When my daughter graduated from high school, the valedictorian used the term “textually active” to describe the students of the 2009 senior class. I thought it was a cute term, for it is true that teens have learned to communicate via their telephones in many ways more than simply the traditional method of dial and talk.
What I did not know at that time is that teens would have yet another way to communicate via their telephones. Sexting. Sexting is the practice of taking nude or scantily clad photos of oneself with a cellphone and then texting them to someone else’s phone. Before you say that your child would never do such a thing, let me remind you that in a survey taken in January 2009 by the National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, about 20 percent of our nation’s teens have been involved in sexting (22% of teenage girls; 18% of teen age boys). And before you even think that is a small percentage, consider that this is a fairly new craze and that the consequences are dire. It only takes a few minutes out on the web, on sites like Facebook and MySpace, to find that people – teens or not – have few qualms about what they will post to the web for all to see. I recently spoke with a mother of a twelve-year-old child who was overwhelmed to find that her daughter had opened a MySpace page (even though she isn’t “old enough” to do so) and had posted photos of herself in her pajamas to that page. When asked why she would do such a thing, she answered that all her friends did it. When asked how and where the photos were taken, she was told that they were taken with a cell phone at a girlfriend’s home when she was there for a sleepover.
Let’s set aside the risk to reputation considering once the photo leaves your teen’s phone they have no control over where it is sent. Teens have been charged with child endangerment and child pornography under both state and federal felony laws and have even had to register as sex offenders for the “crime” of sexting. Charges such as production, distribution and possession of child pornography have been tried and convictions have been upheld against teens involved. While I personally do not believe that pressing such charges against the teens involved is the answer to the problem, I do understand that something must be done to literally protect our teens from themselves in this situation.
Peer pressure is a motivating factor in the “reason” for this craze. While most sexting occurs between boyfriends-girlfriends (perhaps as a “safe” alternative to sex?), within the past year, I was told of a teenage boy who requires his female friends to send him a nude picture of themselves in order to “be friends.” Apparently this teen considers himself to be of such value that the price of degrading themselves is required for a teen girl to receive even a nod as they pass each other in the hallway. I find it disgusting that the teen boy thinks so “highly” of himself, but more disturbing that the teen girls succumb to his demands for likely no more than an occasional smile across the cafeteria. Where is the self-respect that these young ladies should have for themselves? And why have teen relationships been reduced to such a base level?
As parents, we need to communicate with our teens in an open and honest fashion. We need to let them know that we understand their curiosities, but that we also understand the dangers of which they are unaware. We can no longer shield our children from the dangers that lurk in the dark corners of society because those dangers have grown brave enough to venture out into the light. Our children are the prey and the victims – and now they are also placing themselves in the position to be convicted and labeled for the rest of their lives as the perpetrators.
Moreover, we need to teach our teens self-respect and respect for others. Believe it or not, our teens do look to their parents for role models to emulate. If we behave with respect for ourselves and others, then when we talk to our teens about respect, they will be more likely to take us seriously.
It is my concern that we will see more child pornography charges brought against teens before the practice of sexting is brought under control. It is disheartening to know that these teens will be scarred for life – in more ways than one – for a foolish indiscretion taken due to immature though processes. Take a moment to educate your teen as to the consequences of their actions. Take a moment to help them protect their future. What seems to be a childish prank can turn out to have very adult consequences.