In the wake of the Steubenville, Ohio, case and the suicides of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons and 15-year-old Audrie Pott, I’ve been thinking about how to talk to teenagers about the toxic brew of binge drinking, unwanted sexual encounters, and photos of those encounters (some of them rape) that carry disgrace as they travel from phone to phone. It’s a dismal narrative that casts boys as predators, girls as the objects (and perpetrators) of slut-shaming, and a lot of other kids as witnesses who didn’t step up. And we’ve had too many high-profile versions of this lately.
So how can we help kids do better? How do we talk to them, in particular, about the aspect of these stories that’s not familiar from our own teenage years—the images that travel via technology and magnify the original incidents?
The first step is deciding to have the conversation in the first place. “It’s so striking to me how reluctant we are to talk to our sons about the possibility that they might be involved in this kind of situation,” Rosalind Wiseman said when I called to discuss this. Wiseman is known for her work on girls: Her 2002 book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, is the basis for the movie Mean Girls.* Now she’s about to publish a book about boys, Masterminds and Wingmen.
I understand that reluctance: I haven’t talked to my 13-year-old son about Steubenville or the other cases because parties and alcohol aren’t on his radar yet. I don’t want to rob him of his innocence. “I understand that feeling,” Wiseman said. “But that always means the moment of losing their innocence doesn’t happen with you, and they have to deal with it in the moment, and they’re completely unprepared for what to do.” She said I could wait until my son is 14, but probably not much beyond that. And then what to say? Wiseman suggests having him read an article about a case like Steubenville and saying something like:
“I know this is not awesome to talk about, but we have to. There are people who try to dominate and degrade other people, and some boys resonate to that. There’s a possibility that you will see something like this in your life. By being there, you’ll have to make choices. It’s really important to think through your choices beforehand, so you don’t feel so overwhelmed. What would you like to do in that situation? What would we want you to do?”
For girls, the intro is slightly different. “My focus for girls is about why they turn on each other,” Wiseman said. Mean Girls famously captures this dynamic in a scene in which the teacher played by Tina Fey asks a gym full of girls how many of them have been called sluts. They all raise their hands. Then she asks how many have called a girl a slut. They raise their hands again. “That’s the thing I’d have parents talk to their daughters about,” Wiseman said. “Can we talk for 10 seconds to our daughters about how they should present themselves online and then 45 minutes about why you do not go after people when they’re identified as a victim. That is critically important.”
Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, another classic from 2002, pointed out that in cases where boys and girls dispute whether sex was rape, the community often doubts the girl. She doesn’t get sympathy because she’s a target. “The girls are sluts until the moment they kill themselves—then they’re victims,” she said. “The challenge is to help boys and girls understand the politics of slut-shaming and how gender norms lead to gender-based violence. Teenagers have to be able to stop in the moment and say, ‘That girl who everyone calling a slut, I learned something about who gets called that and how that supports ideas about masculinity and femininity I’m not going to buy into anymore.’ ”
That’s the longish version. There are also various decision points that call out for a media campaign—well-designed public service announcements with slogans pointing kids toward right-thinking actions. Along those lines, here’s a short video that Craig Stevens, school psychologist at Germantown Friends School (my alma mater), pointed me to. It shows a boy making a smart choice when he sees a girl splayed on a couch by giving her a blanket. Nothing fancy, just quick and concrete. (Another illustration: On the show Friday Night Lights, the football player Tim did a version of this for Julie, the coach’s daughter.)
Stevens thinks teenagers would also benefit from a slogan like “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” that would push kids to designate a buddy when they go out for the night. (Something like, “Friends don’t let friends pass out and then leave them on the couch”?) And another one to encourage them to ask another person if they see something that could be disturbing but isn’t entirely clear. “Maybe you start by getting a second opinion,” he said. “Having the conversation creates a feeling of responsibility. It’s in between ignoring and intervening. Then if the other person agrees there’s reason to worry, you do more.”
Doing more doesn’t have to mean calling an adult, even if that’s the advice we reflexively tend to give kids. “Here’s a brilliant phrase for a fraught moment: ‘Oh, your mom’s calling you,’ ” Wiseman suggested. It’s made up, and “it’s the distraction technique. At that initial point when a friend or someone else is about to go in the wrong direction, you get them away from the group dynamic. That’s a really good thing about cellphones. You can say, ‘My mom just texted me, and your mom is looking for you.’ Or it can be a friend who isn’t there.”
Simmons and I started dreaming up a PSA about a shaming photo that’s circulating. “I think we need to reframe how to understand the act of forwarding,” she said. “It’s easy to fall into a crowd mentality and to think that when you forward something, you’re just part of a jet stream that already has its own momentum. But the fact is in that moment you’re being an active aggressor. Whereas if you delete or don’t forward, that’s doing something.” Stevens went further: “The right response is: ‘I don’t want this.’ You refuse the image and by saying that, you hold the person responsible. And you’re also embracing the victim.” Maybe the slogan is something simple like: “Delete it!”
The best messaging, of course, would come from teenagers themselves. Is there an app that could help here, too—not one that unwittingly helps a damaging photo go viral, obviously, but a way to recruit other people to help when sexting goes bad? Not SnapChat, which makes photos disappear seconds after you send them, but an app that rallies people. I’m not sure how that would work, but I’d love to see someone take a stab at it. Send ideas and resources to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll write more if good ones come in. Email may be quoted in Slate unless you stipulate otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.
Correction, May 1, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of the book Queen Bees and Wannabes.