How many parents insisted after Columbine and Sept. 11 that their children be reachable at all times? How comforting to give kids cell phones, so that urgent reassurances were never more than 10 digits away. And how handy, as we juggled jobs and meetings and soccer matches, to be able to rearrange deployments on the fly. Their phones served our needs so well; too bad we didn't factor in adolescent ingenuity.
Unfortunately it's too late to legislate that no one should be allowed a cell phone until he or she is at least 18 and fully licensed to use it. Every parent understands that handing over the car keys marks a fateful passage, so much more freedom and possibility, so much more risk and temptation. But cell phones took us by surprise: so small, so innocent, so powerful in the hands of a bored or twisted teen who now has an extremely efficient tool for wasting time, cheating on tests, organizing fights, bullying classmates, phoning in bomb threats, arranging drug deals and, more commonly, vamping in a junior-varsity version of Girls Gone Wild. (See pictures of the cell phone's history.)
Is this the dark side of the parental imagination? Yes. But a study released last December found that one in five teens had sent or posted a naked picture of themselves, and a third had received such a picture or video by text message or e-mail. One school principal suspects that a random ransacking of the phones in his school would find indecent pictures on half to two-thirds of them. Three out of four teens say posting suggestive stuff "can have serious negative consequences," which means they know it's dumb--and they do it anyway.
But there's nothing quite like the image of your child on a registry of sex offenders to concentrate the parental mind. It now has a catchy new label, but "sexting" has been around, as a prank and a problem, for years: in 2004 a 15-year-old Pittsburgh, Pa., girl was charged with sexual abuse of children and dissemination of child pornography when she posted nude pictures of herself online. This seemed like a confounding twist in prosecutorial philosophy, since the victim and the villain in this case were the same child. But just in the past year, more than a dozen states have followed suit, arresting kids as young as 13 for sending or receiving smutty pictures on their phones. For parents, these cases have suddenly raised the prospect of retirement savings melted down to pay legal bills, college dreams deferred, scholarships lost--all because their kids were caught doing what kids do, and were prosecuted aggressively in hopes that others would notice and clean up their act. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)
The rush of prosecutions, however, just reminds us that the law makes a lousy parent. A legal system naturally depends on deterrence; you make an example of those you manage to catch, so that potential offenders think twice. But to many a teen, danger is as likely to feed desire as to frustrate it. The qualities required to shape their behavior, the humor and patience mixed just a certain way with clarity and resolve, are too much to expect from laws written to apply equally to everyone. Don't we need to exempt them from prosecution for being idiots and to find some better way to punish conduct that we didn't manage to prevent?
Especially since sexting might actually be the least of our worries. Compared with what they are actually doing, teenagers' virtual sex lives may be less a mirror than a mirage, an image of how they see themselves that vanishes as you get up close. The research suggests that even as they get more electronically immodest, they are delaying actual sex, having fewer partners and generally behaving more responsibly than many of their parents did. By all means, come down hard on the kid who uses a phone to cheat or bully or harass or cause harm. But when it comes to baring all, remind them that even if they escape the law they'll never erase the trail, when they decide to apply for college or a job or run for President: indiscretion lives forever, their naked teenage ghost in cyberspace. (See the top 10 scandals of 2008.)
Just don't imagine that you can prevail by brute force. You can block websites, limit time online, screen e-mail, unplug the webcam. But kids are more nimble than wise; they will find a work-around. Teachers know that students can text under the desk without glancing down, their phones set with a ringtone pitched too high for adults to hear. We are fighting on their turf. They are up in the trees and underground and in caves while we march around in our bright red uniforms trying to defend their dignity and virtue. Not a fair fight.