Teachable moments are supposed to be just that: teachable moments. When I was growing up my teachable moments came at home (when I decided to harvest all of my neighbor's flower garden), at school (when a careless mathematical mistake meant a complete revision of my honor's thesis), and socially (when I chose to explore what "everyone else was doing" at the risk of jeopardizing my own integrity). Abnormal? No. Criminal? No. Public? Yes and No. Teachable? Yes.
Today's young adults are doing just as I did growing up. They are testing the waters and exploring notions of identity. And yet, it is a different world in which they are doing this. The stakes are higher and the very nature of their lives (highly connected, everything digital, very visual) is public by default with privacy "opt in."
Recently our school community felt the full weight of students' explorations, the ease of digital communication, and this public-by-default nature of their interactions. Like so many other schools nationwide we had to address an incident of "sexting" between 8th grade students. Although one draws some "comfort" in reading the Pew report on Teens and Sexting that it's not "just us," it is still very difficult and my heart bleeds for those involved directly as well as for our school community as a whole. It is a very public moment, and I wish the media would step back and capitalize on this differently: as a teachable moment for the broader public. If the incident has to be so public, then let's model the highest form of adult behavior and use this opportunity for the public good.
So how might I capitalize on this teachable moment? If you are a parent, as I am, here are a few suggestions:
1. Become Knowledgeable. The greatest gift we can give one another is building our own understanding and knowledge. What is sexting? What are the moral, emotional, developmental and legal issues? Here are a few resources that can help:
General Resources on Technology and Safety:
Specific Resources on Teens and Sexting:http://www.
2. Talk With Your Child. If kids are operating with "public as the default" and privacy as a choice, then they need help learning to set appropriate boundaries. One of the reasons I am so passionate about the integration of technology and networked learning in schools is because our kids need our help. Technology tools that enable unlimited interactions and unlimited sharing of information (of all kinds) are not going away. There is much to be excited about for those of us in education, but we need parents as our partners so that we can build our kids' capacity to navigate. Ask your child to talk to you about and show you how she uses any technology--cell phones, laptops, the Internet, XboxLive. And, remember: this is a conversation, not a "yes, no" multiple choice inquisition. In this particular situation, here are a few possible conversation starters:
- What do you know about sexting? What do you think about it?
- Have you ever received photos or other images that you thought were inappropriate? If so, what did you do about it?
- What does it mean we we say "inappropriate?"
- What do think about when you post pictures or comments online, or send a text message? When you share information, what control do you have over who sees it and what they do with it?
3. Establish Boundaries. Our children are at great risk without boundaries. It is unlimited access without any guidelines that fosters trouble. What boundaries should you set with technology? I think it depends on the child, the family, and the use. My suggestion is to take your family values, the purpose of employing the technology, and then create guidelines for its use. And then, the hardest part, is holding family members accountable. Though difficult, this is where they understand the boundaries because "the walk matches the talk."
4. Know the Rules.
In recent months, the media has reported broadly on sexting, teens, child pornography, and the law. (See New York Times' Sexting May Place Teens at Legal Risk.) I hope you will talk with your child about the law as it is currently written. However, I hope the powers-that-be will consider the unreasonableness of applying that law to these situations. Researcher and associate professor at the University of Texas-Austin S. Craig Watkins writes:
Rather than prosecute young people for sexting, we need to use these as “teachable moments” about technology, sexuality, and intimacy. In the digital world teens are acting out many of the scripts and images they consume in popular culture. Unfortunately, the images of femininity and masculinity in pop culture provide narrow notions of gender identity for teens to experiment with. A 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation titled Sex on TV4 found that between 1998 and 2005, the number of sexual scenes on television nearly doubled. In my 2006 book Hip Hop Matters I document the degree to which popular music and music videos marketed to young people incorporate increasingly sexualized content, bodies, and imagery.
We have a teachable moment. We all have much to learn. I hope we will do so in a way that benefits our kids- by keeping them safe, making them smart, and understanding they are just kids. In my opinion, that is what is worthy of being "public."