Most parents of teens and tweens have at least heard of sexting (the practice of sending sexually explicit texts and images by phone), but that doesn’t mean everyone is aware of the potential risks involved. Current research has shown that about one-quarter of kids between the ages of 14-17 have either sent or received sexually explicit messages at least once. The true frequency of sexting, however, may be even greater than that.
So what do parents and kids need to know about sexting? First of all, it’s a far more dangerous practice than it might seem on the surface. Kids, especially, tend to be too trusting with sexually explicit photos. Taking nude pictures or video in their homes and sending it to one “special” person may feel like a private activity, but in reality that material can be shared among others, published online, or altered in harmful ways. Even apps like SnapChat, which was originally designed to make sexting “safe” by destroying images after a few seconds, can be circumvented by taking screen shots before the images disappear. Once a teen has lost control of those images, they can never be taken back.
Depending on the age of the parties involved, sexting can also result in criminal charges. Sexting is generally considered legal if both the sender and receiver are of legal age and give consent. However, if the person shown in a sexually explicit image is underage, then consent no longer matters. Anyone in possession of such images (for instance, when they’re saved on a phone or received in a text message) can face charges related to possession or distribution of child pornography and other felony charges. Teens who are convicted of those charges could not only face prison time, but may have to register as sex offenders—a punishment that carries serious and far-reaching consequences.
So what can parents of teens and tweens do to protect their children from what is becoming an increasingly normalized activity? To start with, keep an eye on who your kids interact with by phone and online and how they’re doing it. Set clear guidelines for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior with regard to sending photos and messages, and talk with your child about why those guidelines are in place.
Above all, keep the lines of communication open. Kids need to feel empowered to make safe decisions, but secure enough to confide in you in the event they make poor ones. They also need to be able to come to you for help if they’re on the receiving end of any sexually explicit messages, particularly if the contact is unwanted. At that point, they’ll need you to evaluate whether the matter can be resolved privately or will require the help of authorities.