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No parent wants to stumble upon sexually explicit text messages on a teen's phone. In fact, many parents of teens probably don't spend much time worrying about that at all. Not my kid. No way. And yet, a new study from Drexel University shows that the practice of "sexting" is actually quite common among minors, and the vast majority of those minors don't think it's a big deal. One other small issue: They don't seem to understand that sexting, specifically the kind of sexting that includes sexually explicit photographs, can get them in big trouble.
Researchers surveyed 175 undergraduate students at a large Northeastern university, asking them if they had ever sent or received sexually explicit messages, commonly referred to as "sexting," or sexually explicit photographs when they were under the age of 18. Fifty-four percent of the students surveyed said yes, although many admitted that the messages were sent in the context of an intimate relationship or as a method of flirting. While the majority were 16 or 17 when they sexted, some admitted to sexting at the age of 13. If that's not enough to raise the red flag, 26 percent of those surveyed admitted to forwarding or sharing a received sext with a good friend. Sexting, it seems, has become white noise for teens.
While teens appear to consider sexting very normal and harmless, that isn't always the case. Particularly when it comes to sexually explicit photographs, teens can find themselves in serious trouble. Most states do not have laws that govern sexting, so sending sexually explicit photographs to a minor can result in the sender being charged under child pornography laws. The majority of those surveyed in the Drexel study were unaware of the potential consequences, and 59 percent of the respondents admitted that knowledge of potential legal consequences would have made an impact on their decision to sext. Bottom line: Kids need guidance and information.
A cautionary tale
A 17-year-old boy in Manassas City, Virginia, is facing two felony charges, for possession of child pornography and manufacturing child pornography, for sending a sexually explicit video to his 15-year-old girlfriend. The boy sent the video after his girlfriend sent him photos of herself. If convicted of these charges, the boy could face incarceration and a lifetime on the state sex offender database. In other words, this young man could see his entire future fade away at the age of 17 simply because he chose to play out his romantic relationship via text message and pushed the boundaries a little too far.
Hormonal, impulsive teens have been around since, well, forever. Where "do you like him?" notes passed in class were once considered pushing the boundaries of flirtation, teens today are left to navigate the murky water that is combining flirtation and relationship building with technology. Where teachers once intercepted love notes, causing red-faced teens to burn up in embarrassment, teens today are facing much bigger issues.
The fact that the majority of the survey respondents think sexting is no big deal speaks to the lack of perspective on the issue. While I'm sure the boy in the Manassas City case thought he was just flirting with his girlfriend, his girlfriend's mother clearly disagreed. Once those messages are forwarded to a few friends, there is no end in sight to the number of eyes on those photographs and videos. And that can lead to emotional turmoil and legal trouble.
Inform your teens
Teens need concrete information about the potential risks of sexting. While empty threats and scare tactics generally don't sit well with the teenage crowd, providing specific facts and analyzing risks and benefits can have an impact. Believe me, I understand, no one wants to even use the word "sexting" with teens, and talking about sharing sexually explicit words and photos is overwhelming at best. But we have to open that door. The minute you place that technology in the hand of your child, you become responsible for guiding your child through it. You might think that your child would never engage in that kind of behavior, but with more than half of the survey respondents admitting to sexting before the age of 18, you need to be certain that your child knows the potential risks of this behavior.
Beyond dissecting the risks and talking about responsible use of technology, it's important to engage your teen in meaningful conversations about sexting. What do teens gain from sexting? How do they think others feel when they receive sexually explicit text messages? What happens when messages are shared among groups of friends? The best way to help your teen make positive choices is to engage in open and honest conversations about sexting on a regular basis.
Be the parent
Teens might be moody and prone to drama when they feel threatened, but that doesn't mean that you should cave to their wishes. Of course they want to do what others are doing and they feel that your restrictions are unfair and demeaning. They wouldn't be teens if they didn't feel that way at times. But they still need limits.
Make your limits and expectations clear when you hand over the smartphone. Be certain that your child understands not just the potential legal consequences of sexting, but that your child understands your consequences as well. Will your child attempt to hide behaviors that are off limits? Probably. Is your child more tech savvy than you? Most likely. It's up to you to keep the dialogue open and set clear expectations. Your teen might resent you now, but she'll thank you later. Be the parent in the situation. Set the rules, and don't be afraid to enforce them.