Sexting: Should adolescents be expelled?

This post was first published on parenting in the digital age.
Phones are being used by teens for sexual exploration via the exchange of sexually suggestive content (sexting).  Sexting includes explicit text, and nude or semi-nude personal pictures or videos captured on a cell phone or digital camera and sent via personal texts, emails, and instant messages. (Uhls et al, 2011).   Pew research in 2009 found that 4% of adolescents report sending sexts while 15% report receiving them.  The report also found that there was no difference in the amount of sexts sent or received even when parents checked their children’s cell phones.  Thus, kids seem to do it, even if they know their parents may see the photos!

Yet even adults, elected officials such as Anthony Weiner, have made these kind of boneheaded moves.  And so far, he is claiming that he won’t resign.  In this environment where everyone has access to this tool and thus bad (or stupid) behavior is easily documented and passed on to many others, should youth be punished?

It’s potentially dangerous, and in fact, in some states, teenagers have been prosecuted for doing this.  In one state, an 18-year-old boy was registered as a sex offender for 25 years because of this practice.  In California, Senator Ted Lieu has just introduced a bill that was unanimously passed in the California Senate to allow schools to expel children who get caught sexting (hear me on KPCC (89.3) talking to the Senator about the bill).

It’s been shown that the adolescent brain doesn’t fully develop until they are in their early 20s with the pre frontal cortex, the part that acts as the CEO of the brain, controlling planning and modulating mood, maturing last. As the prefrontal cortex matures, teenagers develop more control over impulses and usually make better judgments  (PBS).

In fact, research found that the adolescent brain responds more to reward and stimulus (i.e. risk taking behavior) (Galvan et al), ingredients that sexting contains in spades.  So will the threat of expelling kids stop them from sexting?   Haven’t adolescents always explored their sexuality?  In fact, isn’t that almost a rite of passage for adolescents?  The mobile phone is another tool that children are using for exploring intimacy and part of that is exploring their sexuality.

Most psychological research shows that talking to your children is the best way to teach them.  Keeping an open dialogue so that they feel comfortable sharing with you aspects of their lives without fear of extreme punishment; if they feel you will judge or punish them, they will begin hiding things from you.  Everyone makes mistakes, so perhaps the best path is to help children understand that these actions have consequences, perhaps even showing them what happens to adults who make these kinds of mistakes (see this post about the UCLA student who ranted on YouTube for an example).  This kind of learning might be more effective than the threat of expulsion.