Sexting in America: The Medium, the Message and the Truth About Teens

Sexting has become so serious that cell-phone companies are now creating public-service announcements for the specific purpose of dissuading teenagers from sending one another racy messages. LG has unveiled a series of ads about the consequences of impulsive texting, encouraging kids—through the dulcet tones of James Lipton—to "give it a ponder" before spreading a nasty text rumor or sending out a camera-phone pic of one's junk.

One's junk, actually, gets a bit shortchanged in the Lipton PSA, considering how prevalent sexting has become. A new study shows that a quarter of teens sext. It was sexting that contributed to the downfall of both Carrie Prejean and Tiger Woods. Sexting was a pivotal plot point on Glee. And while I personally know people who have sent and received "sexts," I have yet to meet anyone who was the victim of a widespread text rumor campaign. (Then again, I don't even know how to send group texts).

I'm also not a high-school student. It's sexting among teens that have parents (and phone companies worried about parents) most concerned. If you're Tiger Woods and you get caught sending a naughty text to a woman not your wife, well, that's your own dumb adult decision. With luck, the blowback from said decision is cushioned by the giant piles of money and good will you managed to accumulate during your professional career. Teenagers don't have careers, or money, or reputations that precede them. In fact, teenagers don't have brains that can help them fully process the long-term consequences of their actions.

What teenagers do have is an overwhelming curiosity about, and affinity for, sex. All those hormones, all those changing bodies—fascination with sex is one thing both a home-schooled saint or a juvie dropout have in common. And despite the prevalence of available sex and sexting, teenagers today aren't having more sex than they did 20 years ago, says Dr. Leslie R. Walker, director of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital. "The kids who are sexting are the same kids who might have done something like spin the bottle or had phone sex," says Walker. "I don't think kids are more sex-crazed—it's just another medium where they can express themselves and take chances."

And while it's important for kids to figure out where they fit sexually—what they like, who they like, how to interact with the people whom they like—it's more important for the adults to give kids the tools to do so. Without it, kids just stare at photos of other people's junk, looking for answers. "The issue isn't 'Oh my God, they're sexting,' " says Walker. "The issue is we still haven't helped them figure out how to navigate these relationships." With new research showing that parents wait too long to speak with their kids about sex, chances are good that they're not yet having the sexting talk.

It's also important to remember that any sexting discussion shouldn't just be about cell-phone etiquette— it's part of a larger conversation about kids, sex, and relationships. It's about whether you trust your partner, and what that trust means. It's about how relationships start and end, and what it means to be in love versus being infatuated. They're big, grown-up topics, but they're topics that kids are dealing with whether their parents discuss it with them or not. "Kids know about the dangers of sexting, but even though they could hear all about someone at their school having aterrible outcome, they're not going to think that's going to happenwith them and their boyfriend," says Walker. "So parents need to talk about sexting, but they also need to talk about what it means to be in a relationship."

Teenagers will hate this. They will roll their eyes, and turn beet red, and try to change the subject. "You have to expect they're going to do that," says Walker. "But even when they're rolling their eyes, they're still listening. They're always still listening."

I'll be discussing this topic further on the Dr. Nancy show this Wednesday at noon on MSNBC. Have a question, opinion, or concern you want us to address? Leave it in the comments below.