Forget trying to censor teen "sexting"

Apple's text-message monitoring program won't solve any parental woes

Published October 14, 2010 9:01PM (EDT)

The Wall Street Journal's numbers-heavy piece today on "the texting revolution" beautifully underscores the absurdity of Apple's newly-approved patent for what is being widely referred to as "anti-sexting" software. "The average 13- to 17-year-old sends and receives 3,339 texts a month -- more than 100 per day," according to the article. Parents can learn two things from this: 1.) For the love of your checkbook, go for the plan with unlimited texts, and 2.) All attempts at censoring kids' fast-finger-talking are futile.

The patent is more generally for software that filters "inappropriate" content, and this includes a "parental control application" that "evaluates whether or not the communication contains approved text based on, for example, objective ratings criteria or a user's age or grade level, and, if unauthorized, prevents such text from being included in the text-based communication." The program can then tattle on the teen whenever it comes across "unauthorized" content. It sounds a whole lot like Web monitoring software that supposedly keeps kids from finding porn or talking to pervy strangers online.

Haven't we learned by now that the problem with the "not in my house" mentality is that they'll just go do it in someone else's house (or backseat)? Where there's a will, there's a way -- and motivation isn't something teenagers are generally lacking when it comes to sex. They have navigated around parental Web-browsing blocks, and they will do the same with this "anti-sexting" software (that is, if Apple ever pushes it beyond the patent). That's not to mention that the program addresses text, not photos, which are a whole lot more likely to get them in trouble. I'm afraid I have to deliver a difficult truth here: No software program will make teenage sexuality disappear.

Of course, this patent isn't just about sex-fearing parents. Some will want to eliminate any swear words or drug references -- which is cute. Good luck trying to keep up with ever-mutating teenage slang; they will find a way to say naughty things, even it means subversively co-opting wholesome phrases. If anyone can turn something as benign-sounding as "I'm going to church to pray" into secret code for nefarious behavior, it's teenagers.

As the Journal article makes clear, texting is now a fundamental channel of communication for teenagers (and, increasingly, for adults, too). Still, I can't help but think that parents' best bet in trying to protect their kids will be as it has always been: to communicate with them -- preferably face-to-face.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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Apple Broadsheet Love And Sex Parenting Sexting Teenagers