What is Sexting?
“Sexting” is when someone sends a nude or sexual image to someone else using a cell phone. “Sexing” is when they do it using any interactive device, such as a webcam, digital camera or video, cell phone, game device, etc. Just as “textbullying” is a subset of “cyberbullying” “sexting” is a subset of “sexing.”
How Prevalent is It Really?
It’s everywhere, even where you least expect it – like on your teen’s computer, cellphone and game device. 44% of boys in coed high schools we polled reported seeing at least one image of a fellow female classmate in the nude. Most saw images of more than just one girl. And many saw multiple images of each girl. Your daughter may be among them.
And it’s not just girls. Boys are sending pictures too. They see it as a way to convince the girls that they are a good catch. Some do it when they are just being “boys.”
Younger teen and preteen girls see it as a sophisticated way of “flirting” and to audition for dates with older boys. It starts as young as 11, when the girls want to be “grown-up” and do what the “kewl teens” are doing. Sadly, the “kewl teens” know better, but this message isn’t making it through to the preteens.
It is far more prevalent among upper middle class to upper class teens than lower socio-economic class teens. It is often a product of too much time and technology on their hands. Too much peer pressure, too little self-respect and too few others willing to support pushing back when someone asks for a nude picture are the problem.
What Laws Apply to Taking a Sexting Photo, Sending It to Others or Keeping a Copy?
There are two sets of laws that apply when a minor is involved in sexing, and right now one is too hot and the other too cold:
1. Child pornography or sexual exploitation laws are very serious laws. You may have heard of Megan’s Law [check spelling]. It requires that people convicted of sexual exploitation laws register as sex offenders. Registered sex offenders may not live near a school or a public park and have to register wherever they move. Employers can learn that you are a registered sex offender and most social networks will not allow you to have an account. The laws were designed for the creeps who molest kids. But they also apply to minors who take naked pictures of themselves, share them with boyfriends or girlfriends or share them with others, or keep a copy. These are too hot for most cases of sexing.
2. Harassment laws cover some kinds of cyberbullying and when people use technology to harass others. They may apply if messages are sent anonymously and designed to annoy someone, or if they are designed to harass them. If the sexing images are being sent around, especially if it is being done to make fun of or embarrass another, these may apply to anyone who is forwarding or sharing the images. But they are rarely used and typically only involve a fine and a slap on the wrist. They are too cold.
What we need, like in Goldilocks and the 3 Bears, is an approach that it just right. That would involve converting the child pornography statutes, when un-coerced minors are involved on all sides, to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. This would avoid the sex offender registration. And when sexing is used as the weapon in harassment, we should have higher penalties.
What Should Parents Be Doing?
First, if your teen in involved in a sexing incident, get legal advice and get it early. If it’s your daughter’s or son’s photo that is being circulated or posted, you’ll need help stopping the bleed and having it removed from the networks. Reach out to the cyberstalking and harassment team at WiredSafety.org and they will show you what to do and give you some help doing it. Let the school know right away. Print out the “What Schools Should Know About Addressing Sexting Incidents” to take with you, or ask them to download it from WiredSafety.org or StopCyberbullying.org.
If you son or daughter has received a sextual image or video, delete it right away, or remove it from your cellphone, computer or other device and store it securely as evidence. Do not forward it to Parry Aftab, the police or anyone else. In doing so, you may be breaking the law and could be charged with distribution of child pornography (if the image qualifies as child pornography.
Second, be vigilant and realistic.
Your sweet cherubic fourteen year old daughter may be starring in more videos than last Halloween’s costume competition. If she is sexually active, her boyfriend may be demanding a nude picture to seal their love.
And groups, especially when alcohol is involved, are fertile ground for sexting. Ask your daugher’s friends to park their cell phones with you when sleeping over or attending a party at your house, especially if alcohol is being consumed (with or without your permission). Sexting is often the result of boredom and looking for excitement. The more digital photo capability they have, the more likely someone will use it.
Step-By-Step Proactive Prevention
Take a cyber-inventory.
Start out by asking what devices they carry around or use have photo or video capture features, or can be used to send images or video to others. Include webcams, Xbox and Wii, their cell phones, DS and PSP handheld gaming devices, Playstation 2 and 3, video and still image cameras.
If they want a new device, before you plunk down your hard-earned cash, ask if you can use it to take or store videos or digital pictures. Once you know which devices and technologies are image or video capable, learn how they work. Be aware of what others are bringing into the house for slumber parties or larger parties, and suggest they leave them with you or drop into the party from time to time to deliver soda and chips.
Trust But Verify
It’s important to trust your teens. But all you have to do is think back to your teenhood to know how important it is to verify, not just trust blindly. Ask and then check. Do spot checks without it looking like you are spying on them.
Once you have figured out where and how they can store pictures and videos, verify what is stored there. Check them regularly (make it a tech spot check) for any stored images. Check their laptops and the family desktops, portable drives, flash drives, media cards and any discs. Ask to see their social network profiles and their online accounts, including their instant messaging profiles.
If they have any online free storage services, such as a Microsoft or Sony online account, ask to see those too. Let them know you care and are watching. They may not be thrilled about it, but when Parry did the Good Morning America town meeting special with Diane Sawyer on sexting, of the eight parents selected to do spot checks on their teens, four found something they hadn’t expected. Two found that their teens’ classmates were sexting, and one of those had her images on his computer. If you look, you may find!
Have The Talk
Our recent studies showed that the teens have a “didn’t ask so I didn’t tell” approach. If you want to know what they are doing online, you have to ask.
Share Jessie’s story with them. She ended up taking her own life after her “private” nude image was shared by a boy she was seeing with the world. Before she gave up trying to fix her reputation and be able to walk around school or town without being called names, she appeared in shadow on TV pleading with other teen girls to think before doing the same thing. She didn’t want them to face what she was facing. Sadly, while others may have learned from her message, her own torment didn’t end. She was found hanging in her bedroom closet - dead. She was barely 18.
Use the news as a conversation starter. Just don’t lecture. Our kids don’t react any better to lectures than we did at that age. And teach them to respect themselves enough to withstand peer pressure and pressure from the boys they love.
If you need help, contact Parry Aftab or visit WiredSafety.org or StopCyberbullying.org.