Ask any parent. Teens feel entitled to be on Facebook, and they often have different ideas of what’s appropriate to post on Facebook.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
This theoretical argument collided with reality at a sleepover party two years ago in Indiana. During the course of the get-together, a group of teenaged girls took racy and suggestive photos of themselves, using lollipops as props, and posted them on Facebook and MySpace.
Though the pictures were taken over the summer at a non-school activity, the principal determined the girls had violated the school’s code of conduct and suspended them from extracurricular activities for the entire school year.
This month, the court ruled the principal was wrong to punish the girls in this way, citing the First Amendment. But while they can go now back to volleyball and cheerleading, it’s hardly a win for the girls and their families, as the images went viral.
The ruling does show the legal world is moderating its early interpretation of teen sexting, which initially judged teens’ occasionally explicit photos by the same standard as indecent photos used by child pornographers. Now, however, legislators no longer treat teens in the same way they would sexual predators, choosing instead to encourage self-awareness and knowledge.
For example, the New Jersey state assembly recently overwhelmingly approved a measure to direct those caught sexting into intense educational programs, rather than subject them to criminal prosecution.
Participants in the program will learn about the penalties of their actions, rather than registering as sex offenders for texting nude or partially nude photos to friends.
The legislation provides that county prosecutors can use their own discretion in determining teens’ eligibility for the program in New Jersey. Other states are considering similar measures.
This news doesn’t mean all adolescents use social media solely for sexual exploration. Many tweens and teens use it to seek out other kids who share their interests. Some see this a positive lesson in developing adolescents’ identities as active participants, as social media may inspire young people towards higher goals.
For example, the “Do Something,” non-profit organization uses social media to encourage teens to volunteer in their communities, and other charities are following suit.
This spring, Do Something used text messaging to quickly involve one hundred teens in a project to tackle hunger in their communities. The program’s director is aiming to sign up more than three million members by 2014 using mobile communication.
“Teens receive, on average, over 3,300 texts a month, and their phones are part of their social tissue,” said Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn founder and member of Do Something’s board. “I’m convinced this is the best way to move teen philanthropic action to a new level in terms of scale and effectiveness.”
The recognition that social media wields awesome power over young adults contributed to author Rachel Simmons’ revision of her seminal book on young girls, “Odd Girl Out.” In the new revision, Simmons provides some practical tips for parents and other care givers on navigating this new technology.
For example, Simmons recommends keeping the family computer in a public place to keep young people from using it for questionable behavior. Simmons reassures parents they are absolutely entitled to ask kids to show them what screen they are viewing.
Simmons also advocates using a “cell phone parking area” to put mobile devices away during homework and dinnertime. Additionally, the author is firmly against letting kids sleep with their phones since their alerts encourage late-night chats, in addition to depleting children of much-needed slumber.
In addition to more supervision, Simmons also encourages adults to review their mobile gadget and social media use, since it won’t go over well if parents prohibit children from activities they themselves serially violate.