Nearly everyone does it. Robin Williams incorporated it into his comedy routine. Your Crime Editor even stepped into the new millennium when I added it to my cell phone plan. It’s texting, and in most cases, it’s a harmless way to stay in touch with friends and family. But sometimes, the conversations can turn X-rated, a phenomenon known as “sexting.” This is an all too common occurrence that parents must be mindful of.
Sexting may start off innocently enough, as mild flirting between cell phone users. Gradually, the messages may become more and more explicit as the users grow bolder. Many find texting, without having to face their conversational partner or speak the words aloud, gives them the ability to say things they might never otherwise dare to. Your Crime Editor spent some time working for a text message answer service, and I can tell you some of the language and subject matter of the questions would make your hair curl, even though the service was not adult in nature.
These exchanges are bad enough when they take place between teens who know each other, but they also offer a way for predators to reel in their victims. Predators may send random texts out, hoping to get a response from someone they can begin sexting with, as Amish man Willard Yoder was accused of doing to a 12-year-old girl in 2011. Yoder was arrested when he showed up (in his horse and buggy, no less) for a police-arranged meeting with the girl. In cases where the police are not involved, the teen is vulnerable to abduction or worse if his or her texting partner can arrange a meetup.
Of course, nowadays it’s virtually impossible to find a cell phone without a camera. Even the phones my husband and I got free when we renewed our plan have cameras. So often, the text exchanges grow into an exchange of pictures, sometimes depicting the sender nude or engaged in sexual activity. This is where teens step into a gray area that can lead to not only embarrassment if the pictures are shared, but possibly legal charges as well. Several teens have been charged with possessing and distributing child p*rnography after sending explicit photos…even when the pictures they sent were of themselves.
How can parents prevent sexting? Honest dialogue with your children when they are old enough to have a cell phone can help. Points to address include:
- The permanency of texts/pictures. Once you send it out, there is never any getting it back.
- The loss of control. You cannot keep the receiver from showing the texts/pictures to others.
- People can lie. Just because Tommy says he would never show anyone, doesn’t mean he won’t.
- Peer pressure. Anyone who is really your friend won’t pressure you into doing something you aren’t comfortable with. (Yes, it’s a line older than the hills. It’s still true.)
- Legal issues. Sending explicit pictures, even of yourself, is illegal if you’re under 18. It can even be a federal case if you send them to someone in another state.
- Stranger danger still applies. Never respond to a text from someone you don’t know. If they persist in texting you, tell your parents.
- Communication. Tell your parents immediately about any harassing, obscene or unwelcome text messages or pictures you receive.
Parents may also be able to prevent or quickly put an end to sexting by taking the following actions:
- Limit your child’s text and photo messaging and data usage capabilities, either by purchasing a cell plan without unlimited use or by requiring the phone is turned in to you during certain hours.
- Randomly check the message history on your child’s phone. It may seem intrusive, but if they know you’re checking, they may hesitate to begin sexting.
- Check the cell phone bill. If your bill says 20,000 texts but you’ve not seen anywhere near that many in random checks, something is being hidden from you. Time to have a serious discussion.
- Learn sexting lingo. Do you know what P911, PAL/W and KPC mean? You should, because they’re all about you, Mom and Dad. Watch for these and other sexting acronyms in your child’s message history.
Above all, be the “square” parent. Remember, it’s your job to protect your children, not be their friend. Preventing your child from becoming a victim of a random predator or incurring legal trouble or humiliation from her peers is far more important than being the “cool” parent.