Selfie Sex-Ed: Should High Schools Teach Sexting Risks?

At present, the state only requires a bare-bones sex education. Recent events at North Penn High show that's not enough.

According to a long-term study by researchers at the University of Texas, sexting may actually be a normal part of sexual development among teens.

As provocative as that sounds, I think it’s probably true. And — as exaggerated and semi-Puritan as this sounds — it’s also true that sexting can completely ruin a teenager’s life.

A girl who shares an intimate photo with her boyfriend can be charged with a summary offense in Pennsylvania. He can face charges for having the images, too. 

Meanwhile, the emotional and social anguish caused by sexts going viral is hard to overstate, and doubly hard for a kid who’s only been on the planet for 15 years to understand before they hit “send.” Bullying over sexting has even been cited in some teens’ suicides.

Yet, Pennsylvania law does not require high schools to teach students about the consequences of sexting (in, ironically, a country where so much other education has become increasingly standardized). In fact, the state only mandates that schools provide a bare-bones sex education — just lessons on STDs and HIV. This has to change. The future is now.

In 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 30 percent of 17-year-olds with a cell phone had received a sexually explicit photo, while 8 percent had sent one.

Just this month, news broke about a case of sexting gone horribly wrong nearby: Police are investigating allegations that male students at North Penn High School swapped dozens of nude photos on the file-sharing site DropBox that were given to them by their female peers. The boys could face felony charges, while the girls, at the very least, must feel profoundly violated.

It’s also worth noting that sexting is becoming more common among adults — and it probably wouldn’t hurt if grown-ups had, at some point during their high school careers, learned about the risks of sexting. (Insert your favorite Anthony Weiner joke here.) In 2014, Pew found that 20 percent of adults with a cell phone said they’d received a nude or semi-nude photo, an increase from 15 percent in 2012. The percentage of cell phone users who had sent a sext also increased from 6 percent in 2012 to 9 percent in 2014.

Pennsylvania’s vague law leaves it up to principals to decide whether students learn about sexting risks, as well as whether they receive a high-quality sex education in general.

Sex ed “varies from school to school,” says Patrick Smith, associate director of education at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. “The School District of Philadelphia does a lot better than many other schools in Pennsylvania, but they could also improve, and the lack of resources has an impact there.”

Diane Sher, assistant general counsel at the Philadelphia School District, says principals are also told to teach students about the risks of sexting as well as the district’s anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies. More generally, district officials say that city high school students receive a comprehensive sex education.

“We have confidence in the principals that it’s a serious subject, and they’ll take it seriously,” said Sher.

But Smith says the courses in Philly high schools run the gamut, with some simply teaching students about anatomy, and others providing a comprehensive sex education, which encompasses everything from lessons on sexting risks to STDs to abstinence to healthy relationships. Other sex education advocates, as well as students and teachers, have said that Philadelphia does not provide comprehensive sex ed systemwide.

Regardless of who you believe, it’s clear that schools have the power to decide whether teens learn about anything beyond STDs and HIV, including the risks of sending intimate images. It’s the luck of the draw. In a state where sexting is a crime for teens, that’s not right.

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