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How to prevent teenagers from sexting and protect them from other teens who do

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by Staff Writer

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This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

With the ubiquity of ever more powerful smartphones, sexting has become an increasing concern for the parents of teenagers and preteens. This article describes how you can protect your child from the dangers of sexting, an activity that can have long-term, devastating impacts on your child, whether or not he or she is the one taking photos.

Sexting refers to sharing nude or near-nude pictures, usually via a mobile phone. Most experts distinguish between sending naked photos, an activity with serious privacy, health and legal implications, and simply sending suggestive text messages, which is less harmful.

Understand why teenagers engage in sexting

According to surveys on teenage sexting, approximately 20% of American teenagers have sent or received sexts. This number is down from figures in older surveys, but it is still alarmingly high given the risks involved.

Some of the major reasons teenagers send sexually explicit photos include the following:

  • Peer pressure or cyberbullying
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Rebelliousness, or the sense that they should be allowed to make their own decisions
  • As a romantic gesture
  • Because it feels naughty, liberating and/or grown-up
  • As a sexual favor in exchange for other services

Below are some other statistics useful in developing a rounded picture:

  • Girls are slightly more likely to send explicit photos than boys, but boys do it too.
  • Of teenagers who do send sexually explicit photos, about 10 percent willfully send them to people they don’t even know; in one extreme case, a teen girl even sent nude photos of herself to an entire school hockey team.
  • Approximately 80% of young people in the US under the age of 18 believe sexting is wrong, although some of those same teens do it anyway.
  • Most teens who send sexts never get caught.

As you can see, the reasons and motivations for sexting are varied and complicated. The simple knowledge that sexting is dangerous is not always enough to prevent teens from doing it.

Perception vs. reality: how teens think about sexting

Although teens are less concerned with online reputation and privacy than adults, that doesn’t mean they’re unaware of the implications of sexting. Teens are fairly well-educated as to the dangers of exposing private information or photos digitally. After all, apps like Snapchat that automatically delete content after a certain amount of time have tended to gain their initial successes among teens and other young people.

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Data from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire suggest that sharing personal information electronically does not on its own correlate with an increased risk of harm. According to a survey of American adolescents, three out of four think sharing personal information or photos online falls between “somewhat safe” and “somewhat unsafe,” similar to how they perceive the dangers of underage drinking.

Where teens fall short is in their understanding of the legal ramifications of sexting. Simply stated, sending sexts of people under 18 years of age is illegal. Beyond online reputation, teens who send sexually explicit photos can be convicted of child pornography charges and have their names permanently placed on registered sex offender lists. One Florida youth received five years’ probation and registration as a sex offender when he sent nude photos of his ex-girlfriend to her entire family and school. Many other sexting cases across the country have permanently harmed the prospects of otherwise normal teens.

This scenario is made worse by the fact that teens are highly likely to share the sexts they receive, with little regard to the electronic privacy of the sender. Even if your child would never engage in sexting under normal circumstances, the temptation to forward unsolicited naked photos of a classmate, like the ones sent by the Florida teen above, can be hard to resist. But it can land your child in jail.

Educate your teen respectfully

You won’t stop your teens from sexting by adopting a stern, draconian attitude. Unless you’re especially tech-savvy, they can outwit you technologically and they know it. That means prevention is the best form of protection. Show your children that you understand the actual dangers and the pressures they face, that you can put yourself into their shoes.  This is an effective method for getting them to listen to your message.

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To start, sit down with your children in a nonconfrontational, nonthreatening environment. Tell them that you want to talk about digital privacy, and ask if they know if their peers engage in sexting. (Chances are they do know, whether or not they tell you about it.)

Next, explain that you understand why teens sext, but also emphasize the legal dangers. Explain that if he or she receives a sext, it should under no circumstances be distributed because distribution is a violation of child pornography laws. Also explain that if you find sexting photos on the child’s phone, you may be legally required to take it to the police.

If you have already found evidence that your child is sexting, consider counseling through your teen’s school or with local law enforcement. An embarrassing slap on the wrist is better than a child pornography conviction.

Adopt a healthy digital environment at home

Teens who engage in more destructive forms of sexting often have other problems, ranging from abuse of drugs or medications to binge drinking. The best way to cope with this type of sexting is to maintain a healthy digital environment where teens feel like part of a connected family.

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For starters, ban smartphones at the dinner table or during other family activities. (Yes, that means your phone is banned too.) Additionally, insist that phone chargers stay in the parents’ bedroom, where children won’t have access after bedtime. This prevents the round-the-clock peer pressure caused by the dozens of text messages that the average American teen sends daily. When it comes to sexting, the best form of privacy protection is a lack of access.

If you continue to have problems, instigate routine monitoring at random times, when you and your teen sit down together to go through multimedia phone messages. Stay away from your teen’s texts; only look at photos and videos. You want to show that you respect your child’s privacy and that you’re only concerned with protection. Also, allow the child to operate the phone during these sessions, though make sure you know how the phone works so that they can’t dupe you. Knowing that their phone will be observed will help children stay on the straight and narrow.

Sexting is yet another modern danger for parents to worry about, but if you adopt family-centric, respectful parenting techniques combined with education, you can rest assured that your child is likely to make the right choice.