Sexting – Unleashing a Nightmare

This is texting with a twist, and all it takes is a phone with a camera and two thumbs. Sexting is using a mobile device or computer to send sexually suggestive photos and messages. This recent phenomenon involves the practice of photographing oneself semi-nude or nude and sending the photo to a friend. Photos may be sexually explicit.

Pop culture has normalised the practice. In the weird world of celebrities, notoriety–and stupidity, apparently–are rewarded: Dirty photos garner publicity rather than shame and censure. With the release of the pictures, stars receive media attention, and their celebrity status soars. The trouble is, our kids don’t consider the fact that most of the actors and musicians engaging in sexting are over the age of 18.

Beyond this apparent endorsement by stars, teens have their own reasons for engaging in this risky practice. Some kids simply don’t understand how “un-private” the cyber-world is. Girls explain that it makes the feel “special.” Scarily, one Western Australian teen interviewed on Sixty Minutes said sexting between boyfriend and girlfriend was, “the norm–it just always happens.” Some kids conceptualise it as “a sexy present.”

A “present” that keeps on giving, indefinitely

Bewildered adults may put it down to young people behaving stupidly, but the trouble is it is an act that can have lasting negative consequences. After the picture is sent, the sender has no control over what happens to it. It may have been intended only for the eyes of the recipient, but it could end up being posted on the internet or shared around with a whole year level. Police investigating child pornography report that these photos sometimes end up in the hands of paedophiles. In fact, that photo will remain in somewhere in cyberspace, even if the original is deleted.

Sexting carries truly horrendous legal ramifications too, especially for adolescents because they are legally minors–by law, children. A young person who takes a sexy photo of herself can be deemed guilty of making child pornography. If she sends the photo on, the she could be accused of transmitting pornography. The person who receives it could be charged with possession of child pornography. Whether or not the exchange was consensual does not appear to matter once the matter is under investigation.

All of these crimes have moved out of the realm of possibility into reality. Australia has seen young people charged, and it has happened in the US as well. In recent years in Victoria, some unsuspecting young men who had engaged in sexting suddenly found themselves on the Sex Offenders’ Register, where their names will remain for a number of years and their activities and employment possibilities will be curtailed.

What can parents do?

First of all, keep your relationship with them healthy. Talk about celebrities and the false world they live in. Discuss and model good character and respect for others and self. Be available.

Think carefully before confiscating the mobile phone or other device as a punishment or out of anger or frustration. Teens consider their phone/iPod/etc a lifeline to their social world, and the loss of a mobile is a kin to losing a limb. They will remain silent and endure harassment (and worse) just to keep their phone, which you don’t want. You want them to come to you if they experience a problem.

On the other hand, collecting phones and digital devices at night (or after school for younger teens) for charging and safe keeping in the parents’ bedroom is wise. Make it a house rule, no exceptions. (And the alarm argument, “I need it to wake me up,” can be countered by buying them a cheap and old fashioned alarm clock. Devices in bedrooms impede good sleep, which is crucial for adolescents’ developing brains.)

If your child has a smart phone, have a serious talk with them. If they have a boyfriend or girlfriend, it is even more imperative, but please remember that being in a relationship is not a prerequisite to sexting. Sadly, sometimes it is part of flirting. Some girls with low self-esteem even use sexting to get attention from boys.

Make sure your son or daughter understands the limitations of privacy, the enduring nature of information and images on the Internet, the speed with which information can spread, and the possibility not only of humiliation but of legal consequences for risky behaviour.

Keep your children accountable by having regular, random searches of the photos on their computers and phones. Make this part of your “House Rules,” as it will be far more acceptable (though not necessarily welcomed or pleasant) if they know that it is likely to happen than if you if you do a check without any warning.

If you have a gut instinct that something is not right, use the intuition God gave you and take action. If at all possible, a good starting place is to have a conversation with your child in which you ask direct questions and avoid judging (stupid, crazy, etc). “Why?” is also something to avoid.

Remind them that trust is a two way street. It is illogical to complain about a breach of their privacy if they are flouting your trust.


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