One of the exercises during the week after Christmas for many of us is the thought processes we engage in for making (or not making) New Year’s resolutions. I was reminded of the annual endeavor after reading a news story recently involving Jim Joros, the principal of Hillwood Middle School in the Keller Texas, school district. Perhaps in exasperation, Joros stepped up and placed his job in some jeopardy to inform the parents of his students that a new and alarming activity of some of today’s teens (sexting) had reached their school. For readers unaware of the term, it refers to sending explicit images through text messages on cell phones.
The letter the principal sent home to parents was in part a warning; he wrote the activity could be a felony. A little harsh, but he is technically accurate. In Pennsylvania some teens were charged with child pornography for sexting. Joros’ letter also included a plea that would make a good resolution for parents for the new decade. He said please spend time discussing with your child the seriousness of sending, receiving and forwarding inappropriate photos of fellow students or anyone for that matter.
A Pew Research Center nationwide survey found that 15 percent of teens say they have received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos via text messaging. A CBS / AP survey reported the percentage to be at 20 percent. Whatever the actual number, both surveys point to a serious and growing practice among teens, and the least danger to them may be the possibility of arrest.
We live in a world where information flows and technology connects us instantly around the globe and the rules have changed. Thomas Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for the New York Times, explains. When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cell phone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on You Tube, everyone is a film maker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or film maker, everyone else is a public figure.
What does that mean for young people? It means that the reputation of teens today is going to be set in stone so much earlier in life. My generation got to screw up, and for the most part most of the screw-ups went unnoticed. For this generation much of what they say, do or write will be preserved online forever. This may be the most important message for teens to comprehend; nothing that enters the digital world is private and it can stay around forever. For this generation, potential employers will most likely Google them before they ever read their resumes.
Dov Seidman owns a business ethics company and has written a book, “How.” His thesis is simple, how you live your life and how you conduct your business matters more today than ever. It is so easy for people to see what you do today, and they have the ability to tell so many other people about it, on their own without the benefit of a filter or editor. Seidman writes the persistence of memory in electronic form makes second chances harder to come by in the information age. You have nowhere to hide your skeletons, there are no closets.
I understand the Keller principal’s approach – scare or threaten the teens with the prospect of punishment. However, the likelihood that large percentages of teens are going to be arrested and incarcerated is highly remote. The permanent damage they may do to their digital fingerprint is not. It has never been easy being the parent of a teenager, but now the digital age and the popularity and proliferation of cell phones has made it even harder.
Personal New Year’s resolutions are often directed at changing behavior – eat less, exercise more, stop smoking, or some other bad habit. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it may be wise for all of us, parents and nonparents alike, to focus on how to behave, interact and engage others in the information age.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.