In a recent study just published at the end of February in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, it was revealed that about one in four teens has received a “sext,” a text message with sexual content, and approximately one in seven have sent one.
The frequency of sexting among teens has been increasing over the past decade. Most of the sexting happened over cell phones, though some involved computers, too.
Potentially more concerning numbers are that 12 percent of teens said they’ve forwarded a sext without the permission of the person they received it from, and 8 percent of teens had one of their sexts forwarded without giving their consent.
What constitutes a “sext” message? There’s no standard definition in research or everyday experience. For some, it’s any message related to sex: telling a raunchy joke, discussing a body part, etc. A sext may include a sexually explicit photo or video.
In a technology world where anything can be copied, sent, posted, and seen by huge audiences, there’s no such thing as being able to control information. The intention doesn’t matter — even if a photo was taken and sent as a token of love, for example, the technology makes it possible for everyone to see your child’s most intimate self. In the hands of teens, when revealing photos are made public, the subject almost always ends up feeling humiliated. Furthermore, sending sexual images to minors is against the law, and some states have begun prosecuting kids for child pornography or felony obscenity.
Why is this happening? According to the study, “Adolescence is a time of life in which teenagers are learning about their own bodies, how to take risks, and about romantic attractions. For some teenagers, engaging in sexting may feel like a way to explore their attraction to someone.”
As with anything in life, actions have consequences and so does sexting. To the teen, they include emotional consequences such as experiencing embarrassment and humiliation if the sext message or images are shared with others, cyberbullying, guilt and shame, etc.
There are also more serious legal consequences such as receiving criminal charges for child pornography. Both the sender and the recipient can be charged. Those who send the photos may be charged with distributing child pornography in some states. And those who receive the photos may be charged with receiving child pornography, even if they did not request the photo. Teens who sext also run the risk of having to register as a sex offender.
Parents are not immune to the consequences either. If parents know that their child is sexting and do nothing to end it, they may be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The parents also can be subject to a civil suit if the victim’s parents choose to sue.
What can parents do? Don’t wait for an incident to happen to your child or your child’s friend before you talk about the consequences of sexting. Talking about sex or dating with teens can be uncomfortable, but it’s better to have the talk before something happens. Let them know that sexting constitutes child pornography and engaging in it increases their risk of sexual bullying as well as their exposure to child predators. It can also ruin their reputation and continue since sexts never go away. Once something has been put on the Internet, it takes on a life of its own and cannot be controlled.
Overall, the best scenario is if sexting does not take place at all. Parents should sit down with their teens and talk through all the risks associated with sexting. And if your child has received a sext message, they should delete it right away. Keeping it to show authorities at school or sending it to a parent only puts them and their parents at risk legally.
Mary Migliaro is an educator, parenting mentor and consultant. She is a longtime resident of Cherokee County.