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Why We Need to Talk to Our Jewish Teens About Sexting

boys at tableBy Rabbi Daniel Brenner

Writing sexually explicit messages or sending explicit photos is now part of the “normal” development cycle of teens. According to a recent study from the University of Texas, 60% of teens have been asked for a sext and 27% have sent one. While the lead researcher on the study, Dr. Jeff Temple, remarked that “‘I’ll show you mine, you show me yours’ has been around for a long time,” he also pointed to new dangers connected to social media which make it easier for explicit texts and photos to fall into the wrong hands.

Jewish teens in particular, who have smartphones earlier than the average American teen, have heard multiple times about the dangers of sexting from teachers, counselors, and parents. Many Jewish teens are media savvy and some will have heard about cases in which teens who sexted have been arrested on charges of child pornography.

So why do our teens keep sexting?

The Gendered Expectations of Sexting

To answer that question it is important to understand the ways in which gender expectations relate to sexting. Sexting is perceived as flirting and is seen by both teen boys and girls as a normal and relatively low-risk private matter between two people. However, girls report much higher levels of peer pressure to sext than boys. A study conducted at the University of South Carolina found that both girls and boys are concerned that when a relationship dissolves and private messages become public the “victims” of sexting will be girls. Tween and teen boys, however, experience a different type of peer pressure: the pressure from other males to share pornography – and the photos of these jilted girls – to prove their manliness.

A professor in the Netherlands, Dr. Mariek Vanden Abeele has pointed to the underlying factors that determine the choices made by teens make:

“In the eyes of teenagers, sexting and mobile porn use do bring short-term benefits in terms of enhancing popularity in the peer group that may in fact outweigh potential long-term risks associated with these behaviors.”

At greatest risk, says Vanden Abelee, are girls who feel that they lack girls as friends and who feel pressured by boys to share explicit photos of themselves.

What Can We Do?

So, how can we help teens to choose long-term success over short-term popularity?

Here are some suggestions connected to some of the classic themes of Jewish ethics:

“Do not separate yourself from community.” – Hillel

Many teens do not find a sense of community at school. The best way to curb https://propfinast.com negative online behavior is to ensure that the teens you care about have a small group of off-line peers with whom they feel high self-esteem. Teens benefit in particular from being with other teens who have experienced similar gendered expectations and limitations that they have encountered – others who will understand their daily challenges to fit in.

Like seeing one’s face reflected in a pool of water, what our hearts place before others is returned back to us by others. – Proverbs 27:19

Teens (and adults) struggle with peer pressure and often give in to their desire to fit into a group. That said, teens also spend a great deal of time trying to be true to what is in their hearts and they often need help in figuring out how to get there. Adults have an important role to play in helping teens to be their best selves by engaging in conversations that address the honest complications of trying to be accepted by a social group.

The sins we commit, these are not the worst thing. After all, temptation is powerful, and we are weak. The great crime is that we could move beyond our mistakes at any time, and do not. –Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Teens can be incredibly resilient, making mistakes online and off, but not letting those mistakes define them. While everything in the digital world is “forever,” it is important to remind teens that we live in a world where change, forgetting and forgiveness are possible.

2,200 years ago, Ben Sira wrote that:

“Honor and shame are in the power of the tongue.”

Today that power is amplified by Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and the various other platforms that teens use. Even though the technology gap is widening between generations, teens are still looking to adults for guidance, as they seek to balance risk-taking and peer pressure with a desire to maintain their honor.

A good name is more precious than fortune, respect of one’s peers is more valuable than silver or gold. – Proverbs 22:1

It’s not easy to be present to teens as guides when we are caught up in our own fears, shock, and lack of understanding of their behavior. But when we can support teens in finding adult guidance and in developing their own moral compasses we can feel better as parents, educators, and community leaders that we are doing our part to help teens build a solid sense of self and a “good name” as they enter adulthood.

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