Over the last year, I have received numerous questions about sexting – whether sexting is harmful, normal, legal, or a gateway to sexual activity. Here’s what you need to know so you can keep your kids (and yourself) safe.
What is sexting?
Sexting is the sending and receiving of nude, semi-nude, or even sexually explicit messages by phone, tablet, and via the Internet. It can be as seemingly innocent as, “I just got out of the shower” or “I can’t get enough of you” to a sexually provocative nude image or video.
Do youth really sext?
Studies vary, but an article in the American Journal of Sex Education, reported that 17% of adolescents engaged in sexting, while a study published in Pediatrics, reported 15%.
Why do youth sext?
On the one hand, sexting is a form of sexual expression. Youth sext to explore their sexual feelings, show affection or flirt with someone they are dating or want to date. Some teens also see sexting as a form of “safe sex” because there is no risk of STD’s (sexually transmitted diseases) or pregnancy. On the other hand, sexting can also be the result of peer pressure, bullying and threats, or a regretful impulse under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There are also instances where adults are soliciting images from teens – i.e., child sexual abuse.
Is sexting harmful?
Sexting has social, emotional, behavioral, and even legal consequences. Adolescents can get caught up in the excitement of sexting and not realize the unintended consequences. Once the photo is sent, the sender has no control about what happens next and the image may be shared further by cell phone, social media, or via a website – and worse yet, used to bully or harm someone.
Believe it or not, sexted images can also end up in pornography portfolios. For instance, a teen receives a nude or semi-nude photo and someone in their own family, with ill intentions, takes and shares it. Or a teen sends a nude or semi-nude photo to another teen; someone in the second teen’s family is involved in child porn and takes the image off of the teen’s phone; the photo is put into an online sharing program and is accessed and further shared by other child pornographers. This isn’t just hypothetical. This happens.
Does sexting lead to sexual activity?
More research is needed, but according to a study published in the July 2014 issue of Pediatrics (a publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics),middle school students who send or receive sexts were found to be more likely to be sexually active.
Is sexting illegal?
Yes, sexting is illegal. It’s considered child pornography and you and your children need to know this. Do not store or send sexually explicit or even suggestive photos of yourself, or anyone else.
Actual laws vary by state, but there have been cases of teens charged of sexting under child pornography laws and put on the sex offender list. If the photo goes across state lines, there could be a felony charge.
How can I prevent my child/teen form sexting?
The minute your child starts using a smart phone, tablet, or computer, it’s time to talk about body-safety rules around safe phone use. Talk with your children about why it’s not safe to take pictures of private parts (their own or others). Also talk about why it’s not safe to look at pictures of people touching private parts. Let children know they can and should come tell you if they ever receive or see an image with private parts – and let them know that you won’t be angry.
You can help keep your tweens and teens safe by talking proactively about body safety and sexting, and then playing what-if games. These games encourage youth to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills to potentially unsafe situations. Consider these “what if” scenarios for teens about sexting:
- You buy a new lacy bra, take a photo of yourself wearing the bra and send it to a friend. Is this sexting?
- You put on your new boxers, and you send the photo to the person you’re dating? Is this sexting? What might the consequences be?
- You take a photo of yourself with no shirt on and send it to a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Is this sexting? What might happen to this image once you click “send?”
- You send a message to someone you have the hots for and say, “I want to be naked with you.” If and how could this be something you come to regret?
Of course, always let children and teens know you’ll be there for them, no matter what.
What if I discover that my child/teen has been sexted?
If your child/teen receives a nude photo on their phone, tablet, or computer, tell your child/teen not to respond and to delete the photo right away. Calmly talk with your child/teen and be as supportive as possible. Learn as much as you can about the situation: Find out if there have been other images, if you child/teen forwarded any of them, and what your child/teen thinks about the possible motive. Discuss the emotional and legal impact, and remind your child/teen that you love them and are always there for them. If you are concerned about your child’s/teen’s psychological well-being, seek help form a therapist.
What if I discover that my child/teen is sexting?
We all want to believe it’s not our child/teen who’s doing the sexting, but sometimes it is. Should you discover that your child/teen is the one sexting, take a very deep breath and explore the following:
- Discuss why your child/teen is sexting – e.g., is it about flirting or peer pressure?
- Explore the emotional and legal consequences – i.e., sexting is illegal and it can cause people to feel lousy about themselves.
- Discuss who they are sexting with, and how far the image(s) may have traveled.
- Discuss whether your child also is viewing porn.
- Create a safety plan and seek professional help as needed.
Should I contact the police?
This is a tricky matter because in alerting the police you may be incriminating your child or another child. If the photo comes from an unknown source, an adult or an older child – or if there are repetitive sexts as a form of bullying, then yes, take the images to the police. If it’s teen-on-teen sexting, you might prefer to talk with their parents. Alternately, you can call the CyberTipLine at 800-843-5678.
Feather Berkower has been a leader in child sexual abuse prevention since 1985. Using a community-based approach, she has trained over 100,000 school children, parents, and professionals. Her highly-regarded workshop, Parenting Safe Children, empowers adults to keep children safe from sexual abuse. She presents across the country in schools, youth organizations, parenting groups, places of faith, and businesses. Feather makes a difficult topic less scary, and consistently impresses audiences with her knowledge, commitment, and warmth.