An adult who went undercover at a Kansas high school found today's teenage girls think it's 'normal' to post 'promiscuous' pictures online

A&ENicolette, center, went undercover at a Kansas high school on the show ‘Undercover High.’

  • A group of adults went undercover as high-school students for the show “Undercover High.”
  • They found that female students frequently faced pressure to send sexually explicit images of themselves.
  • It’s part of the reason smartphones and social media contribute to teen depression.

Smartphones have turned the lives of high-school students upside down.

Since they became widespread in high schools over the past few years, they have led to increased rates of cyberbullying, facilitated addictions to social media, and helped make teens increasingly depressed.

But smartphones have had a particularly devastating effect on girls. At Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas, female students regularly face sexual harassment and are under constant pressure to share sexually explicit images of themselves online.

Those were the findings of Nicolette, a 22-year-old woman who went undercover as a Highland Park student for the spring 2017 semester. Nicolette was one of seven young adults who posed as students for the A&E documentary series “Undercover High,” and over the course of the semester she took a full course load, did homework, and made friends with students in an effort to understand what today’s teens are going through.

Nicolette discovered that sexting was much more common than it was when she graduated from high school in 2013.

“It’s something that’s normal for them, posting promiscuous pictures of themselves and rating themselves based on what others think and like off social media,” Nicolette, who did not use her last name on the show, told Business Insider.

Nationally, 14% of boys and 10% of girls ages 12 to 17 reported having sent a sexually explicit image in a 2016 survey. At the same time, 20% of boys and 18% of girls reported having received one at some point in their lives.

But it’s often girls who face the devastating social consequences, as in cases in which the image leaks online.

“It’s part of everyday life for students at our high school, and I think many high schools,” Beryl New, who was principal of Highland Park during the time of the show’s filming, told Business Insider. “People will just share things on social media with the intent to damage somebody.”

Younger, more inexperienced students are often the most vulnerable.

“The girls that get exposed and stuff, they’re like, the freshman girls,” a female Highland Park student said in one episode of the show. “They’re, like, really dumb, and they will just like send stuff to just about anyone that asks for it.”

Several of the undercover students told Business Insider that the widespread nature of social media was the biggest difference from when they were students in high school. And as Nicolette explained, though maintaining a social-media presence can feel like a requirement for students, it can also warp the user’s sense of self-worth.

“Now it’s not just about your skills, it’s about your image, your sexual image,” she told Business Insider. “That’s something that I think definitely contributes to the feelings that some of these at-risk students have toward their own self and how they portray themselves.”

“Undercover High” airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on A&E.

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