Monday, May 9, 2011

The Topic We All Want to Ignore but Can’t: Sexting

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Few words will make a parent, teenager, teacher, or school administrator more uncomfortable than the word “sexting”. It seems that any time the word “sex” is brought up in any form, all of the above people want to run and hide. Unfortunately, sexting is something that too many teens are engaging in either actively or passively, so parents need to grit their teeth and learn as much as they can – for the sake and safety of their children.

The Cyberbullying Research Center is one of the premiere websites that addresses all aspects of cyberbullying, including sexting. The definition created by Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin is fairly comprehensive: sexting is “the sending or receiving of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive images or video via a cell phone.” It is worth noting that while sexting most often occurs via cell phone, it can also happen through email, instant messaging, and social networking. Also, sexting doesn’t necessarily include sharing totally nude pictures; the pictures may be semi-nude (topless or in underwear) or sexually suggestive in nature.

Research done by Hinduja and Patchin in 2010 suggests that as many as 8% of teens create sexting messages and 13% receive these messages. The numbers climb as children get older. They also found that boys and girls were equally likely to send a sexting message, but boys receive significantly more sexts than girls.

The thought of sending such images makes most adults cringe; why do teens seem so blasé about it? Research done in 2009 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicate that the reasons include
• sharing images as part of a sexual relationship
• sharing images instead of having a physical sexual relationship
• starting or maintaining a relationship
• sharing images for fun or as a joke
• sharing images out due to peer pressure (girls say they feel pressure from boys or else risk not having or losing a relationship)

So, what can parents do? The overarching task would be to talk to your teen about sexting. Yes, it will probably be uncomfortable, but it is necessary. Teens need to realize that sexting is dangerous behavior both legally and socially. Laws in many states consider sexting to be creating, disseminating, and possessing child pornography, and the punishments for those offenses are severe and could have a life-long impact. The social consequences can be equally devastating. The stories of Jesse Logan and Hope Witsell sadly and graphically demonstrate this (both girls tragically ended their lives after engaging in sexting). Beyond keeping the lines of communication open, parents need to check up on their children’s behavior with the computer and cell phone. Dougherty County, Georgia, District Attorney Greg Edwards explained this quite succinctly: “The only thing that a parent can do is to check, check the devices, it's so many devices that allow you to do it now and it's going to be difficult but it has to be done.”

For more information and summary of recent research done on the issue of sexting, you can download a sexting fact sheet here.

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