It’s a question many have asked following U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner’s confession on Monday that he sent lewd photos of himself to and had inappropriate online relationships with women through his Twitter account.

Why would any public figure risk their career, reputation, future, marriage, etc. on a sexual impulse that could become so easily public?

 But honestly, why would anyone, including our kids, take this kind of risk?

For one, we live in a world where, for the most part, our sexual impulses can be seemingly fulfilled under the illusion of privacy and secrecy.  We no longer have to risk embarrassment and make our way to the seedy part of town to rent or watch X-rated content.  We no longer even have to leave a currency trail to watch pornography.  With just one click of a mouse, anyone, including our children, can have free and easy access to hard-core content.

Additionally, many of the online platforms we communicate through fool us into believing that we are exchanging safe, private messages, which will only be seen by the intended viewer.  When we “Direct Message” someone, use “Privacy Settings”, send texts and “Go Private”, kids and many adults somehow forget that in the online world, words, content, images and videos can be viewed, copied and pasted, forwarded and shared in seconds.  As Weiner learned, once an image is posted online, it can never be erased.

Our culture also suggests that sexual impulses are meant to be fulfilled outside of marriage and commitment.  Whether it’s through pornography, one-night-stands, sex-chatrooms, phone-sex, swinging, sexting or sex toys, we have become accustomed to the idea that we can have sex or sexual relationships without consequences and with “no strings attached”.  Ending a sexual experience has become as simple as closing out of a chatroom, blocking a user or shutting down a computer.  Movies, television shows, magazines and the music we listen to elevate sexual promiscuity, “hooking up” and experimentation as a right of passage and a form of empowerment.  Rather than celebrating sex as something within marriage and commitment, we have divorced sex (or at least sexy sex) from marriage and relationships.

Sexting is “nbd”  (no big deal).  Sexting is celebrated in our culture, as long as it’s done by consenting adults who aren’t politicians.  In fact, if you want to be a celebrity, just make a sex tape.  Taking sexual risks and pushing the sexual envelope has become the norm for many (and kids are feeling the pressure to keep up with the adult society).  The AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) has published several articles recently that have revealed that even the elderly are “enjoying their sexting”.  As this month’s article stated “whether they’re single and casually dating, married or in a long-term relationship, boomers want sexual activity.”  As one woman explained, sexting makes her feel more “fresh” and “vital”…. “It makes you a little more brave.  It takes the fear away, your inhibitions.  I might be a little more bold in a text message than I would be over the phone or in person.”

Through technology, we have seen a sort of disinhibition in both adults and kids.  We take more risks when we communicate through a screen.  Whether its cyberbullying or sexting, the screen tends to desensitize us from our own actions.  “We know what restraint is, but not how to exercise it”, as an opinion in the Washington Post this week highlighted.  The author continued, “Watching Weiner, it was hard not to wince sympathetically.  After all, ‘I’ve placed personal information unwisely on the Internet’ is another way of stating ‘I am a human being in the 21st century’”.

And as our kids grow up in the 21st century, unfortunately, many of them are taking actions that aren’t too different from the actions of Congressman Weiner.  As one report found:

  • Although most teens who send sexually suggestive content are sending it to boyfriends and girlfriends, others say they are sending such material to those they want to hook up with or even to someone they only know online as a way of “flirting”.
  • Teens are conflicted about sending/posting sexually suggestive content–they know it’s potentially dangerous, yet many do it anyway (studies suggest 7 to 20% of kids have seen, sent or received a sext message).
  • Young people who receive nude/semi-nude images and sexually suggestive texts and emails are sharing them with other people for whom they were never intended.

Kids in many ways are doing what kids are supposed to be doing; they are engaging in what the adult society says is natural or exciting for women and men today.  As parents, mentors and leaders, it’s critical to combat these messages.

Use Weiner as an example.  Talk to your kids about what they are doing online and outline the risks.  Talk to them about the consequences, embarrassment and longevity regarding content and images posted online.  Tell them to “think before they post”.  The words, images and videos they post or text can, and most likely will, be seen by someone other than the intended recipient.  Also know who your kids are communicating with online and through their mobile device.  I don’t think it’s an overstep to do occasional “spot checks”; take a glance at what’s going on with them online and through their mobile device.  Finally, consider placing limits on their electronic communication and use parental controls (we recommend Safe Eyes, which is now also available for your kid’s iPad, iPhone or iPod touch), and remember to keep the conversation going.