Photo credit: Erick Gibson
Makeup and hair styling by Jacquie Hannan

It started with the most quotidian of middle school rituals: a trip to the principal’s office. Caught in class with a contraband Apple iPod touch, a student at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda was dispatched to Principal Michael Zarchin’s office and told to hand it over.

That small act in early April led to the discovery that for as long as a year, boys at Pyle had been passing around nude and otherwise inappropriate images of girls who had either voluntarily posed or had taken self-portraits and sent them out via e-mail and text message—a practice that has come to be known as “sexting.” Some of the boys had gone so far as to sell access to the images, trading sneak peeks at cell phone and iPod screens for small change like so many baseball cards.

Had it been an isolated event, the sexting incident probably would have caused a ripple in the community and died away. But it wasn’t.

Earlier in the year, Winston Churchill High School in Potomac made waves with the discovery that students using stolen pass codes had gained access to the school’s computer system and for months had been changing student grades—some for better, some for worse.

And as the school year was wrapping up, Landon, the elite, all-boys private school in Bethesda, came under scrutiny after a scathing column by Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. Dowd exposed a fantasy sex league run by a handful of Landon boys attempting virtual (and very nearly actual) sexual exploitation of girls from area schools. The exposé came a matter of weeks after a Landon graduate and lacrosse star, George Huguely V, was charged with the murder of his former girlfriend, University of Virginia student Yeardley Love.

The cascading crises were widely reported in the media, and the schools, finding themselves pinned like frogs in a freshman biology lab, had little choice but to submit to the public dissection that followed.

It would be tempting to isolate the incidents and focus the blame. But what happened in those schools “could happen anywhere,” says Karen Lockard, principal of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

Churchill’s grade-changing scandal may have set a new standard for how to succeed in high school without really trying, but cheating on a petty level appears to have gained wide acceptance as a standard coping mechanism for overscheduled, stressed-out students. And middle and high schools everywhere are confronting “sexting” and other issues arising from the collision of ordinary teen behaviors with extraordinary advancements in technology. Landon students’ use of the Internet to compare and contrast, and plan the exploitation of local girls turned what may have been intended as a rude joke into a serious disciplinary matter.

Viewed collectively, the incidents have prompted even the most laid-back parents to wonder what is going on with kids today.

The tendency of the older generation to fret about the younger is hardly new. Aging baby boomers who blanch at the lyrics of the rapper Afroman (see “Colt 45”) forget that they once were teens whose parents disapproved of rock music in general and (for those old enough) Elvis Presley in particular. Those who make it their business to try to understand what makes teens tick say these recent incidents are partly business as usual—kids being kids, doing the dumb things kids do. But other factors have come into play.

Coming of age in a time of economic uncertainty, teens are under more pressure to succeed than ever. At the same time, ever-more sophisticated means to instantly connect—laptops, smart phones, instant messaging, texting, social networking sites—have created a perfect storm of behavioral challenges in the turbulent waters of the teenage years that parents, educators, mental health professionals and kids themselves only now are starting to confront.

“Think about what’s going on around them,” B-CC’s Lockard says. “Their lives are in fast forward all of the time. I don’t think they ever get a chance to pause and reflect and be creative. …It’s amazing they’re as good as they are, when you look at what they have to deal with.”

“The times really are a-changin’. It’s a different world,” says Neil Bernstein, a Bethesda psychologist who specializes in teens and is the author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can’t (2001). “The problem is that technology has outpaced the parenting and professional skills required to deal with it. The playing field has shifted. We’ve gone from a fairly narrow, manageable playing field to an infinite universe of cyberspace. To say it’s out of control is too strong, but it’s more difficult to monitor and keep pace with…

“Teens are prone to behave impulsively and to act ‘stupid,’ as they would say. What we’ve just done is given them more tools to do that. …We’ve got this new, big, 500-pound gorilla that we’re trying to rein in, and we don’t know how to do it yet.”

Call it the equivalent of leaving a hatchet within reach of a curious 5-year-old, except the damage can’t be fixed with a few stitches to the foot.

It’s what Pyle Principal Michael Zarchin faced in April as he held the confiscated iPod touch in his hand. In the course of the investigation that followed, conducted by both police and school officials, it became clear that the boy was not alone, and that the images were everywhere.

Only days before, in the school newsletter known as the “Pyle Phyle,” Zarchin warned parents of “trends in the use of technology that need to be addressed by our entire school community.”

“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for parents to monitor children’s use of cell phones and the Internet,” he wrote, little knowing how prescient his comments would be. “Our students are at an age when they begin to test boundaries and make complex life decisions. Adolescents desire more freedom and independence, yet there is a critical need for parental support and involvement that remains.”

In the letter that followed, containing the news that just such a problem had come to pass, Zarchin set out in painful detail what the investigation had uncovered: that girls at Pyle and Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda “had willingly posed for pictures and sent them to other students,” that those students had sent them to other students, and that the images were everywhere.

“There was an element of frustration,” Zarchin says. “We’d tried in so many proactive ways to get this information out.”

Just the previous month, at Zarchin’s invitation, a representative of the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office had spoken to parents about legal aspects of Internet use, though the emphasis had been on cyber-bullying. In January, the guidance office had given a presentation on “Five Things to Think About Before You Hit ‘Send.’ ”

“A lot of the kids said, ‘We know!’ ” Pyle counselor Erika Huck says. “It’s not that they didn’t know. But they did it anyway.

“In some ways it’s frustrating and shocking,” she says. “And in other ways it’s like, of course, this is middle school.”

Much has been written about the biological basis of teenagers’ poor decision-making and risky behavior. Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have even identified which brain system may be at least partially responsible, pointing a finger at overactivity in the teenage mesolimbic dopamine system, which is also associated with vulnerability to addiction. Incomplete frontal lobe development—the frontal lobe is the last part of the brain to fully develop and is not considered mature until age 25—is frequently seen as a factor affecting teens’ decision-making.

“The frontal lobe is associated with judgment, planning, seeing the future consequences of your behavior. If you or I were faced with an issue or a choice, we’d think it through before taking action. That’s a higher order of functioning than so many teenagers are capable of,” says Ira Abrams, a psychologist practicing in Garrett Park and Kensington. “It’s cognitive flexibility, seeing things from other people’s point of view, holding things out there. Without the frontal lobe, you’re operating more on instinct, more on impulse.”