What to Know and Do About Sexting

Teen girls with smartphones
Creative RF / Getty Images

Headlines in the newspapers and online in recent weeks have been alarming to many parents.

Vermont Teen Going to the Slammer for Sexting
School District Cracks Down on Teen Sexting
Two Local Boys Face Misdemeanor Sexting Charges

Sexting is a term that has come to mean sending nude or near nude pictures or sexually suggestive text messages via cell phone or posting them on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. It is a growing trend among teens and tweens in the United States and around the world.

A recent study by CosmoGirl Magazine suggests that one in five teens has sent a nude photo of themselves to someone using their cell phones, or posted one on their social networking home page. Forty percent of teens and sixty percent of your adults had sent sexually suggestive text messages, e-mails or instant messages. So, it is more likely than not that your teen has been a sender or a recipient of one or more of these suggestive messages.

Sexting Isn't Harmless

Sexting is not just harmless high-tech flirting, but it is risky behavior. John Shehan, director of the Exploited Child Division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, believes that these pictures often find their way from cell phones and Facebook into pornography sites. Speaking of pornographers, Sheehan says, "These people collect these images like your average citizen collects baseball cards. They save them and redistribute them. The content can live out there forever." Their reputations, not to mention their privacy and their personal safety, are at risk.

In addition, many states' child pornography laws make sexting a crime, and most school districts now have strong "one strike and you're out" policies about sending nude photos on cell phones. So your son or daughter might find themselves in trouble with the law or expelled from school if they are involved in sexting.

Keep Children Away From Sexting and Staying Safe Online

  • Get informed. One of the best sources of information about sexting is Netsmartz 411, sponsored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. You can read about the latest trends in the area of sexting and other Internet safety issues, and the site even offers an "Ask an Expert" page where a parent can get advice on a specific issue.
  • Talk about it with your teens. Keeping lines of communication open with your children is an important line of defense. If you can talk with them about sex, dating and relationship issues, you will have a built-in method of talking about sexting. Sit down with your teen privately and explore whether this has been an issue, and help them see the danger in early sexual involvement and in sexting. Tell them that you understand flirting and needing to be noticed by the opposite sex, but that sexting is not the way to do it.
  • Teach them about modesty. Help them see their bodies not as something to be exploited or used, but as something to be respected. Teens with a healthy attitude toward personal modesty will be much less likely to see sexting as an acceptable option.
  • Set rules on texting. A couple of years ago, I was reviewing our cell phone bill and discovered, to my shock, that my teenaged son had sent and received 15,000 text messages that month on his cell phone. I had simply not realized how pervasive texting had become in his life. So we set some rules with him and with his younger brother. No texting when he was with family members in conversation, no texting at meals, and the cell phone came into my room from bedtime until morning. Some good basic limits on texting will really help avoid the tendency to be involved in sexting.
  • Check up on them. During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan, when asked if he trusted the Russian leaders, he coined the phrase, "We trust, but we verify." The same can be said for cell phones, instant messaging, email, and social networking. Make sure that at least while your children are minors, you have their current passwords and review periodically their email accounts and their Facebook page. And regularly check their cell phone inbox and sent files to see what they are doing. While it is important to respect your teen's privacy, you are their parent, you pay the bills and you have responsibility for their safety.
  • Establish consequences. Fathers should definitely have well-established consequences for times when behavioral rules are broken and expectations violated. Cutting on Internet access, taking cell phones and banning contact with friends who don't respect your rules are consequences that have worked for others. Make sure that the consequences are understood by your teen up front. You might want to consider a "cell phone use contract" or "computer use contract" which sets up rules and consequences.
  • Ban camera phones. While most cell phones today have built-in cameras, you can still find phones without them. Generally, the legal and school rule prohibitions related to sexting are focused on inappropriate pictures, and taking away the camera phone for a more basic model without a camera can be an effective strategy to avoid sexting issues.
  • Focus on interpersonal, not virtual, communication. At the risk of sounding like I am out of touch, I struggle a little bit with the current trends toward so much communication happening with teens online. Teens tend to say things online or via text message that they would never say face to face with their friends or others. A teen who would never strip in front of a guy friend in person may not see the similarity in sending him a nude photo. So, help your kids feel comfortable and spend time in person with their friends, and they again will be less likely to do risky things online.

Posting nude photos online or sending them by cell phone, or sending suggestive text messages is dangerous business for our children. Open communication, clear expectations, and active parenting will make a big difference in whether or teenagers and pre-teens engage in these risky and inappropriate behaviors.