Sexting. I can’t get my head around it. Why would kids do that? How do we handle it as a parent?

When our babies were born, we didn’t look into their sweet little eyes and imagine that they would share photos of their birthday suits over a phone.

Nancy Gifford, a former federal prosecutor in the District of Connecticut, a consultant to the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), and equally important, a mom of 3 young children, talks about the seriousness of this new trend.

What Is It?

Sexting is the act of teenagers sending sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude pictures via digital media (e.g. cellular phone, computer).

How many kids are really involved in sexting?

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project calmed some fears when it reported that only 4% of cell-owning teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have sent such images of themselves. This was a dramatic difference from an earlier, less scientific, online survey that reported 20% of teen girls had sent a sexually suggestive photograph of themselves. Both surveys explained that the teens who engage in this behavior often do so as either means of flirting with someone they are interested in dating or as part of an ongoing romantic relationship.

The Pew survey reported a more troubling statistic: 15% of the same teens had received sexually suggestive images of someone they know. The discrepancy between the number of teens involved in creating a sext and the number of teens who have received a sext highlights one of the dangers of sexting – the images, created for one purpose (i.e. as a form of “romance”), are easily sent and forwarded for another purpose (i.e. as a joke or creating of rumors).

What happens when those embarrassing photos get forwarded?

In some of the most tragic sexting incidents, the greatest harm occurred when the image left the original recipient and was forwarded on to others. The case of Hope Witsell is instructive. Hope was 13 years old when she sent a topless photograph of herself to a boy she liked. The photograph was opened by another person who was using the boy’s phone and was sent to several others. The image then was forwarded to others and quickly spread throughout her school. After 3 months of taunting from her peers, Hope committed suicide. Although sexting rarely leads to suicide (only one other case is known, that of 18 year old Jesse Logan), the humiliation and bullying that can occur when a sexted image is passed is quite common.

Now that it’s part of teen culture, what do we do as parents?

How can we help our teens? As it so often is, the answer must include communication. Sexting provides an opportunity for parents, educators and others to promote the idea of digital citizenship and creating a positive digital reputation. Importantly, the discussion needs to focus on both the creation of sexted images and the receipt of images.

As for creating images: Use the Pew study as an opportunity to discuss how very few students are actually sending sexually suggestive photographs of themselves. For too many teens it can seem as though “everyone is doing it.” The study may help support your child’s decision to not engage in sexting by giving them the confidence that he/she is part of the vast majority of kids.

Long Term Consequences

Discuss the long term consequences that can result when you create a sext. Use the cases of Hope and Jesse to illustrate the idea that a sexted image is irretrievable. Any photograph sent or unkind comment made online – even if intended for just one other person – can easily become widely distributed. A photo taken during an impetuous moment can come back to haunt them years later when they are looking for scholarships, college admissions and employment opportunities.

Explain to teens that part of being a good digital citizen is to help your friends make good decisions online. For example, if a friend tells you that he/she is going to send a sext, discourage him. Many images have been created when friends “egg each other on.”

Receiving Images

As for receiving images: Have a discussion with your teen about what to do if he/she receives a sext. Remind the teen that some of the greatest harm happens when the images were distributed far beyond the initial recipient. Don’t give in to the inclination to want to pass the information on to others. If everyone stops forwarding the images, their potential damage can be limited. Resist the urge to keep the “joke” going. Again, Hope’s and Jesse’s stories provide a “teachable moment” to discuss how the teens who forwarded the images or engaged in the taunting may also feel regret or guilt for their actions.

Don’t Keep A Secret

As a final word, it would be helpful to tell your teen that keeping a secret about sexting can be dangerous. Whether your teen was involved in creating, receiving or sending an image, there is potential for emotional, reputational and legal consequences. These consequences have been used by some to blackmail teens to continue sending images or to engage in sexual relations. Let your teen know that, even if they have made a mistake, you want to be involved and want to help them deal with any issue they might have.

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