The Non-technical Solution to Sexting


Since the MTV/AP Sexting survey came out, I’ve been hearing from concerned parents and school administrators all over the country. As you know, Sexting is slang for sending and receiving sexual content using mobile phones. How do you do it? Well, you probably don’t, but your kids do. It’s very simple really. The kids either send txt messages to each other containing untoward content or, they play a modern game of I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours with their cameraphones.

Interestingly, the survey found that 61 percent of the kids who sent Sext messages said they were pressured into it, and if that’s not bad enough, 29 percent said that they have sent naked pictures to someone online, that they don’t actually know in real life. This is a problem in everyone’s digital life and I have some suggestions.

First, I think it’s important to understand the technology. This may make you roll your eyes. But, do you think Tiger Woods really understood that the voice mail he left (that we’ve all heard) was a digital recording of his voice? That it was recorded on someone else’s device and that he no longer had control of it?

A little history: As you know, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph back in 1877. What you may not know is that the early phonographs could both record and playback (very much like a modern day voicemail system). Edison liked to demonstrate his phonograph by allowing people to speak into the machine and then playing the recording back for them. However, the technology was outside almost everyone’s conceptual understanding. Up to that point in history, the only thing that could mimic the sound of one’s voice was a ventriloquist, so people thought it had to be a trick. Clergymen came to pronounce it “the devil’s work” and to discredit Edison.

But here’s the really fun part. Edison used to charge people 25 cents to try to “fool the machine.” A person who spoke Latin (a dead language) would speak Latin into it and, of course, it would speak Latin back to the person. People wondered how Edison was able to teach a machine to speak Latin. A person would speak Chinese into the machine and it would speak Chinese back to them. Again, people would wonder how the “Wizard of Menlo Park” taught the machine to speak Chinese. People simply did not understand the concept of a recording.

That was then, it’s the 21st century. What was Tiger thinking? Didn’t he understand that he was making a recording? Understanding the technology may help you think about how you want to start the conversation with your kids.

All of the mobile devices we’re talking about are digital. They are little computers. When you send a txt message you can think of it as a word processing document that is automatically stored and delivered. The only problem is, you don’t know where it is stored and who it will ultimately be delivered to. The same goes for digital pictures. Cameraphone or digital camera, the image is uploadable and downloadable. And, once you press send, you can never get it back. No matter what you do, no matter who you know, and now matter how hard you try. These are computer files, and they are as easy to share as music and video and pictures you upload to Facebook.

I saw a very effective demonstration that one parent did for their 16 year old daughter. At her Sweet 16 party, during the obligatory photomontage, they showed a picture of her in the bathtub at age 6 months. She was naked, of course. Her friends giggled. She was mortified. The next day, her father asked her, if there were any other pictures that would embarrass her if they were displayed at the party? That pretty much ended the issue.

There is no technological solution to this issue. But there is a very reasonable parenting solution. When my kids were little and it was time to cross the street, I asked them to hold my hand as we crossed. We’ve all done this with our kids. But that wasn’t the only thing we did. We instructed them to look both ways. We discussed the consequences of crossing a busy street without looking. We didn’t do it once, we did it almost every time we crossed the street with them. And we did it for years. As they got older, there were some streets we could cross together without holding hands, but even with a certain degree of autonomy, if we came to a very busy street, hands were held.

One day … one very important day they were allowed to cross the street by themselves. This day did not just happen. The trust was earned over a protracted training period under our very watchful eyes.

We don’t want to stop anyone from using and exploring new technology. But kids should not be allowed to “play” with power tools, and that’s what these devices are. They are digital tools that make permanent records of how we use them. As parents and school administrators, it’s up to you to make this simple fact sink in. You can’t have one short chat about it, you need to hold their “digital” hands and make sure that they understand the danger of publishing content about themselves and others that can never be unpublished.

In the 21st century, nothing can be unsaid. Shelly Palmer


About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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