"Sexting" is a relatively new term used for the act of sending a sexually suggestive or explicit text message (AKA texting, SMS, MMS) to someone else. In most instances, the intended recipient is a current or prospective boyfriend or girlfriend. These messages may vary from simple text, to photos, or even short videos sent from a mobile phone to either another phone and/or email account.
References to sexting in mainstream society only date back to 2006. It is a newer concept that appears to be directly correlated with the emergence of faster mobile networks, more sophisticated phones (with photo and video cameras and different messaging options), and the increasing availability of these networks and devices to teens.
Like many emerging threats to online safety and child safety, reports vary about the proliferation and severity of texting. However, it is hard to dispute that the problem exists and that the consequences can be dangerous. A report done by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in 2008 surveyed 1,280 teens and young adults. Their research found that 75% of teens and 71% of young adults believe that sending sexually suggestive content "can have serious negative consequences." Despite that, 39% of teens and 59% of young adults have sent or posted sexually suggestive emails or text messages, and 20% of teens and 33% of young adults have sent/posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves. Perhaps more disturbing was the study's finding that ~38% teens and ~46% of young adults say it is common for nude or semi-nude photos to get shared with people other than the intended recipient.
A common thread in many threats facing online teens these days is that the behaviors creating the threats are not new, but the manner in which these behaviors are manifested are. While a precocious teen in the 1980s might have sent a provocative note or photograph to their boyfriend or girlfriend, today's teen uses mobile devices, social networks, and email to share such content. These channels make it easy to share, reproduce, and forward such content to unintended recipients. Even worse, unlike their counterpart of 20 years ago, today's teen must cope with the fact that behaviors such as sexting can not only have serious safety and legal repercussions, but may also leave a permanent record.
A shared sexting message could have disastrous consequences. For starters, the impact of such content getting "leaked" could result in social isolation from friends, bullying, and unwelcome sexual solicitations. Further, in cases where such content might have been shared as the result of revenge, it could certainly lead to violence. Aside from issues reputation and social issues, sending, receiving, and/or sharing this type of content could lead to disciplinary action by schools, employers, and possibly even state and federal law enforcement. Most importantly, what might start out as a fleeting and thoughtless lapse of judgement could lead to serious emotional and self-esteem issues for any child or young adult.
Short of concrete evidence (or concerns voiced by your teen, their friends, their teachers, or law enforcement officials), the best way of recognizing any problems with your child is to communicate with them. Knowing what your child is up to and paying attention to their moods and behavior is essential. A parent con usually tell ("sense") when something is amiss. If the lines of communication are already open, then exploring what may be wrong will be an easier conversation. Some common signs might include mood swings, changes in weight and appetite, lapses in personal hygiene, or a new found fascination with morbid or offbeat topics or entertainment. These, of course, are common examples, but each child may react differently. Just remember that communication with your child is essential and can help prevent a potential problem or mitigate the damage of a problem that has already started.
While it is often easier said than done, controlling your emotions is essential. While situations involving sexting can vary tremendously in terms of the harm that they can cause, it is hard to imagine a scenario where a parent would not be very upset to learn of their child's involvement in such a case. Despite a parent's anger, fear, concern (or all of the above), remember that communication will be required in order to address the issue. If a child feels further threatened or isolated by their parents in such a situation, they may be much less likely to share further details about the situation out of fear of further reprisal.
In any situation that presents a potential threat to the safety and health of anyone involved, a parent should immediately contact the appropriate medical and law enforcement officials in their area. If the nature of the threat is less severe, then recruiting the support of key advisors, family members, friends, coaches, teachers, etc. might be a good place to start. Also, depending on the situation, you might find it appropriate to discuss the situation with any other parents or parties involved.
Again, it is imperative to understand that you are the parent and that this is a time when your child will be coming to you for guidance and support. Whether your child is the victim or the victimizer, it is incumbent on you to communicate with your child, assess the situation, and select a course of action that mitigates the potential for immediate and long-term damage to the safety and well-being of all parties involved.
Because technology tends to move faster than the laws that govern it, there has not been a lot of legal precedent set in this area as of late 2009. Further, and as you might expect, local laws vary greatly depending on the social and political culture of a given geography or state. For example, Vermont lawmakers recently introduced a bill that legalized the consentual exchange of graphic content between teens aged 13-18. However, they made it illegal to share such content with an unintended recipient. In Ohio, a new law was recently proposed that would reduce sexting-related crimes from a felony charge to a misdemeanor. This would prevent teens from potentially be labeled 'sex offenders'. Like Ohio, Utah also recently reduced such crimes to a misdemeanor.
- Wikipedia on Sexting
- CBS News: "Sexting" Shockingly Common Among Teens
- ABC News: Sexting Teens Can Go to Far
- "Sex and Tech (PDF)" The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (12-10-2008).
- "Vermont Considers Legalizing Teen 'Sexting'" , Associated Press (Apr. 13, 2009).
- "Ohio to address 'sexting' laws", WKYC-TV (Apr. 13, 2009).
- "Utah lawmakers OK bill on 'sexting'", Associated Press (Mar. 11, 2009).