Arguably, no phenomenon of the mobile era is as upsetting to parents as “sexting.” For the blissfully uninitiated, “sexting” refers to the sending of sexually explicit texts and photos. It began with just naughty words in the early 2000s, but as cameraphones became more prevalent, cellphone users began sending explicit photos of themselves to their romantic partners.
What no one really foresaw was that kids would start doing the same thing. But a number of factors made it inevitable: the steady rise in the number of teens and pre-teens with smartphones; the influence of Internet pornography; bad examples by a large number of celebrities and public figures, from Miley Cyrus to Brett Favre to Anthony Weiner; and the persistent and insidious influence of peer pressure.
Both parents and minors need ongoing and extensive education about the perils of sexting, particularly for young people. For starters, anyone under the age of 18 who takes a nude photo of herself or someone else can be prosecuted under federal law for creating child pornography. By sending it to a boyfriend, for instance, the young lady has now “distributed” child pornography and her boyfriend has “received” (both separate federal crimes).
A child convicted of a child pornography offence may be required to register as a sex offender, a designation that will severely limit his or her ability to go to college or graduate school, get a job, rent an apartment, or buy a house. Child pornography laws, of course, were not written with the idea that children themselves might be perpetrators, so some legislatures are creating limited “Romeo and Juliet” exceptions for minors. Nonetheless, the risks and potential legal consequences are severe.
Even if a sexting teen avoids prosecution, the social consequences can be equally severe. Digital photos are deceptive; it appears that they can be quickly and easily deleted, but in reality, they’re startlingly durable and elusive. But the reality is that electronic data has a life of its own. Once a photo is created, let alone shared, it is very difficult to prevent its release.
And if the photo is in fact shared, then all control is lost for good. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for sexting photos to spread to multiple schools in a given region, or even to wind up on adult pornography sites around the world.
Some kids may argue that this is all harmless fun if they use an app like Snapchat, which claims to prevent the copying of photos by deleting them within seconds. But kids have developed numerous hacks to preserve Snapchat photos, and there are entire galleries of copied Snapchat photos online.
Kids whose sexting photos get redistributed often face serious cyberbullying and cyberharassment, occasionally so severe that it is a factor in their subsequent suicide. At the very least, release of sexting photos can result in embarrassment, depression, poor school performance, and other health issues. The impact can be profound.
So how do we teach “sext” ed? First, we need to educate parents about the scope of the issue. In 2009, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 4% of teens 12-17 had sent sexually suggestive nude images of themselves. Other studies over the intervening five years have put the figure at closer to 25%. Parents need to communicate with their children about this issue, supervise their smartphone use, and network with other parents and school officials.
Second, we need to incorporate “sext” ed into school curricula beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school. Obviously, the content should be age appropriate, but with more and more elementary school children carrying smartphones, the time is long past to start educating even young kids about the risks and responsibilities of using mobile devices.
Third, we need to educate legislators about how existing child pornography laws can apply to kids, and whether that actually makes sense. It’s far too easy for a simple mistake or hormone-influenced lapse in judgment to wind up ruining a kid’s entire life.
How widespread is the sexting phenomenon in your community? Have you had a conversation with your kids about this topic? Let us know.