Sex always finds its way into cutting edge modes of communications. So it’s not surprise that “sexting,” or sending nude or sexually explicit images or sexual explicit text messages, has taken hold, morphing further into sexual instant messaging, and an ever-growing app progression through developing communication technologies1. The fact is that sexting and use of such applications pose potential problematic challenges for pre-teens and teens on several planes. Although kids may perceive that their private, even flip, and anonymous exchanges are not being recorded—they very well may be. While most parents find themselves behind the eight ball with understanding the growing app technologies, too much is at stake for them to presume that their children are just doing their homework when they're mesmerized by their cellphone appendage.
About 39% of teens report having received sexually explicit images over text messages, and about 48% percent state that they have shared sexually explicit text messages with others.1 The Washington Post reported that “millions of teens”2 send such sexual exchanges assuming that these are anonymous communications. The apps give users the illusion of anonymity, but receivers can find ways to save the exchanges through screenshots and blind apps. The instant text messaging or a pirating app can retain the exchange that may be recorded for other purposes. In this way, sexting is like having an explicit conversation about sex.
It’s quite natural for kids to discuss and share what they learn about sex with peers, and teens often view sexting or use of these other apps as another way to explore sexuality. Their exchanges can be driven by various motives, such as efforts to gain social approval or be “cool.” Gender trends have been attributed to sexting: boys find sexting exciting and humorous; girls often get drawn to it as a means to gain social attention or to be flirtatious. However, these perceived harmless expressions of the digital age may result in disturbing and dangerous consequences, sometimes driven by negative motives and resulting in serious consequences, as well.
Adult sexting is also on the rise. A trend of increasing sexual exchanges has led to similarly problematic effects for adults. Several public officials and celebrities have suffered embarrassment and humiliation related to these exchanges, inevitably wishing they could turn back time and avoided the backlash.
News outlets recently updated consequences for Former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who pleaded guilty to sexting charges with a 15-year-old girl. Weiner stated that he will not appeal any sentence of 21 to 27 months in prison and was told by his judge that he would have to register as a sex offender. Not coincidently, his wife filed for divorce.3 While communications between adults is a private matter not usually subject to legal consequences, the point remains that perceived online-confidentiality may haunt participants for decades, as the internet does not have amnesia.
More to the point for parents guiding teens, an explicit in-person conversation about sex, describing it, or entering into fantasy through words generally has far fewer consequences than sharing the same words and pictures via text message. Electronic conversations are vulnerable to being recorded and distributed by others. While young people take the chance that they won’t be caught, law enforcement sometimes does not necessarily distinguish between those who send or innocently receive sexting, as People magazine explained:
“…Ben Hunt and his best friend John Eicher, both 14, send each other about a dozen routine text messages…while at school, Hunt sent Eicher something on his cell phone that suddenly put their futures in peril: a photo of a girl in their class exposing a breast. Eicher didn’t see it as a big deal. ‘I really didn’t think of deleting it,’ says Eicher, an eighth grader who at the same time attended the Lawrence School in Falmouth, Mass., with Hunt. ‘I was, like, whatever.’
But school officials…sprang into action. They seized Hunt’s phone, and the police arrived. It turned out the photo had been taken by another male student of his 13-year-old girlfriend, who had allegedly posed for the shot. The fact that both boys had received the picture unsolicited, and that Eicher had done nothing more than open the file, didn’t matter. To the shock of the boys and their families, authorities initially said they were weighing whether to charge the teens and four other boys who had received the photo with trafficking in child pornography, meaning they could face jail time and have to register as sex offenders.”4
Sexting, instant messaging sexual material, and use with the various referenced apps involve the risk that sexually explicit pictures and texts may be shared or stolen and end up in the hands of those for whom they were not intended—sooner or even much later. While most know that nothing in cyberspace gets deleted—once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. Such histories are not what your children will want their college admissions committees or future employers to discover following an internet search.
Of greater concern is that these methods of exchanging about sexual matters may involve insensitive or blatantly abusive behavior with others. Innocent people can be bullied, which has frequently occurred following the fallout of a relationship. Once a relationship ends, a former partner may seek revenge by sharing what their boyfriend or girlfriend had previously sent to them.
Parents specifically need to engage discussion about their children’s sexual exchanges without this evolving into a monologue or sermon. Keep the tone conversational. For example, ask, “What do you know about ‘sexting’ or a particular new app?” or "Are you using any of these apps? --And would you know what to do if the messaging ever get obscene?" It’s not unusual for kids to be unclear themselves about what their sexting, snapchat, or a new app entails (even though they think they “understand” it).
Ask your children if they have ever received sexual text messages or have ever sexted others. Ask why they think people send these messages and if they are aware of the possible consequences. For example:
We want to help our children understand that sex involves actions and their responsibility and respect in sensitively relating to the feelings and needs of themselves and others. It’s important to listen to your children’s experiences and understandings and guide them to express their sexual feelings positively and constructively.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a part-time lecturer at Harvard Medical School, author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex, and recently published Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce (HarperCollins, 2017). For more information visit drchirban.com.
1 Some of the current apps include:1) Audio Manager, 2) Clcularor%, 3)Vaulty, 4) Snapchat, 5) Burn Note, 6) Line, 7) Omegle, 8) Tinder, 9) Blendr, 10) Kik Messenger, 11) Yik Yak, and 12) Ask.fm. See Brenoff, A. in “The 12 apps that every parent should know about.” Huffpost. February 17, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-12-apps-that-every-parent-of-a-teen-should-know-about_us_56c34e49e4b0c3c55052a6ba.
2 Balingit, M. Millions of teens are using a new app to post anonymous thoughts, and most parents have no idea. Washington Post. December 8, 2015.
3 Sexting Statistics. Statistic Brain. April 26, 2016. http://www.statisticbrain.com/sexting-statistics.
4 Neumeister, L., et al. Boston Globe. May 19, 2017.
5 Hewitt, B. People. March 23, 2009. http://people.com/archive/the-dangers-of-sexting-vol-71-no-12.