Teenagers spend a lot of time on their mobile devices watching videos, posting on social media, and talking to each other via text and instant messaging. As a parent, you might not think much of it; after all, they’re probably making plans, gossiping, or flirting.
Unfortunately, that flirting might not be as innocent as you think.
The Prevalence of Sexting
In 2014, Time reported on research that found 54 percent of college students had “sent or received ‘sexually explicit text messages or images’ when they were under age 18,” most of it flirtatious or within their romantic relationships. A study published in the medical journal Pediatrics indicated that 20 percent of middle school students with text-capable phones had received a sext, while five percent admitted to sending one.
David DeMatteo, of the Drexel University research mentioned in Time, was quoted in the article:
“We were shocked by the prevalence and the frequency of sexting among minors…We were struck by how many of those surveyed seem to think of sexting as a normal, standard way of interacting with their peers.”
Sex texting (sexting) can include a variety of messages and images, including nude selfies, videos depicting sex acts, and messages proposing or referring to sex. According to Psychology Today, teens may sext because they believe it will help their relationship or help them get a boyfriend or girlfriend in the first place. Some of them are pressured to send naked images of themselves.
The Dangers of Sexting
For teenagers, sexting may seem a bit racy and exciting, but most of them don’t realize the dangers associated with the behavior.
- Blackmail and Humiliation: A teenager may put more trust in the recipient of a naked selfie than is deserved. It’s easy for the recipient to share that photo with other friends or even post it online. In some cases, the recipient may use the photo to blackmail the sender: for example, he/she may threaten to post the photo online if he/she does not continue to send new ones or if they put a stop to their real-life romantic or sexual relationship. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem for the person who originally sent the photo.
- Permanence: Once a photo or video is out there, it never really goes away. Not only could that cause ongoing hurt and humiliation, it could cause problems or bring up questions when the subject of the photo applies for college or a job. Not only that, those images could be hijacked and used on unsavory websites.
- Unsafe Sexual Activity: The Pediatrics study also showed a correlation between sexting and real-life sexual activity: those who sext are more likely to report having sex, too. As the article says, “…early sexual debut is correlated with higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies…”, making it essential for a sex talk to include a talk about sexting.
- Legal Issues: From a USA Today article: “…a teen who takes a photo of himself or another minor has unwittingly become a creator of child pornography. If the photo is texted or emailed, that teen has just distributed child pornography. Even more unsettling, the individual who downloads the photo is now in possession of child porn.” This can–and has–resulted in felony charges. (Take a look at this story from Massachusetts a couple of years ago, and this one from New Mexico in October 2017.) Some states have made laws specifically regarding sexting that serve to differentiate it from child pornography, while others have not.
Protecting Your Teenagers
- Communication: It’s challenging but essential for a variety of issues when it comes to raising children. Make sure your kids know they can and should talk to you if someone is sending or pressuring them to send explicit photos or messages.
- Understand the Sexting Laws: These laws still vary by state, so make sure you know your state’s stance on sexting and teenagers.
- Stay Up-to-Date on Technology and Apps: You might be friends with your child on Facebook, but totally unaware of a new site or app that is getting your teen’s attention. Do your research on popular social media sites and trends, and talk to other parents about what they notice about their own children’s behavior.
- Talk About Sex–and Sexting: The sexting talk is becoming as important as the sex talk. Make sure your kids understand the risks of sending explicit messages and especially nude photos. Again, reiterate that if they find themselves the victim of blackmail or revenge porn or nonconsensual porn, they should come to you immediately.
- Check Up on Their Online Behavior: You don’t have to be secretive about this, which would only serve to build distrust and alienation between you and your teen. Instead, tell your kids that you need access to their passwords and profiles as part of them being allowed to use the internet or own a mobile device.
- Use Parental Controls: Set guidelines about internet use and make sure your child sticks to them by using trustworthy parental controls on their mobile devices. You can block certain sites and apps (or even entire categories of unsavory sites), and limit the amount of time they spend online. Additionally, if sexting does become a problem parental controls like Netsanity let you disable the camera. Additionally, blocking the internet or distracting apps at night, for example, you can help your kids do homework and get a good night’s sleep rather than be tempted to communicate with their friends and romantic interests.
Sexting is common among teenagers, and in most cases, it doesn’t result in blackmail or felony charges. However, it is up to all of us to teach our children and teens that the risk is not worth it!