Perils of Digital Intimacy

A somewhat terrifying (for a parent) piece by Hanna Rosen about the culture of sexting in Louisa County, Virginia, where police discovered an Instagram account with hundreds of nude photos of local teen girls:

Within an hour, the deputies realized just how common the sharing of nude pictures was at the school. “The boys kept telling us, ‘It’s nothing unusual. It happens all the time,’ ” Lowe recalls. Every time someone they were interviewing mentioned another kid who might have naked pictures on his or her phone, they had to call that kid in for an interview. After just a couple of days, the deputies had filled multiple evidence bins with phones, and they couldn’t see an end to it. Fears of a cabal got replaced by a more mundane concern: what to do with “hundreds of damned phones. I told the deputies, ‘We got to draw the line somewhere or we’re going to end up talking to every teenager in the damned county!’ ”

What I love is how Rosen goes way beyond the scandal to show that kids aren't being corrupted by technology as much as they are using technology to explore new avenues of intimacy. Of course there's a huge risk in sharing nude photos of yourself (especially if the state then charges you with distribution of child pornography), but there's a risk to any form of intimacy, sexual or otherwise. We assume the teenagers doing this simply aren't assessing that risk, but it's fascinating to hear them explain their own understanding of the tradeoffs.

Why do kids sext? One recent graduate told me that late at night, long after dinner and homework, her parents would watch TV and she would be in her room texting with her boyfriend. “You have a beautiful body,” he’d write. “Can I see it?” She knew it would be hard for him to ever really see it. She had a strict curfew and no driver’s license yet, and Louisa County is too spread out for kids to get anywhere on their own without a car.

“I live literally in the middle of nowhere,” the girl told me. “And this boy I dated lived like 30 minutes away. I didn’t have a car and my parents weren’t going to drop me off, so we didn’t have any alone time. Our only way of being alone was to do it over the phone. It was a way of kind of dating without getting in trouble. A way of being sexual without being sexual, you know? And it was his way of showing he liked me a lot and my way of saying I trusted him.”