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Sexting and the Teenage Brain

Remember when you were a teenager? If you were anything like me, you spent a lot of time thinking about other people and what they thought of you. "How do I fit in?" "Am I ugly?" "Am I cool?" "Who will my friends be?" and perhaps the mother of them all, "Who will LIKE ME?" Teenage human relations tend to revolve more around this question than any other, then and now. The way that we sought the answers to these and so many other questions about ourselves was to interact with those around us, usually identifying with particular groups of people and trying to "fit in." As if our human need to belong were not difficult enough to manage on a daily basis, the teenage years are also the time when puberty comes to town, bringing with it our emerging sexuality. So, as teenagers, we must begin to come to terms with a more mature sense of our individuality, manage that emerging sense of self within the context of an often volatile mix of other individuals experiencing the same transformation, AND do so while being bombarded with new feelings and urges which we've never experienced before. Did I mention that we experience all of this without the benefit of a fully developed prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that helps us to think about decisions and actions in the context of risk and reward?

Back in the late 70's and early 80's the social milieu and romantic environment created by these conditions included a lot of in-person flirtation, "love" notes, third party consultations about "who likes you," phone calls, and yes, actual dates to the movies, or even these places called "Malls" that were just starting to be built. We had parties too, at which things sometimes got really interesting. We took risks, made bad decisions, sometimes hurt each other's feelings, but in general we started to figure some of it out. Our parents and sometimes our teachers were able to help us wend our way through this tangled web of actions and reactions because it was all familiar territory to them. The terms of engagement had been fairly consistent, even going back to when they went through puberty. It's always been a tough time for everyone, but until recently, at least we all recognized most of the variables and conditions.

Then we invented "smart" phones, which give our adolescent romantics the ability to be less than intelligent by sending naked pictures to each other as a form of flirtation or relationship building. While the media has dubbed this "sexting," which is a pithy label, I would argue that the title is misleading. Yes, teens are sending pictures of themselves to each other, and sometimes then sharing those pictures with others, creating very problematic, exponential-type spreading of these pictures among their peers, but many of the accounts I've read about and been involved with are surprisingly devoid of "sexual" context. The context of flirtation, wanting to belong, risk-taking, narcissism, gender power dynamics – those are all there in spades, but these acts of sharing pictures are often curiously devoid of any other sexual language or innuendo. In fact, as you will see from one of the links below, some sociologists and scientists are starting to contend that sexting and social media in general are actually creating safer conditions for teens.

I'll leave the analysis of that to the social scientists, but it is clear to me that this phenomenon is mostly about the same developmental rituals played out with a new set of rules and technologies. That is not to say that the potential consequences are not serious, because they are. But if those of us -- parents and educators -- who lived through the old paradigm are going to help our teenagers navigate this new one, we need to understand it as well. And yes, teenagers who attend Wooster have sent naked pictures to each other, or will be asked to, or will ask others to do the same.

Given the prevalence of these behaviors nationwide, we are working on thoughtful ways of educating our parents and helping our young people to make better decisions. As is our practice here at Wooster, we are doing our research and digging deeper and to that end I've attached links to three readings that have helped us to better understand what is happening. The first, "Why Kids Sext?" is the fascinating account of "sexting" in a small American town and the second, with the all-time great title of "Dude, Where's My Prefrontal Cortex" sheds some scientific light on the inner workings of the brain during adolescence and how these developmental processes affect decision-making and risk-taking in our young people. The third link, as I mentioned above, takes a more statistical view of the phenomenon. I would encourage you to follow some of the links in the third article.




I hope that you will take the time to read these resources and stay tuned for further conversations that we'll be having as a community to understand this problem and take some actions to help our own teens make the best decisions that they can given the many challenges of adolescence. While we don't want to minimize the potentially damaging effects that these interactions can have in the short and long term, we do want to do our best to understand the the prevalence and the causes as we seek reasonable and productive solutions.

Posted by Matt Byrnes on Wednesday February, 11, 2015 at 07:56AM


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Matt Byrnes

Matt Byrnes
Head of School

Latest Posts

What I Have Been Reading:


The Martian, Andy Weir

Not just for sci-fi fans. Fun, exciting, and interesting story about what it would be like to survive on Mars.

Sold, Patrica McCormick

The story of a 12 year-old Nepalese girl who is sold into slavery in the sex trade of India. Based upon true accounts. Tough to read, but important to read as well because human trafficking is a real, and growing, problem.

Non-fiction for Fun:

The Boys in the Boat, Daniel J. Brown

Great story and some very interesting history.

An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson

The first two books of the Liberation Trilogy will teach you a lot about the evolution of our involvement in World War Two.

About School, Thinking, Teaching, Learning, etc.:

Why Children Don’t Like School, Daniel Willingham

Lots of neuroscience well-connected to the life of school, teaching, and learning.

Make it Stick, Peter Brown, et al.

More neuroscience but a deeper dive into how we (and students) can “forget less” if we make some changes to our behaviors, routines, and assessments. Our faculty read this past summer.

Leadership, Innovation, and making things work:

The Hard Thing about Hard Things, Ben Horowitz

How successful start-ups and innovators work.

Things a Little Bird Told Me, Biz Stone

Twitter Founder writes about his journey -- a great read for any teenager or parent of one.

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