Today, teens have easy access to cell phones, the Internet and other mobile devices, and it’s estimated that teens send or receive an average of 3,000 text messages each month. While this new technology allows tweens and teens to keep in regular contact with their peers and family members, the instant (and often unmonitored) ability to connect, communicate and share with peers has also fueled some pretty risky behaviors.
One such risky behavior is sexting, a behavior that is unfortunately common among teens today. Sexting occurs when cellphone users exchange provocative, nude, or semi-nude sexual images of themselves, often by using their computer or cellphone’s built in camera. The behavior has become very normalized in our culture, and may celebrities and adult groups even encourage sexting as a way to keep relationships steamy.
Unfortunately, what’s perceived as “cool” for celebrities and adults can seem pretty cool to teens and tweens today. And as our teens and tweens grow up in this highly sexualized culture, they are experiencing intense pressure to perform and live up the their sexually expressive celebrity role models. As a result, studies indicate that about one in five teens has been involved in some form of sexting (although, in my experience, I would say it’s more like three in five).
So what is a parent to do if you discover that your child is caught up in the mix?
First: Remember not to overreact. What you say and how you first say it will impact the rest of your communications with your son or daughter. Take a quick walk around the block, react/vent to your spouse first and take a moment to gather your thoughts and breath before confronting your son or daughter.
Second: Evaluate yourself. Have you talked with your son or daughter about sexting? Did you tell your kids about the possible legal risks associated with sexting, and were you using parental controls on your son/daughter’s cellphone? Have you been monitoring their online activity and have you known with whom they were communicating with? If the answer to these questions is “no”, then you haven’t done a good job of preparing them, and it’s no wonder that they ended up engaging in some risky behavior. So remember, that if you haven’t set clear rules and had a straightforward discussion about sexting with your child, then at least some of the blame falls on you.
Third: Evaluate the extent of the situation. How many pictures are involved/are they just of your child, or are there tons of pictures of other kids. This gets a bit tricky, because what your child is in possession of is essentially self- or child-created child pornography. If there are only a few sexts exchanged between your son/daughter and their significant other, then this is probably something for you and your spouse to deal with alone (and possibly include the father/mother of the other kid in question). If there appears to be a malice or criminal intent involved, then it may be appropriate to get the school counselor, a psychologists and possibly local law enforcement involved. With cases that involve mass distribution of child-created child pornography, then extortion, cyberbullying or harassment may be involved.
Fourth: Talk to your son or daughter. Give them the opportunity to explain themselves. Help them to understand the legal consequences that could be involved with sending and distributing sext messages. Going forward, your child should never send, forward, create or accept a sext message; whenever they do so, they could be charged with creating or distributing child pornography. Even if they didn’t take the sext, if they are merely in possession of the sext, they could be charged with possession of child pornography. Talk also with your son or daughter about the emotional repercussions involved with sending/exchanging sext messages. Once an image is sent, it can be very difficult to gain control of that image. Any recipient can, and likely will, forward that message/photo onto someone else (I’ve heard of images that have been forwarded all across the country!). Set clear ground rules for cell phone use and clear consequences going forward.
Fifth: Consider investing in parental controls on all Internet-enabled devices and consider disabling the feature that allows your son or daughter to send and receive photo-texts. This is the easiest way to make sure that your son/daughter doesn’t make an impulsive, unwise decision that they regret for the rest of their life.