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Tales from the Motherhood: Teach, model self-acceptance

Batavia middle-school ‘sexting’ situation sparks dialogue between kids, parents

Published: Friday, May 2, 2014 5:11 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 2, 2014 6:24 p.m. CDT

It has been reported that several Batavia middle-schoolers photographed nude “selfies” (allegedly not while on school property) and recently shared them with other kids via text and other electronic applications, like SnapChat. And now they, and their parents, are finding themselves in a world of pain.

Oy vey.

Batavia police have been investigating the “sexting” situation since Tuesday, when a student reportedly notified a school staff member about the nature of the images being shared. In many cases, sexting, the practice of creating and disseminating images of nude or semi-nude subjects via electronic media, including cellphones, is prohibited by Illinois law when the subject is a minor (under 18 years of age), even if the subject is oneself. Receiving and not immediately deleting said images from cellphones or other devices can constitute being in possession of child pornography, as well. That’s an eye-opener for many parents, I’m sure. Could some Batavia kids be charged?

“Right now, there are no charges pending,” said Batavia Police Detective Kevin Bretz when I interviewed him by phone Thursday afternoon.

“Educating kids and parents comes first and foremost,” he added, and I agree. Current laws predate the advent of many social media applications, which have made creating and sharing such images far too easy. Fortunately, some states are pushing for decriminalization of minors who share such images with their peers – as long as it’s a first offense – in favor of counseling and supervision.

But charges are currently pending in Barrington, against two middle-school boys who allegedly shared or possessed explicit photos and video. A quick Web search reveals that communities in several other states – Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana, for example – are also currently wrestling with similar concerns.

The talk among some parents in Batavia is that their children report that kids “traded” these images and referred to the whole thing as “Pokemon” to hide the talk.

“That’s part of an open investigation, so I won’t comment on it at this point,” Bretz stated when I asked about it.

I’m sad. I’m sad that anyone, especially children, would feel they must degrade themselves in order to gain others’ approval and feel they belong, but I’m not surprised. After all, unwittingly or otherwise, we’ve all had a hand in creating and supporting a hyper-sexualized culture. Our children are suffering the consequences and it’s time to do something about it. First, however, we need to help them manage rapidly evolving technology.

My kids’ devices live in my bedroom overnight (when inhibitions tend to nose-dive) so my kids won’t be tempted to lose sleep, and computers stay in common areas of our home (where I can supervise). I know their passwords to any email and social media accounts, and device histories are routinely and randomly checked. Limits are also set on the kinds of content allowed. Software is now widely available that enables parents to easily monitor their kids’ devices, and some, I’m told, will even send to the parent any photo the child takes before it sees the light of day. Yes, it’s far simpler to take these measures if protocols are established up front when devices first come home, but hey, we’re the parents.

We’re allowed to create and edit rules as needed. Yes, this means that kids’ privacy is limited, and that’s uncomfortable, but I’m a no-drama mama. A gentle but firm explanation of expectations and boundaries, coupled with repeated discussions about why they’re uber important (including the far-reaching, often permanent record of electronic transmissions and other consequences, both legal and emotional), seems pretty effective. The thing is, parenting matters. Like it or not, the frontal lobes of our brains, where reasoning and judgment reside, do not fully mature until our mid-20s. A perfect storm exists, then, when we toss young people together with a whole lotta sophisticated technology and forget to stir in the key ingredient – active parenting – early and often.

Talk to your kids. Why do they think someone would be willing to exploit themselves in exchange for acceptance? “Do you really want to belong to that group? Does that person really sound like a good friend? What makes a good friend, anyhow?” We’ve all seen the headlines about kids who have killed themselves over pictures like this. That’s terrifying, to be sure, but this whole thing reminds me of something a mentor taught me when I was a young counselor – that the Chinese symbol for the word “crisis” is actually comprised of two characters. One represents “danger” and the other – when used in certain situations – “opportunity.”

What we have here is a perfect opportunity.

If we do nothing, or if we merely turn our backs and smugly judge those involved, we simply perpetuate this mushrooming problem. Instead, we can have these candid conversations with our children and most important, teach and model self-acceptance. And then we can decide to stop tolerating a mindless consumption of our hyper-sexualized culture.  We can watch television with them, for example, and have discussions about what they’re seeing. We can notice, and help our kids notice, the subtle and not so subtle ways some programming really “programs” us to accept this stuff as normal and even “OK.” It’s not.

I am not proposing a ban on certain programming (have you actually watched the Disney Channel recently?), but simply urging parents to teach their children how to critically and thoughtfully engage their world. For example, I get certain Chicago media updates in my Facebook newsfeed. Know what I found Thursday afternoon when I took a break from editing this column?

“Move over Mila... the “Sexiest Woman in the World” is --->”

Is it any wonder that we’re wrestling with this stuff? I will “unlike” this media outlet if postings like this continue. But that’s not all. I told them so, too, and will tell others like them (who, ironically, keep ratings up and advertising dollars flowing by reporting scandals such as the one that now plagues Batavia), that I’m done turning a blind eye to this kind of content. Enough is enough.

Here’s how I commented on the media outlet’s Facebook page: “This is not news. And it’s damaging. You are feeding and promoting the very culture, a hypersexualized culture, that inspires kids to engage in damaging sexting, about which you then get to report. (My daughter is a seventh-grader at the school in Batavia where you were camped-out yesterday.) ... There are other ways to attract ratings and advertising revenue, but not without viewers. I will ‘unlike’ you and any other organization which continues these practices, and my family will stop consuming your television content.”

You got it. If this news outlet and others like it cannot be inspired to do the right thing just because it’s good for our children, then I’ll appeal to their baser instincts and threaten their bottom lines by patronizing media that will. I’m taking this seriously. Who’s with me?

I hope the kids implicated in this sexting thing remember, and are reminded, that they are not their mistakes. I hope their parents remember this, too. And then I hope we will all do what needs to be done so this opportunity isn’t wasted.

• Jennifer DuBose lives in Batavia with her husband, Todd, and their two children, Noah and Holly. Contact her at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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