“Not my teen,” most parents think. And then a sexting scandal hits home. It happened not long ago at Duxbury High School, in the affluent small town of Duxbury, Massachusetts. The school made national headlines with this cautionary tale for families around the country: Nudes of Over 50 Girls Found Online.
Duxbury is not the only community to experience this. Such incidents are popping up across the country, from Union County, Georgia to Canon City, Colorado to Winnetka, Illinois to Knoxville, Iowa — literally, no place escapes the speed bumps and pitfalls of the internet.
So, are kids experiencing a sexting epidemic?
Not exactly. A recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior said that although this behavior is not at epidemic levels, it also hasn’t decreased despite preventive efforts by educators and others. Another study of teenagers in Texas basically concluded that sexting is now the new “first base.”
“I’m asked all the time for pictures,” remarks Ginny, a Duxbury junior, in my book Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate. “I’ve experienced boys begging and begging… Boys always say, ‘Of course I won’t save it… I won’t show anybody…’ But really, they do. Even if you send it over Snapchat, the boys have an app that will save the pictures without the girls knowing… Stuff like this happens at other schools. They make it so unbelievably humiliating.”
For years, many parents have cringed at the thought of having “the birds and the bees” conversation. Now, we need to have the sexting talk with kids at an even younger age. As a study in the American Academy of Pediatrics reveals, children aged 12-14 are sexting.
So how do you talk to your teen about sexting?
1. Start Talking — Now
Ask your teen if they believe there is such a thing as safe sexting?
They need to understand that everything they put online has the possibility of becoming “Public and Permanent,” an expression perfectly coined by Richard Guerry, founder of the Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication. “Far too many people with technology are not stopping to think about the long-term repercussions of their actions,” he says. Guerry advocates for digital consciousness—always posting with the awareness that anything you’ve documented could be disseminated.
2. Make It Real
There are sexting laws across the country depending on what state you reside in. It’s important not only for you to understand these laws, but to have frequent discussions with your children about them. In 23 states, sending sexual content could not only land your teen in jail for child pornography – they could be required to register as a sex offender.
3. Address Peer Pressure
Emily Lindin, author of UnSlut: A Diary and a Memoir, has a strong message that always strikes a chord when she talks with teen girls about being pressured to send sexual content. She points out that online porn is readily available, so these boys already have all the masturbatory material they could ever desire. What they are really after is power to lord over you, control you, even blackmail you.
She asks young women pointedly, “Do you really want to give them that power?”
Psychology professor at Purdue University, Dr. Michelle Drouin believes that parents need to provide teens with an out. “What teens need is help with what to say when someone asks for a picture, without jeopardizing their relationship,” she says. “That could be saying, ‘I’m not ready yet,’ or ‘I’d rather keep our physical [experiences] in person,’ or simply, ‘My parents will confiscate my phone if they find out.’”
4. Give Them Solutions
If kids receive unwanted sexually-charged messages or pictures, they should know what to do — and what not to do — next. Most importantly, is knowing not to forward or share any sext message. Most experts advise teens to immediately delete any nude or semi-nude image or message they receive. Not doing so could put them at risk of having child pornography on their phones.
According to Cyberbullying Research Center, if there is an investigation and someone asks if you received the image, you should tell them yes, but that you immediately deleted it. If necessary, they can get your cell phone records from your service provider, and search the contents of your phone, which will show that you deleted it within seconds of receiving it.
Parents are quick to talk to their young teens (especially girls) about not lowering their standards by sending sexual content. When we interviewed Ginny (Duxbury student) for Shame Nation, she had a strong message for parents. She suggested that while we tell girls who share nudes to think better of themselves, “Why are we not telling the boys to stop hounding the girls for naked pictures?” It’s a two-way street.
The best advice? Tell all adolescents to stop asking for nude photos from one another.
About the Author
Sue Scheff is a Nationally Recognized author, Parent Advocate and Family Internet Safety Advocate. She founded Parents Universal Resources Experts, Inc. in 2001. She has been featured on the Today Show, 20/20, Anderson Cooper and more. She’s also a contributor for Psychology Today, NBC’s Education Nation and Today Show Parents. You can follow her on Twitter and join her on Facebook.
How to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting — Sources
Sexting Scandals: Union County, Georgia to Canon City, Colorado to Winnetka, Illinois to Knoxville, Iowa
Archives of Sexual Behavior
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Academy of Pediatrics
Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication
Cyberbullying Research Center