Flickr Creative Commons/Esther Vargas

Approximately 20 to 25 percent of American teens engage in sexting. According to a study published in the journal of Pediatrics, there is a direct correlation between teens who send sexts and sexual activity. The study indicates that those who send sexually explicit photos of themselves are at an increased risk of becoming sexually active a year later. Conversely, sexting which involves being on the receiving end doesn't seem to be correlated with becoming sexually active.

Sexting is a relatively new way that teens (and adults) are engaging in sexual behaviors. Some research suggests that sexting may become a normal part of adolescent sexual development. Before the Smartphone and other electronic devices, teen sexual expression was much more discreet. But times have changed. Now a lot of teens own savvy little devices, i.e., Smartphones, that allow them to experiment with sex in all new ways. From porn sites to sharing sexual selfies, teens have a world of resources literally at their fingertips. And in a matter of seconds, those once thought private photos, can be instantaneously shared.

Sexting is so simple that teens may not stop to think before they click and send. Many teens get too caught up in moment and don’t think about the potential consequence sexting can bring (not only legally, but also to their reputation). Some teens make a decision to sext because it is a lot safer to sext than have sex. However, once those explicit photos are released online, they can be easily leaked, shared or worse yet—go viral. Many teens may buy into the facade that their online activity is private, but no matter how hard they try to convince themselves, in truth, there is no such thing as "online privacy".

There are so many apps out there, some that teens use to sext, that promise "privacy and security". What is concerning is teens (and some adults too) think these apps are safe. What's even more concerning is parents may not even be aware of the apps their teen has downloaded on his or her phone, let alone what purpose they serve. Sure teens should have some privacy, but it should not be at the expense of improperly educating them about acceptable use of electronic devices.

Speaking of education, are teens understanding that their online behavior can have detrimental consequences or are they living in an imaginary world thinking that they won't get caught? Do they understand the possible legal ramifications of sexting? In some states, teens can be charged with distributing child pornography. This is a criminal offense. Luckily, several states have implemented policies to educate teens about sexting rather than prosecuting them for their behaviors. But the question still remains, do teens realize the risk associated with sexting?

Flickr Creative Commons/Madstreetz

I read an article once that said parents needed to stop freaking out about sexting.

What?

I get it; teens are going to be sexually curious and find ways to explore. But at whose expense? The teens'? Sure parents don't need to overreact to sexting, but they do need to be vigilant and proactive. Prevention is way better than intervention; especially when it comes to scrubbing the internet. In the event parents find their teen sexting, take it as the perfect opportunity to have a heart-to-heart conversation about sex, and what could happen if the photo was leaked. Don't shun a teen who sexts, but open the door to communication and education.

Many teens aren't able to see the "big picture". They may get so stuck on the tree right in front of them that they miss the forest that lies beyond. Teens often live in the moment and don't think through the consequences of their actions. It's only after they have been stung with the aftermath of their decisions that they reflect and wish they wouldn't have acted so impulsively.

How do we teach our teens to avoid dangerous online behaviors? First and foremost, we have to provide proper training and education. The good news is teens can be taught decision-making skills. Through education and allowing them to think through difficult situations, we can help teens strengthen their ability to navigate through decisions such as sexting. Teaching them how to react in hypothetical situations helps them when they are faced with peer pressures like sexting, drug use, and other risky behaviors. 

For those who argue that teen sexting is okay, that it's a new way of self-expression and sexual exploration, that it's been scientifically proven not to increase risky behavior, I again ask at whose expense? These are young people who are still growing up and may not realize the consequences of a photo being leaked. I have nothing against using technology in the medium for which it was intended. I believe in teaching youth to value and engage in the world they live and that includes embracing technology. They need to learn to use, not abuse it.

Yes, sexting can have serious consequences. It's not so much about whether a teen will engage in other risky sexual behaviors, it's about what happens when that youth's photo ends up in the wrong hands. How will that teen feel? How can it harm her/him? Will she/he forever live in regret of their decision? A decision that we, as adults, may have prevented if we would have only talked to her/him before the fact?

Flickr Creative Commons/Pebak Sarkar

It is going to take a lot of education about the repercussions of sexting to break through. Are teens listening? Let's hope so. There are many conversations that can be had about dangers, consequences, and the responsibilities of using electronic devices. As parents, educators and community leaders we need to keep generating a healthy dialogue with teens about protecting themselves online and making wise choices. I recently read an article that stated teaching teens about appropriate online behaviors is an "ongoing battle." I couldn't agree more. We have got to do a better job reaching out to our youth and teaching them about the dangers of inappropriate online behavior and that includes sexting.

References:

Eric Rice, Jeremy Gibbs, Hailey Winetrobe, Harmony Rhoades, Aaron Plant, Jorge Montoya, and Timothy Kordic. Sexting and Sexual Behavior Among Middle School Students. Pediatrics, June 2014 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-2991

Jeff R. Temple and HyeJeong Choi. Longitudinal Association Between Teen Sexting and Sexual Behavior. Pediatrics, October 6, 2014 DOI:10.1542/peds.2014-1974

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