Technology….just the word can evoke a wide range of feelings. Some people express gleeful jubilation about how it has improved their ability to stay in touch in all aspects of their friends’ lives through new-and-improved cell phones, pda’s, and laptops. For others, there is a sinking, almost tearful, resignation that our lives have forever been changed for the worse by its mere presence. The latest battleground in this debate is occurring around “sex-ting.”
While sexting was first referred to as early as 2005, it has received significant attention these past few months. But what is it? Sexting is a word created by joining ‘sex’ and ‘texting’ and refers to the act of sending sexually explicit messages, photos, or videos electronically, primarily between cell phones. While adults may be participating in this activity with some frequency, the concerns stem from the widespread prevalence of sexting among teenagers.
In 2008, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com commissioned a survey of teens and young adults to find out who sends or posts sexually suggestive material. What they found would surprise most parents… 20% of all teens reported that they have sent/posted nude or seminude pictures or video of themselves. Additionally, close to 40% of teens have sent or posted sexually suggestive messages. Some may respond by observing that this is another case of “kids being kids” and wonder what all of the fuss is about. My concern is just that….THESE ARE KIDS! And the law is responding accordingly.
Recently, a number of jurisdictions have started “cracking down” on sexting among teenagers and charging those who send sexually explicit pictures or are in possession of such pictures that contain minors as child sex offenders. It does not matter if you were the one who originally took the picture. As long as you are in possession, you are breaking the law. For those cases that are successfully prosecuted, the teens have to register with the national child sex offender database.
For those who have not been caught and prosecuted, they may directly experience a number of other unintended consequences. Once the photo is taken and sent, they have no control over where the picture ends up. It could be distributed throughout the entire school within days. It could be posted online only to show up when they are trying to get admitted to college or applying for a job…not the best way to make a good first impression.
But is legal action the best way to address this social issue? I do not believe so. My concern is that this behavior is going to escalate as new technology emerges unless we attend to the underlying issue(s) that are driving this behavior.
The survey found that over half of the girls who sent sexually suggestive images or content did so because they felt pressure to do so, usually from a guy. Conversely, 18% of boys also reported feeling pressured. By far the most common reason for sending sexually suggestive content among both girls and boys was to be “fun or flirtatious.” Moreover, many teens say that it is an effective way of getting someone’s attention. What does this say? The findings suggest that many teens do not have the skills necessary to stand up to this pressure nor getting someone’s attention without the use of images or sexy texts. It also highlights lack of parental involvement in the teenagers’ use of cell phones and online social networks.
As a parent, it is incumbent upon you to take an active role in your child’s online behavior. Whether it is monitoring their MMS messages on their cell phone or tracking their discussions on their Facebook page, it is your responsibility to know what your child is doing. You may ask, “But, what about their privacy?” We need to remember that they are minors and that they sacrifice their right to private interactions once they use cell phones or computers to interact. As long as they are your responsibility, you have the right to be nosy.
To really prevent this behavior from happening in the first place, parents need to be fully engaged in their teen’s life. Helping them to understand and to learn how to respond to the daily pressures encountered in this time of life is crucial for the child. Also, effective modeling on how to engage and connect with others cannot be discounted. Whether we believe it or not, children are much attuned to how adults conduct themselves. By having frank discussions about sexuality, values, and the overt sexualizing of popular culture, we can give teenagers the ability to make clear, informed choices and decisions for themselves.