscene information or images of themselves 'public'. These days, regardless of professional position or age, we're all developing our own digital profile to share with the globe.
So here lies the fundamental difference in how teens and adults view privacy as it pertains to digital communication: the perception of consequence. Because adults are more exposed to the repercussions of being too loose and casual with their digital (and storable, searchable, sortable, etc) content, we have an obligation to educate and warn younger people about the consequences before their public images become tainted - potentially ruining future job or educational opportunities. For example, there are plenty of resources available online to show kids examples of how job seekers have been disqualified due to inappropriate content (both images and text) appearing on their public Facebook profile - which has become a favorite tool for HR departments and recruiters. A valuable exercise for a parent would be to walk through their child's Facebook (and other online social networks) profile together and point out any potential red flags for job recruiters or college admissions counselors.
Now focus on the expectations that kids put on romantic relationships these days. An emphasis on dating and looking "sexy" begins at a very young age. Two people who have been involved for a certain period of time and are NOT yet engaged in a physical relationship are criticized for "moving too slow". Any sense of courtship and traditional romantic pursuit is thrown out the window. So what's next? Before long, the first step towards romance will be to download your new love interest's digital profile, complete with nude photos and sexual preferences.
The 20% of our youth who are sexting regularly are also depriving themselves of something much deeper: valuable and meaningful relationships. By starting their relationships by exchanging very personal private information casually, they are reducing their chances of ever getting to know their peers on a more natural and meaningful level. I'd hate to think about how they'll handle these relationships when they're older and are forced to redefine 'privacy' all over again. This issue is not one that parents will be able to tackle overnight, but persistently encouraging children to develop positive relationships - beyond obscenities and sexuality - will align them with their peers who are also cognizant of the dangers of digital overexposure.
In addition to the frightening cultural implications of sexting, teens may be susceptible to punishment in violation of school policies and state laws, including felonies that impose prison sentences. Although I do not believe our law enforcement should create a habit of arresting teens who are sexting, I think the legal implications of their behavior can be used as a scare tactic. Sometimes it is necessary to exhibit the worst-case scenario - criminal punishment and jail time - to deter future frivolous conduct.
So, we now know that our problems have gone beyond Kim Kardashian using a private sex-tape to market her image, or the Detroit Mayor exchanging sexually explicit text messages with his chief of staff. Now, we're talking about our own children and their friends, in today's schools, exposing themselves to serious long-term personal hardship by damaging their online image, and potentially breaking the law. Just as adults must be accountable for the children's internet and website usage, they must also now educate their children on the dangers - personal, professional, and cultural - of sexting.