Everything Parents Want to Know About Sexting (But Are Afraid to Ask)

When you were in school, kids passed flirtatious or even racy notes to people they liked. Sometimes those notes got dropped on the floor or confiscated by the teacher and, before long, everyone was gossiping between classes about what was supposed to be a private message.
Now add a cellphone with a camera and Internet access to that scenario. Suddenly, the scene is set for sexting which is the newly minted word for sending or posting nude or semi-nude photos, videos and messages.

While parents have been preoccupied with predators who might seduce their children online, a surprising number of teens have been volunteering to send sexual pictures of themselves to their friends. A fact sheet prepared by the Cyberbullying Research Center reports that 15% of all boys and 10% of all girls have received such photos. About 8% of all kids admitted sending sexually suggestive messages though the number is likely to be higher.

Sending sexy pictures doesn’t necessarily mean teens are having more sex. Statistics indicate that more than half of all teens delay their first sexual encounter until after high school, a significant increase from ten years ago. Of the teens who send provocative pictures, most share them with a boyfriend or a girlfriend on the often mistaken assumption that they will stay private. Some think of nude pictures as a special present; others send them as joke. Only a small minority say they have sent risqué photos to someone they didn’t know in real life.

Despite their claim that these photos and messages are simply for “fun”, three quarters of the teens who participated in a survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy think sending provocative content “can have serious negative consequences.” Half agree that it’s common for such material to be seen by people other than the intended recipient; a third of the boys and a quarter of the girls have looked at photos that weren’t intended to be shared. Often such pictures make the rounds after a break-up when one half of a young couple wants to embarrass the other.

Are these pictures homemade pornography? Or are they simply the inevitable result of high tech meeting adolescent curiosity about sex? Is distributing the pictures criminal behavior, bullying with a sexual dimension or teen foolishness? Experts—and for that matter parents—answer those questions in different ways. No matter how you feel about this new development in adolescent courtship, there are some things you should discuss with your teen.

Legal Matters. Sending naked pictures of a minor—that’s anyone under 18 in most states—fits the legal description of distributing child pornography. That’s true whether the person sending the pictures is the classic dirty old man or a classmate playing a prank or someone who’s been dumped and wants revenge. Penalties vary, but a child who posts or forwards such pictures to friends risks being charged with a misdemeanor or even a felony. In the worst case scenario, a teen could be added to a state list of Registered Sex Offenders which could have lifelong consequences.

Self Image. Today’s adolescents have grown up in a culture permeated with sexual images. As they start to have their own sexual feelings, it’s not surprising that they will feel confused about how to present themselves. Talk to your teen about the difference between being attractive and being provocative. One is perfectly acceptable in public; the other should be reserved for private. Then remind your child that digital photos are never private once they have been forwarded or posted.

Friendly Photos. Plenty of cell phones don’t take photos. Giving one of these to your teen will at least keep him or her from being the source of impulsive pictures. If your teen already has a photo phone or, for that matter, a digital camera, talk about using it responsibly. Professional photographers get signed releases before they publish another person’s photo. Friends don’t need to go legal but they should use the same mental test. Would my friend give permission to have this photo distributed? Point out that friends don’t send compromising pictures of friends. If the other person isn’t your friend, why do you have his or her picture? Why does he or she have yours?

Nothing Disappears. Some kids think it’s safe to send racy photos through a service like Snapchat where everything is supposed to disappear after a few seconds. Of course, if another friend with a cell phone happens to snap a photo of the screen in those few seconds, all bets are off.

Harassment Hints. Many young women and some young men wind up sending naked pictures because they are pressured by a partner. Remind both boys and girls that someone who actually cares about them won’t push them into doing things that are uncomfortable. Introduce your child to Thatsnotcool.com, a public service website that helps kids handle all kinds of online harassment including “pic pressure.” The site includes stories from young people who have made mistakes as well as edgy “calling cards” that teens can send to peers who don’t have a grip on digital boundaries.

Every generation discovers sex. What parents should do is encourage kids to slow down and think about their choices. Like so many other adolescent behaviors, sending a naked picture or video is something that is likely to be done in haste and repented at leisure. By talking frankly about why it’s a bad idea, parents are more likely to protect kids from the consequences of letting hormones override common sense.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns. @ Copyright, 2014, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns. @ Copyright, 2016, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.