The phenomenon called “sexting,” in which teenagers share sexually suggestive or explicit images of themselves and other teens by cell phone, has received a great deal of media attention. According to a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, it is far less common than many believe. Nevertheless, teens who do engage in sexting put themselves at real risk.
According to the Pew researchers, 15% of teens who use cell phones report having received sexual images of people they know, and 4% report having sent them. These figures are reassuringly low, although it may be that the true rates are significantly higher: Pew research ethics require parents’ presence when minors are interviewed, so the teen respondents may not have been entirely forthcoming.
Why Teens Sext
Parents and teachers, raised in an analog age, find it very difficult to comprehend the importance of the newer means of communications in the lives of children and teens. For some teens, sexting probably is a form of intimacy, a means of bonding with another in a way parents and teachers are unable to understand.
According to the Pew study, sexting often occurs between romantic partners – although girls sometimes report being pressured into it by their boyfriends. Sexts also may be sent as a way of expressing a romantic interest in another teen – or as a means of seduction.
Especially among younger teens, sexting may take the place of a physical relationship. They say if feels safer, and less intense. At all ages, though, there is no difference in the rates of sexting by girls and boys.
The Dangers of Sexting
Once created and shared, digital media are nearly impossible to expunge. A photograph that makes its way from a cell phone onto the internet is likely to exist in cyberspace forever, and explicit self-portraits by otherwise innocent teens already are sold and traded by pornographers. Teens, who live in the present, rarely foresee such outcomes.
Teens also are not known for their discretion, so a picture intended for a single recipient almost inevitably will be viewed by many others – teens enjoy displaying their “prowess” and “conquests” to their friends. When a romantic relationship ends, an aggrieved party may “take revenge” by sending images of the former partner to all and sundry. This is not only very embarrassing to the victim, but can initiate intense cyberbullying.
Many teens regard sexting as “no big deal” – but in some jurisdictions, overzealous prosecutors have charged teens with producing, transmitting, and possessing child pornography because of sexting images on their cell phones. While most adults consider this a severe overreaction, it continues to take place. Sexting also has resulted in long suspensions and expulsions from school.
Sexting and the Schools
If teachers discover evidence of sexting, their first responsibility is to file a written disciplinary report with the appropriate administrator. Usually, this discharges the teacher’s legal responsibility, but it is a good idea to follow up with the administrator to make sure the parents of the youngsters involved were notified.
Sexting is serious enough so that administrators should arrange face-to-face conferences with the parents of the teens involved, possibly including guidance counsellors and school psychologists or social workers. Administrators also should be aware of the law in their localities. In some jurisdictions, reporting lewd images of minors to the police is mandatory.
Parents of Teens and Sexting
Most teens do not sext, but those who do will not share the secret with their parents unless severe problems arise. If parents ask their teens if they have been sexting, the inevitable answer will be “no.” While it may seem like an invasion of privacy, many parents may decide that browsing the photos on a teen’s cell phone is justifiable.
The parent’s main responsibility is to make sure children are fully aware of the negative consequences that may ensue. Media coverage may provide opportunities to initiate a family discussion, with an emphasis on encouraging teens to identify with the victims of sexting. “Just imagine how embarrassed she must be,” or, “Think how many perverts must have his picture by now,” will have more impact than warnings or moral condemnation. Many teenage girls already believe that sexting is “slutty” behavior, and that idea can be reinforced.
Sadly, all the media attention may encourage sexting as much as it discourages it. After all, some teens may think, if it is so “popular,” and provokes so much adult outrage, it must be “cool.” With luck, though, sexting will have the short life span of so many digital phenomena, and rapidly fade away.