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Jesse Singal

Panic over teen ‘sexting’ eclipses bigger threat

By Jesse Singal
January 8, 2010

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IN THE 1950s, a broad swath of the United States was convinced that crime and horror comic books were turning the nation’s children into murdering, raping monsters. Hearings were held, and eventually federal authorities pressured publishers into creating the Comics Code, an industry standard that neutered what had been a vibrant, eccentric - and yes, oftentimes provocative - form of American art.

Much of the carnage inflicted on comics and their publishers came from the outrage industry - everyone wanted in on this latest menace, which could be twisted to suit just about any cause.

A Catholic priest claimed that Superman “seems to personify the primitive religion expounded by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’’ and said comics were a dangerous distraction from Christianity. A 1945 Time cover asked, “Are Comics Fascist?’’ Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, employing some rather creative methodology, claimed that comic books influenced “the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child’’ he and his research team studied. (Wertham’s attire, on the other hand, was scientifically bulletproof: He took the stand during a 1954 Senate subcommittee hearing on comics donning a white lab coat.)

It seems quaint in today’s world of high-definition interactive violence and petabytes of free pornography that comic books could induce such hysteria. But they did, and we should pause occasionally to wonder how later generations will look at current efforts to rein in youth culture.

Last month an Associated Press/MTV survey on “sexting’’ revealed that 30 percent of 14- to 24-year-olds had been involved in some sort of sexual text-messaging. Eighteen percent had received a naked picture or video of someone they knew from that person. The poll was conducted when sexting had already been blamed in two cases in which teenage girls committed suicide after nude photos they sent of themselves were widely circulated.

The study and the deaths amplified the moral panic over sexting, which the media have been chewing over regularly in red-alert segments. On CNN in October, the superintendent of a school district embroiled in a sexting scandal explained that parents need to be educated so that they know “what the implications are if their children get caught up in this new way of behaving,’’ as though this crop of teenagers were the first to be fascinated by sex.

There are obviously real concerns here. Nobody wants their children sending naked pictures or getting sexually harassed via text message. But the overblown reaction has had some nasty consequences: Kids across the country have been arrested on child pornography charges when the pictures or videos in question are of themselves or their boyfriends or girlfriends.

The focus on sexting also siphons attention from a more substantive threat: bullying. A year-old study by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society discounted the notion that the wired world poses unique dangers to kids, finding instead that bullying and harassment “are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline.’’

The two suicides drive this point home. Both involved relentless harassment following the circulation of the photos, and yet the media generally pursued a “death by sexting’’ angle rather than the more pedestrian angle of bullying leading to suicide.

It’s useful, then, to place the concern over sexting into the broader context of youth culture hysteria. Just as was the case with comic books, many adults are reacting apoplectically to bits of technology or culture with which they have little familiarity. Like then, so-called experts try to convince us that kids today are more out of control than ever before. And like in the 1950s, misleading figures - often containing kernels of truth but conflating many unrelated elements - are broadcast at reason-suppressing decibel levels.

We’re wired to be protective of our young, so it will always be much easier to convince people that children are at risk than to argue otherwise. That’s why these moral panics rage through the country at regular intervals. In the 20th century alone, marijuana, rock music, Dungeons & Dragons, Satanic cults, and first-person shooters have all seized the minds of American parents. And yet each successive generation graduated to adulthood largely undecimated.

A deep breath is in order. Online privacy and cyberbullying are important concerns, and teenagers everywhere should be educated about them. But to shovel the blame for ageless teen behaviors on sexting is to open our society up to another generation of Fredric Werthams.

Jesse Singal is a frequent contributor to the Globe opinion pages. He can be reached at jsingal@globe.com.

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