Cultural decline: Teens broadcast nudity to compete for attention

Bare midriffs and piercings apparently haven’t made teenagers provocative enough to compete with celebrities for local attention. According to the University of Minnesota, teenage girls have begun using personal-networking technology to send nude pictures of themselves to their friends, emulating the sexualization they see in the national media. One local case has already resulted in arrests:

Using her cell phone, a high school girl sends nude photos of herself to boyfriends that wind up printed and distributed in the boys’ locker room at Hudson (Wis.) High School. Two boys accused of doing it are charged with defaming her character. The girl tells police she is devastated.

More teenagers today are feeling pressure to create larger identities for themselves like the celebrities they see depicted in national media, said Laurie Ouellette, a communication studies professor and reality TV expert at the University of Minnesota. In an era where teens aim to increase their list of “friends” on social networking sites, that can mean flashing nudity in an effort to compete for attention.

“The price is that you have to define yourself in the same kind of terms that celebrities are defined,” said Ouellette, who thinks the emphasis on misbehaving celebrities bodes poorly for teens who see them as role models.

Whether it’s photos of singing sensation Miley Cyrus shirtless and draped in a sheet for a magazine shoot or images of Twin Cities high school students drinking at a house party, more teens are discovering the enduring — and unforgiving — nature of technology.

Observers of young people who show their skin on cell phones and social networking websites say parents and schools should be alarmed at the trend. The Hudson case, they say, is an example of a larger problem sweeping the country that involves girls and boys pressured into sexuality, made easy by fingertip technology that turns their bodies and behavior into public information.

Gee, I wonder where teenage girls get the idea that they have to shed their clothes for attention? It didn’t start with Miley Cyrus; Brooke Shields made an unforgettable commercial almost 30 years ago at the age of 15, saying, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” The sexualization of teens and pre-teens continues today with the execrable Bratz Girls dolls and a national media that cannot let children have a childhood.

The latest trend shows that teenagers listen and respond to the deluge of messages that pressure them into cheapening their sexuality into a brand. The technology itself isn’t the problem. Its easy access allows for more compulsive decisions, but it’s the decisions themselves that prove so worrisome.

That’s why the response from the Minnesota researcher really doesn’t address the underlying issue. Ouellette wants schools to teach about the dangers of the technology and how broadcasting one’s peccadilloes can come back to haunt them. The real lesson should be that one’s sexuality should be considered private, and that the exploitation of it for attention — regardless of the technology used — will damage the girls far more than any potential attention will boost their fragile egos. Unfortunately, the popular culture wants to continue to define deviancy down and sell trampiness as liberation at younger and younger ages, and the popularity of the Bratz Girls and the rest of the promiscuity industry shows that parents haven’t taken much responsibility for teaching that lesson themselves.

Update: South Park had a rather trenchant take on the pseudo-feminist rationalizations used by those who patronize these products (mildly NSFW):

Unfortunately, they dilute their moral message by having this episode sponsored by Grand Theft Auto IV. Otherwise, it perfectly skewers the supposedly liberating experience of exploitation. (h/t: Jim Rose)