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Modern Parenting Guide: What to Know About Sexting

Along with exponential improvements in communications and connectivity, the rise of cell phones has also unwittingly ushered in a great rise in sexting, the transmission of sexually explicit pictures or messages via cellphones, e-mail or social networking sites – especially via text or instant message. Although sexting has certainly gotten its share of media coverage, as we note in Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide, reports of exactly how widespread the “sexting epidemic” is are still a source of debate, though.

A survey from CosmoGirl and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy unveiled some shocking numbers about the sharing of images that, while many experts feel are inaccurate and sensationalized, nonetheless opened many parents’ and researchers’ eyes to the topic of teens transmitting sexual images to one another.

According to the controversial survey, 20% of teens overall and 11% of young teen girls between 13 and 16 report that they have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves. And 39% of teens reported sending or posting sexually suggestive messages, with 48% saying they have received such messages.

Symantec’s Internet Safety Advocate Marian Merritt says that these findings really came out of nowhere, and points out that this study was self-reported and that many experts have since questioned its methodology.“Fewer than 1% of kids are crafting dangerous images,” she insists. Anne Collier from ConnectSafely.org also paints a similarly less shocking picture, in a recent presentation about the new rules of online safety. According to Collier, only 1% of teens surveyed had appeared in sexually explicit pictures, and only 7% had received photos. “It’s a small phenomenon, but kids still need to be educated about it,” says Merritt.

According to a January 2012 study in the American Academy of Pediatrics Journal, 9.6% of youth who use the Internet reported appearing in, creating or receiving sexually suggestive images, numbers which are more consistent with Collier’s and Merritt’s observations. But since you can’t rewrite history and retrieve any sexually compromising transmissions once they’ve been sent, the very real threat of persistent damage to your own personal image is an important danger of sexting. However, it’s not the only one. Since minors are involved, chances are there are some very serious crimes being committed as part of the process as well, as we noted earlier that the transmission of pornographic images of children is an extremely grave offense. 

Because of the severity of child pornography laws, some experts actually recommend that parents don’t get authorities involved if they discover sexting, because of the potential negative legal ramifications to otherwise unsuspecting adolescents. Safety advocates like Wired Moms’ Parry Aftab are hopeful that the laws will change to prevent the “sex offender” label from being placed on teens who may not deserve such a harsh label. “When we look at sexting, typically, we look at the criminal laws that are making our teens and preteens registered sex offenders for stupid actions,” she explains in a recent blog post. “They can legally have sex with someone, but if anyone records it on video or in a still image, both can be charged with child pornography crimes under federal and most state laws.”

There are laws currently being proposed in states like New York to remove the association between child pornography and consensual sexting. However, that doesn’t make it any better of an idea for kids to get involved in the activity – nor does it make the ramifications any less serious.

Even though many states have reduced charges to misdemeanor, “any parent who has to deal with the juvenile court system is still going to think it’s a big deal,” says Laurie Nathan, manager of national outreach and partnerships for The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Tips:

• Include the discussion of sexting as part of any normal and routine talks about the birds and the bees that you have with your kids. Just as they must protect their bodies, they must also protect images of their body as well. 

• Kids need to know that they shouldn’t allow people to take pictures of or place them in situations that could leave them vulnerable for such images to be shared. 

• Treat the written word as just as powerful as the spoken word when it comes to talking about sex, and explain that any use or talk of that language may be considered inappropriate in any given context.

Trend Micro runs a yearly video contest for kids called “What’s Your Story” that invites teens to create videos warning against the dangers of sexting and other unsafe online activities. Sit down with your kids and view some of the past winners and submissions to help drive home the dangers and importance of these online issues.

• Other services such as PhoneBeagle, TextGuard and MobileMediaGuard are available that analyze pictures and text messages to look for sexting. But no software solution can completely safeguard against the practice – it’s still up to parents to step in and teach digital citizenship rules and safe computing habits

• Consider checking your kids’ devices and reviewing their communications periodically, and let them know that a condition of them having these devices will be providing you with full access to them from time to time to make sure nothing inappropriate is happening.

• Teach your kids to never assume that anything they send electronically is going to be private. In fact, as a rule of thumb, it’s best to assume the exact opposite. Once children send an image or thought out into cyberspace, they have potentially lost all control of it. Important to teach your children: Before sending or receiving communications, it’s vital to consider whether they’d want their parents, teachers, coaches or even future bosses to see these transmissions. If there’s even the slightest chance not, or of such communications being misinterpreted, it’s best to err on the side of caution and abstain from doing so.

• Realize that personal intentions associated with sending sexually-charged material to others may be misconstrued, and may prove of little relevance when consequences and punishments are actually handed down. While some adolescents may think that they are just being silly or joking, others – especially adults – won’t perceive these actions as any laughing matter.

To learn more about this controversial topic, also be sure to see Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide.

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