Sucky Phones & Sexting

Marcia Forbes PhD

I laughed to myself when I hear the expression, but to the 10 year old beside me it was not a joke. She was quite serious in condemning her parents for making her suffer with what she described as a ‘sucky phone’. I later hear the very same expression from a 10 year old boy in another of my in-depth interviews. These were upper-middle class tweens who found it intolerable that they didn’t have the latest smart phone which would allow them to do much more than just send or receive phone calls.

From media reports Microsoft wants to try to take them and others like them out of their misery via KIN 1 or KIN 2, phone devices which only weeks ago we learnt targeted youths and specifically their hunger for social networking. No sooner had these phones been launched in April than a furor broke out over their promotional video. The video is reported to have given some the impression that Microsoft supports sexting, sending nude/semi-nude pictures via text message. Microsoft made it clear it does not and promised to remove the offending section of the video.

Sexting is reportedly quite the thing now among youths. In a survey of 13 to 26 year olds conducted in the US by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, a full one third (33%) of young adults and 20% of teens are sending/posting on-line nude or seminude pictures of themselves. Females are in the lead with this. Almost 60% of young adults and 40% of teens are sending sexually suggestive messages. Males are ahead with these messages. These ‘sexters’ are ‘guppies’, no not of the fish variety, but ‘generation uploaders’ which is what guppy means in cyberlanguage.

Back home in Jamaica the matter of sexting came up with regard to an ad to boost text messaging. The ad, in promoting texting, cleverly played on sex and sexuality. I believe there was only one letter to the editor about it. This is not surprising as we Jamaicans are generally highly sexual and perhaps highly sexed. Everything gets sexualized. Male/female relationships, cell phones, texting, you name it, we’ll sexualize it. There is no survey on sexting in Jamaica but I’ve seen a few porn videos via the cell phone and numerous sexually suggestive pictures on Facebook. Guppies seem to upload any and everything.

The latest Hear the Children Voice newsletter, put out by the Betty Blaine led Hear the Children Cry organization, reported that “Many unsuspecting parents, especially those who are not up on the technology, are unaware that perverts are targeting their children on the Internet — through their cell phones.” “Sometimes even happy, well adjusted youngsters find the excitement of an Internet ‘friend’ hard to resist.” They further remarked that, “A mobile phone is not just a phone. It can be an open door to tragedy for a youngster!” Although it is noteworthy that in reporting on missing youths only one case left home because of being lured via the cell phone, having met her abductor via a cell phone chat room, this may be the tip of the iceberg.

The previously mentioned US survey report highlights five tips to parents in helping them to talk about sex and technology:

1) Talk with your children about what they are doing in cyberspace. I will add that Jamaican parents need to talk with their children and teenagers about what they doing on their cell phones. Most of them do not have sucky phones and are quite capable of surfing the internet via their smart phones.

2) Know who your kids are communicating with. I know that with teenagers this is especially hard and likely to be strongly resisted but until teens get to about age 15 to 16 parents really need to monitor their on-line activities. Be aware that you will likely be branded as sucky parents—useless and to be discarded like sucky phones.

3) Consider limitations of electronic communication. My sister in the UK gave my 13 year old niece only two hours leisure time on the computer each day. I remember the howls of protestation and strategies to circumvent this rule. To be honest most times when I see her pop up on my instant message (IM), I can’t even make sense of her message ‘trailers’ (my word since I don’t know what the text accompaning IM pictures is called). They seem heavily coded and not intended for me anyway.

4) Be aware of what your child is posting publicly. We all know how tough this is. You can only be aware if you understand the technology and how to navigate your way around it. The uninitiated will face distinct challenges. I remember hearing about a school in Barbados where children seemed to have been sexting or doing something close to that. The poor teacher confiscated the phone but didn’t even know how to turn it on.

5) Set expectations. This is stated last but to me is one of the most important of the five tips. When parents/adults make abundantly clear the types of behaviours they will accept and that they expect from their children, things are more likely to work smoothly.

It’s been said and ‘resaid’, parents need to parent!! Reduce the risk of sexting, even if it means giving your children a sucky phone.