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New Jersey: District Flap over Snapchat App

By Isabella Joslin, SIECUS Program Research Intern

Most parents in New Jersey’s Ridgewood school district understand that ‘sexting’—the act of sending sexually explicit images through text messages—is not a new phenomenon. Until recently, fewer knew that Snapchat, a mobile phone software application (‘app’) that allows one to send temporary images, would be a potential game-changer in the on-going national debate over adolescent sexting. Recent controversy around Ridgewood students’ use of Snapchat has led to raised anxieties over what to teach about the new technology.

Snapchat images are viewable for no more than 10 seconds before they are deleted from both the sender’s and receiver’s phones. However, it is possible for this system to be circumvented if the receiver takes a screenshot during the brief moment that the image is viewable. The saved screenshot can then be stored in the phone’s photo gallery to be viewed any time. Saved images from Snapchat can find a wider audience when transferred to Instagram, another app for sharing  photos via social networks. As with FaceBook, Instagram has a newsfeed with the potential to expose images to a wide audience with little or no control on the part of the original sender.

In March, Ridgewood Public Schools superintendent Dan Fishbein sent parents a letter outlining his concerns about the recent sexting activities of students at Ridgewood High. Two female students sent nude Snapchats to the same male classmate, expecting the images to disappear from their phones (and his) within seconds; instead the  receiver captured a screenshot of the images and posted them on his Instagram newsfeed. Once the images went public, police were notified and began investigating the issue as a child pornography case.

Ridgewood is by no means leading the pack of technology-based sexuality controversies. As journalist Camille Bautista points out, “In 2009, an 18-year-old became a registered sex offender after vengefully sending a naked photo of his 16-year-old girlfriend to friends and family. The same year, six Pennsylvania high school students faced child pornography charges after girls allegedly took nude photos and ‘sexted’ them to male classmates.”[1]

As New Jersey law currently stands, “creating, transmitting or possessing these sexually explicit images falls under child pornography and ‘Endangering the Welfare of Children.’”[2] However, Ridgewood police announced a 5-day grace period for students to delete all images that could legally qualify as child pornography. In his letter to parents, Superintendent Fishbein explained the rationale: “The amnesty period gives you an opportunity to educate your children and help protect them. We will be working with our staff to continue to address issues with our students.”[3]

Fishbein seems to have viewed this as a teachable moment, a chance for educators to support parents by encouraging discussion with students of individual boundaries and the potential consequences of new technologies. Schools can teach students the legal facts about New Jersey child pornography laws, but teaching about the social effects of Snapchat may require more teacher preparation and more allowance for differences in beliefs about sexual expression and consent.

Ridgewood Public Schools is no stranger to sexuality education controversies. In 1994, at the dawn of the Internet era, the district was profiled in Education Week as state Senator Gerald Cardinale promoted a bill to require abstinence education in New Jersey schools as the only reliable method for preventing teen pregnancy and STD transmission. One concerned student remarked, “We know everything we can about abstinence… But [stressing abstinence] is not giving us all the facts and consequences.”[4] Ridgewood teachers joined their colleagues across the state to express concerns about the bill, and Governor James Florio ultimately vetoed it, recognizing the value of more comprehensive sexuality education.

Two decades later, with the increasing integration of social media into the sexual lives of young people, Ridgewood faces renewed concerns about the need for more comprehensive sexuality education. In a Huffington Post roundup of recent teen sexting controversies including Ridgewood, Rebecca Levey, creator of a ‘tween video review site called KidzVuz.com and mother of 10-year-old twins, commented, “What sex education used to be, it’s now the ‘technology talk.’”[5]
 


[1] Camille Bautista, “Teens’ Nude Photos from Snapchat Lead to Investigation,” Mashable, March 14, 2013, accessed  March 27, 2013, <http://mashable.com/2013/03/14/snapchat-hs/>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Kleimann, “Nude Photos of Ridgewood High Girls Prompt Police Investigation,” Ridgewood-Glen Rock Patch, March 13, 2013, accessed March 27, 2013, <http://ridgewood.patch.com/articles/nude-photos-of-ridgewood-high-girls-prompt-police-investigation>.

[4] Karen Diegmueller, “Teaching About Abstinence in Two N.J. Schools,” Education Week, January 19, 1994.

[5] Anne Flaherty, “Instagram and Snapchat Becoming More Popular among Kids, Facebook Considered Less ‘Cool’,” Huffington Post, March 18, 2013, accessed March 27, 2013, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/18/instagram-and-snapchat-kids_n_2899732.html>. 

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