By now, most of us have probably heard about the latest wrinkle in teen dating and adolescent sexuality – “sexting.” Just this weekend, The Boston Globe reported that police are investigating possible child pornography charges after an occurrence of sexting at a local middle school.
The cleverly coined phrase is used to define a situation where a person takes a photo of him – or usually – herself or others nude and/or involved in some sort of sexual behavior. A camera phone is often used, and the photo is then sent to another person or persons, sometimes even posted on Facebook. A recent survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that one in five teens have electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves. There have been a number of media stories lately about teens and sexting, including a push to prosecute teens as sex offenders, a course of action that Health Quarters does not endorse.
This issue is hard to understand and downright scary to many adults – especially parents – and trying to get a handle on it can seem daunting.
Experts in adolescent psychological development would probably say that there is a generational gap between the way teens and their parents use technology, and possibly a greater gap between each population’s view of sexual behavior and relationships. Although these gaps may seem wide, it’s imperative that parents try to connect with their children on this issue: Let them know your concerns, the potential consequences of sexting, and strategies to keep themselves safe. The following tips, adapted from materials developed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, can help:
1. Talk to your kids about what they are doing in cyberspace.
Just as you need to talk openly and honestly with your kids about real life sex and relationships, you also want to discuss online and cell phone activity. Make sure your kids fully understand that messages or pictures they send over the Internet or their cell phone are not truly private or anonymous. Also remind them that others might forward their pictures or messages to people they do not know or who they don’t want to see them. Worse yet, school administrators and employers often look at online profiles to make judgments about potential students/employees. It’s essential that your kids grasp the potential short-term and long-term consequences of their actions.
2. Know who your kids are talking to.
Of course it’s a given that you want to know who your children are spending time with when they leave the house. Also do your best to learn who your kids are spending time with online and on the phone. Supervising and monitoring your kids’ whereabouts in real life and cyberspace doesn’t make you a nag; it’s just part of your job as a parent. Many young people consider someone a “friend” even if they’ve only met online. What about your kids?
3. Consider limiting electronic communication.
The days of having to talk on the phone in the kitchen in front of the whole family are long gone, but you can still limit the time your kids spend online and on the phone. Consider, for example, telling your teen to leave the phone on the kitchen counter when they’re at home and to take the laptop out of their bedroom before they go to bed, so they won’t be tempted to log on or talk to friends at 2 a.m.
4. Be aware of what your teens are posting publicly.
Check out your teen’s MySpace, Facebook and other public online profiles from time to time. This isn’t snooping – this is information your kids are making public. If everyone else can look at it, why can’t you? Talk with them specifically about their own notions of what is public and what is private. Your views may differ but you won’t know until you ask, listen, and discuss.
5. Set expectations.
Make sure you are clear with your teen about what you consider appropriate “electronic” behavior. Just as certain clothing is probably off-limits or certain language unacceptable in your house, make sure you let your kids know what is and is not allowed online either. And give reminders of those expectations from time to time. It doesn’t mean you don’t trust your kids, it just reinforces that you care about them enough to be paying attention.
A final thought: Much of what teens are dealing today regarding navigating relationships and sexual decision-making is pretty similar to issues their parents faced. Whether or not they are participating in this new trend, teens still are concerned about, and need information on, body image, self esteem, gender stereotypes, healthy relationships, communication skills, sexual orientation, and pregnancy and STD prevention. Keep this in mind when you sit down to talk with them about sexting – they need to hear parents’ values and wisdom about these more “traditional” topics, as well.