I recently had the opportunity to speak with Christine Belaire, Ph.D., while she was working on an article about sexting for Baton Rouge Parents Magazine. The article, Can we talk? from texting to sexting , is reproduced in its entirety below. I'm thankful for the opportunity to contribute to her article on a topic that parents and educational leaders alike cannot ignore.
Can we talk? from texting to sexting
by Christine Belaire, Ph.D.
With the advent of internet, cell phones, social networking and texting, can we as parents really keep up with monitoring our children? The challenges of parenting have increased ten fold in a few short years due to the amount of sexualized material children are exposed to in the form of media, advertisements and merchandise. The latest fad our teens face is “sexting”–sending sexually explicit images or messages by cell phone or other electronic media. The term sexting is derived from combining the words sex and texting. Parents and teens all over the country are dealing with this new issue, some with devastating consequences.
In 2008, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy conducted a survey of 653 teens ages 13-19 about their use of sexting. The study found that the occurrence of sexting increases with age, and that 39 percent of teens have sent sexual messages while 22 percent report that they have sent explicit pictures of themselves. Despite knowing that sexting carries significant negative consequences, most teens do it anyway.
Some parents are asking why this is happening now. Drs. Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne, authors of So Sexy So Soon, explain that children are inundated with sexual content and messages from early preschool years and become accustomed to sexual images and behavior. The availability of internet and instant communication is a contributing factor as well. Many parents have not yet caught up with the idea that phones can be dangerous to teens. Stacy Gaskin, a mother of two teenagers, makes this point well, “Parents may work hard to put parental controls on the computer and keep computers in common areas but then hand a teen a cell phone with unlimited internet and texting.”
Teenagers are impulsive and do not think ahead to the possible consequences of their actions. Further, when you get a group of teens together, their ability to think ahead to future consequences diminish drastically. Teens may think sending a nude or partially nude photo to someone is funny or cool–and never think of the potential for harm to themselves–or others.
Take for example, the much-publicized case of Jessica Logan, who killed herself after a sexting incident this year. Jessica sent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend who sent it to many others after they broke up. The harassment she endured following the incident contributed to her suicide.
Across the nation, teens are finding themselves in legal trouble over this disturbing behavior. Sending sexual images of children and teens through the internet is a crime regardless of who is sending the image. Many teens are now facing felony charges and being added to sex offender registries for sending sexual images of other teens. Legislators are struggling to determine if charging teens with sex crimes is appropriate; but based on many state laws there is no other alternative.
In the United States, it is against the law to possess sexual photographs of minors. In Louisiana, sexting could result in charges of felony sexual exploitation and the creation, possession and distribution of child pornography. Teens who have been caught sexting, particularly those forwarding images, can be charged with a crime.
Debate rages about whether or not teens who commit a stupid act without intent to commit a crime should be held to the same standards as adults who are trafficking in child porn, but the current laws do not distinguish between the two. Some officials are working on potential legislation that would make this form of communication a misdemeanor offense for minors, eliminating the felony charges and the sex offender registry issues.
Why do teens engage in this dangerous behavior?
Blaine Tucker, a Baton Rouge youth minister, reported that in his work with teens he has dealt with sexting more in the form of messages rather than pictures. In his experience, boys tend to send pictures as a joke and messages to solicit contact with a girl. Girls, on the other hand, tend to send sexting messages or images to get a boy’s attention or from pressure.
A recent survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported that teens are sending pictures and messages for various reasons. Many of these cited included to ‘hook up’, feeling pressure from a boyfriend, girlfriend or friends, to send a sexy present for their boyfriend, to feel sexy or to respond to an inappropriate message sent to them. The highest reported reason was girls just wanting to be fun or flirtatious.
In Baton Rouge, the story is no different and local school officials are dealing with the issue of sexting the best way they can. Nathan Barber, principal of a local high school, stated, “All schools are dealing with it (sexting). If they say they are not, they are either lying to you or not paying attention. To deal with this issue, we have updated our handbook to address inappropriate use of all electronic devices and technology. We have made the rules broad enough to cover the sexting issue.”
So what can parents do?
The first step is to be aware of your child’s activities and educate yourself about the issue. Be aware and educate yourself about the dangers teens face today. As difficult as it is, you have to stay ahead of the game and keep yourself informed especially with the speed of new technologies. “Even seniors in high school are still children”, states Barber. “Adults are still the parents and have to protect their children.” Utilizing resources will help you know what to look for and what is new. Talk with other parents and share information, use online sites, look at ratings and reviews on games and television shows and know what is age–appropriate.
Keep open lines of communication and discuss these topics with your children. The earlier you talk to them and the more frequently and in–depth you discuss issues, the more likely your children will be to come to you and talk. Listen before you correct or teach. Give your teens a place to talk where they are not immediately reprimanded and they will open up more often–then you can teach. Stay in tune with them even when they are not directly with you by spending time in their room and car and hanging out with your teen and her friends. Pay attention to what they are talking about and learn their lingo.
Keep a reign on technology
Parents should be monitoring teens activities on all fronts including email, social networking and texting. According to Tucker, “Parents are often hesitant to read their kids’ texts because they think they are invading their private conversations.” Parents need to know what their teens are doing, not only to teach them, but also to protect them.” Parents of three teenagers, Cliff and Cindy Cole, stated, “the rule at our house is that we always have the ability to check up on their activity and will do so at random times. We trust our children to do the right thing, but we check to make sure they are following the rules and they know that.”
Parents should have access to, and know the passwords of the technology and sites their children are using. The internet is a public forum and the potential harm for inappropriate content sexual or otherwise is tremendous. Make yourself aware of who your children are communicating with online. Are they discrete in who they allow to see their profiles and information? Set clear expectations for their behavior online and on hands–free devices and discuss these expectations regularly. Barber states, “I tell parents to make sure their children understand that they have the right as parents to explore electronic devices at any time. This is not to spy on them, but to protect them from the dangers out there.”