A New Spin on an Age Old Struggle
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 20 percent of teenagers (one in every five young men and young women) have sent “sext” messages.
The issue of sexting has been in the news for years, and it is an issue that
originated with social media sites then found its way to cell phones, which “feel” more private. The term “sexting” was officially defined in 2010 in United States v. Broxmeyer, as “the exchange of sexually explicit text messages, including photographs, via cell phone.”
“Sexting” (“sex” + “text”) might involve sending nude or partially nude
pictures or sexually-oriented written messages. Teens might also choose to use social networking sites like Facebook. Illicit pictures to share illicit photos. There’s also a trend to get naked through webcams on instant messaging (IM) sites such as Yahoo chat.
In 2004, when this issue seemed fairly new, a landmark case involved a 15-year-old girl from Pennsylvania who was charged with sexual abuse of children and dissemination of child pornography when she posted nude pictures of herself online. Time magazine called the consequences a “confounding twist” since the “victim and the villain” were the same child.
Though the consequences of sexting could be severe for anyone (consider all of Tiger Woods’ past problems), when the inappropriate pictures/illicit behavior involves children or teens, the emotional and legal consequences can be devastating, both for the sender and the recipient.
Even if teens are engaging in mutually consensual acts, it does not change the fact that sending or possessing nude or semi-nude pictures of minors is illegal. Both the sender and the recipient could face charges, including possession of child pornography. If one of the teens is 18, he/she could be named on the national sex offenders’ registry. Students could face other legal consequences and have a hard time getting into college or getting a job.
In one moment, someone’s idea presented to our son or daughter (or theirs presented to someone else) could change one or both of their lives forever.
Even if the recipient chooses to keep the message private, what happens if his/her phone lands in someone else’s hands, even for a moment? A parent? School authorities? The police?
The truth that we and our teens need to recognize and talk about is that anything shared has the potential to go public.
It also stands to reason that teens who engage in sexting are also more likely to be sexually active, which brings its own baggage for teens. Statistics back up that assumption: A recent survey of 1,800 teens in Los Angeles reported that kids ages 12-18 who had sexted were seven times more likely to be sexually active than their peers who had not engaged in sexting.
Teen relationships come and go, but the bonding that happens in a sexual relationship leaves a permanent tattoo on our spirits. Whether or not a teen is caught, what has taken place in secret stays with us and has its own permanent scars.
In some cases, especially when pictures go public, the emotional damage has been deadly.
My heart breaks every time I think about the case of Jessie Logan, an 18-year-old whose ex-boyfriend shared nude pictures of her with other girls in her school, who then called her names and made her life miserable. The young woman with the beautifully captivating smile chose to speak out on television about the dangers of sexting just two months before taking her own life.
Because our teens might not be aware of the long-reaching and severe consequences, as parents, we must be as vigilant about this subject as any other teen social networking or sex education issue.
Talk to your kids.
- Ask them how they feel about the issue and if they know anyone who has been affected by sexting.
- Present this rule of thumb (or texting-shutter-finger!): Never send anything in writing or put anything on camera that you wouldn’t want your teachers, your principal, your whole school, the police, a college admissions counselor, a future employer or your parents to see.
- Know who is texting your teen. Have your own Facebook profile and Twitter account. Friend and follow your kids. Let them know that you are doing so and that it is mandatory if they want to participate in social media. Tell them how much you respect their right to be their own person and make their own choices (in fact they must make and be responsible for their own choices — it is a fact of growing up!) but that you love them and you want to help them make the best choices possible for their future.
- Tell your teens: It’s just part of your job as a parent to fight FOR them, to know what’s going on in their lives and protect them as best as you can.
TBH — (and if you don't know what that means, find out next week in the Parent-Text-Acronym Quiz, which you are required to take to pass this series!). I don’t have all the answers, but this feels like a good approach to me.
As parents we want to think: “My teen would never send inappropriate pictures…”
I hope your kids wouldn’t. I hope my kids wouldn’t either.
But studies show nearly 20 percent of teens have either sent or received sexually explicit messages, and actual stats are likely higher, because in surveys, not everyone admits to the truth.
The real question is: Who does any of us have the potential to become when desire overtakes us?
You would never do such a thing? Really? Never?
Do you really know how you would react — or would have 20 years ago if the opportunity had been available then, unless you have been in a situation where someone is asking: “Send me a pic?” You don’t know for sure what you would do. And it is dangerous to assume you know the choice your child would make (or has made).
If we are honest, we must recognize that our teens are no different than we are. They are human; they are fragile. They long for love and acceptance.
Real Life Facts on “Virtual” Sex:
Pay attention to the numbers of teens who have been prosecuted over this
issue! While lawmakers in some states are pushing to lessen the consequences (in Vermont, senators say they don’t want to condone teen sexting but they also don’t want those who are caught subject to child porn laws or named on the sex offenders’ list) the potential damage is still very severe.
Though we may feel a certain bravado and invincibility in the privacy of our rooms and behind a screen, “virtual” doesn’t mean “not real." Sexting is a very real issue, with very real dangers and very real consequences ...for the rest of a person’s real life.
Let’s talk about it. For real.
Recommended resources for teens and parents: