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Despite Sexting Hype, the Teenagers Are All Right

In a recent column David Brooks tells “The Saga of Sister Kiki,” which, summarized from this Rolling Stone article, relays the tale of a wayward teen who got “mauled by the some of the worst forces of the information age,” just like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie got “mauled by the crushing forces of industrial America.” Kiki Kannibal is a teen who posted sexually charged pictures of herself, got lots of attention, was raped, and then victimized by a teen-exploitation site.

“Kiki must have sensed the tremendous erotic capital that a pretty, vulnerable, barely pubescent girl possesses on the Internet — even if she didn’t understand the consequences of her appeal,” Brooks writes, positioning the dark cloud over what comes next.

What Brooks is missing in this column, and what is missing in a lot of the hysterical discussion about teenagers going wild, is actual proof that what happened to Kiki represents a real and growing problem. Earlier this year New York magazine wrote a similarly sensational and heavily anecdotal piece about how girls in junior high attempt to replicate for their crushes the pornographic images they see online.

But just as a 100 years ago there were many young women like Carrie who moved to cities and did not fall prey to the immoral trappings of newly industrialized urban centers — including my great-grandparents, who moved from villages across the world and ended up finding cities so hospitable that, even when they had the opportunity to leave, they decided to stay — there are many, many teenage girls who don’t fall down the rabbit hole of exhibitionism and sexual corruption on the Internet. Not to dis a classic of American Realism, but Dreiser, like Brooks, was a tad sensationalistic when it came to the dark forces they prey on innocent young women; only difference between the two is that Brooks has replaced our now sanitized and cup-caked cities with the web as the site of deleterious temptation.

If anything, recent research seems to show that, sexually speaking, the teenagers are all right. A 2005 study found that 47% of 9th- to 12th-grade students reported having had sexual intercourse, which is a drop from 53% in 1993, four years before AOL launched instant messenger for its non-subscribers. And a 2009 Pew study found that only 4% of cellphone-owning teens ages 12-17 have sent nude or nearly nude pictures of themselves via text message.

Towards the end of his piece, Brooks expresses his oft-repeated, concerns that Kiki’s transgressions, while extreme, represent a larger trend for teenagers.

She is an extreme case of an enormous uncontrolled experiment that is playing out across the world. Young people’s brains are developing while they are immersed in fast, multitasking technology. No one quite knows what effect this is having.

The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things that young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12. No one quite knows the effect of that either.

Most important, some young people seem to be growing up without learning the distinction between respectability and attention. I doubt adults can really shelter young people from the things they will find online, but adults can provide the norms and values that will help them put that world in perspective, so it seems like trashy or amusing make-believe and not anything any decent person would want to partake in.

Brooks use of this one “extreme” example to define a whole generation of young women, or young adults for that matter, is not without its dangers. This hysteria about what the web does to teenage sexuality, without any proof beyond a few salacious anecdotes that there is something to fear, sends a bad message to teenagers, and especially the teenage girls among them. It replicates the whole virgin/whore, genie-in-a-bottle notion of sexuality that, once unleashed, cannot be tamed. Where are stories about teenage girls who discover their sexuality but don’t lose control?

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