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Last year, many celebrities got unwanted exposure after nude photos in their iCloud accounts were leaked on the Internet. The release of private, sometimes provocative photos taken with cell phones created many an embarrassing situation, even for actors used to living in the public eye.
Now, imagine a similar scenario closer to home. Your son or daughter, fluent with technology but less skilled in predicting consequences, snaps a nude selfie and texts it to a dating partner. Your teen expects the image to be viewed by only one person, but instead classmates, neighbors, even strangers see it. As tweens and teens use technology to explore their sexuality, sexting can lead to pain and humiliation. In an Ohio case, a boy forwarded a nude photo of his girlfriend to others in their community. The young woman was taunted and harassed and later committed suicide.
Repercussions of sexting
At a recent meeting at Houston High School, a deputy with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office brought parents up to speed on “sexting,” the electronic sending of sexually explicit messages or photos by cell phone or computer.
While no teens have been prosecuted for this crime in Tennessee, “There’s been a huge increase in sexting in Shelby County,” says Deputy Joseph Fox. “With the combination of cell phone technology and availability of apps, we’ve noticed an increase.” School administrators, required by law to notify law enforcement when students are found sexting, are also filing more reports.
“If parents would get involved, we could stop a lot of this stuff. Parents need to be aware of what social media sites their children use and monitor them.”
Digital communication opens a Pandora’s box of potential problems for teens, who are curious and experimental. Minors can also pay a legal price, since Tennessee has not yet created a separate statute for sexting. A teen caught creating, distributing, or possessing a sexually explicit image of another minor can be charged under the state’s child pornography statutes. If convicted of a felony, he or she may be required to register as a sex offender.
Managing suggestive materials
First, don’t assume your child understands what sexting is or that it can be harmful. He or she may know it’s morally and legally wrong for an adult to sext a minor, but may not see a problem with two teens voluntarily exchanging photos.
In a 2009 survey, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 4 percent of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 had sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves via text messaging. The survey found that 15 percent of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 had received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via text messaging. Older teens are more likely to send and receive these images; 8 percent of 17-year-olds with cell phones have sent a sexually provocative image by text, and 30 percent have received a nude or nearly nude image on their phone. The survey noted teens that pay their own phone bills are also more likely to sext.
Often, kids start sexting because they want to fit in. “Peer pressure is a larger-scale stupid with cell phones,” said Fox. Some teens sext long-term dating partners while others hope a flirtatious photo or message will spark a new relationship. The fast deleting Snap Chat photo messaging app may also embolden kids. “Snap Chat deletes a message after seconds. It gives kids a false sense of security and they say, ‘If I take a picture of myself naked, I will be seen for only a few seconds and then the picture deletes.’ However, the recipient can still take a screenshot and save the photo.”
Sexting and cyberdating abuse
Some youth sext with people they’ve met online, including strangers who could be sexual predators. Others are bullied or forced by peers. In a study conducted by Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, sexting is linked with cyberdating abuse. Cyberdating abuse is defined as harassment via texting, IMing or online emails, to control, harass, threaten, or stalk another.
According to the study, 30 percent of teens that experienced cyberdating abuse were involved in sexting. Of that group, 33 percent of females and 18 percent of males reported being asked to text photographs of themselves.
A sexually explicit text message that doesn’t include a photo wouldn’t draw equal opposition from law enforcement, says Fox. “But we can get kids for sexual harassment with written text messaging.” Signs that your child may be at risk online include spending many hours online, especially at night, and isolating from friends and family.
Start a conversation
There are many ways to reach out to your kids. Refer to media stories about teens impacted by sexting; look for prompts on TV, in movies, music, or books; and explain the psychological as well as legal consequences of this behavior. If your child receives a sext while at home, have her show it to you. You may want to make the sender’s parents aware of the incident before deleting the image. If your child receives a sext at school, she should notify her teacher or administrator.
Familiarize yourself with your teen’s apps and ask for his passwords. Some popular apps include Snapchat, an easy means of sexting since images disappears quickly; Instagram, a popular photo posting app; and Vine, which allows users to post six second videos. Kik Messenger is the most popular messenging app among teens. Then, check social media friend lists and ask for information about contacts you don’t recognize. You might be surprised to learn what your kids are looking at and who they’re talking to.
Finally, take time to set up parental controls on an iPod or iPhone. It’s easy to turn off the Internet browser, app installation feature, and Facetime video chatting. You can even set allowed content to ‘clean.’ Most important, keep lines of communication open with your teen. The adolescent years can be rough. Your teen ultimately needs your guidance.
Legal Penalties for Sexting
It’s illegal for minors to send or electronically save a sext received. Minors caught creating, distributing, or possessing a sexually explicit image of another minor can be charged under the state’s child pornography statutes.
• First conviction - Class A misdemeanor. Up to 12 months in jail or $2,500 fine or both.
• Second conviction - Class E felony. 1 to 6 years in prison and in addition, the jury may assess a fine not to exceed $3,000. If convicted of a felony, a minor can be required to register as a sex offender, impacting employment opportunities.