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Sexting Teens

A picture with consequences.

So, what is "sexting"? Well, believe it or not, this is a new rage where teens are sharing sexually risqué messages and/or nude pictures of themselves or others via text or on-line. While many teens openly admit that they know it's wrong to post these sexual photos, they feel the odds of getting caught are so low that they are willing to run the risk.

Why are teen's sexting? Peer pressure! This is the most common answer reported by teens. They state they did it because someone asked them to. I know, it seems like they could easily say no, but imagine you're a teenage girl or boy who has a serious crush on someone, yeah you remember those days. You think you're in love and you'll do anything to keep your true love happy. So, you take that revealing photo and SMS it to the person you love. The act is done in less than 30 seconds. All it takes is a bad break up and that photo can be shared with more people than you can fathom in less than another 30 seconds. In fact, in less than a minute a teen's life can be "virtually" ruined, no pun intended.

Another common reason for sexting is that it's a great way to "hook up." In case you're not familiar with this term, it basically means anything from sexually connecting on-line to sexual intercourse. Teens don't have to be dating a person to "hook up." This new type of quickie is becoming more popular with teens than traditional dating and "hooking up" on-line is fun and a great way to experiment with sex safely. Safe from pregnancy and STDs, yes, safe from millions of pedophiles viewing their pictures, no!

Sexting has also received a lot of attention in the courtroom.Take the case of Phillip Alpert, who at the age of eighteen emailed nude photos of his 16 year old ex-girlfriend and was charged with child pornography. Now in his twenties, he is a registered sex offender (you can read more about his story by following the link in resources below.) Yes, in some states, sexting is a punishable offense and falls in with child pornography. It doesn't even matter if it's the teen's own photo they posted or not. If it's a picture of a minor, then there's a problem. In some states, if a teen's found guilty of child pornography he/she will have to register as a convicted sex offender that can adversely impact their future (e.g., college admission and obtaining a job).

Fortunately, some states are beginning to re-visit sexting charges for teens. Recently, New Jersey, realized that convicting teens of child pornography and labeling them as a convicted sex offender may not fit the crime. As a result, they just passed a law that requires first time offenders to attend a diversionary program rather than face the consequences of a criminal record. For a more extensive list of sexting laws in your state visit the website listed in the resources section.

How many teens are sexting? The answer may surprise you. One survey suggests, 1 in 5 teens admitted to posting sexually explicit pictures on-line. To help understand teen sexting behaviors," The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl .com conducted a survey with 653 teens (ages 13-19) to explore the sexual use of sending or posting sexually suggestive messages or texts. Some of their findings are listed below:

Teens who say they have sent or posted a sexually revealing photo or video:

  • 20% of all teens
  • 22% of teen girls
  • 18% of teen boys

Teens that have sent sexually suggestive messages:

  • 39% of all teens
  • 37% of teen girls
  • 40% of teen boys
  • 48% admit to receiving suggestive messages

Who Teens are sending sexually suggestive images and messages to:

  • 71% of teen girls and 67% of teen boys have shared sexual messages or pictures with a boyfriend/girlfriend.
  • 21% of teen girls and 39% of teen boys have shared sexual messages or pictures with someone that they were interested in or wanted to hook up with.
  • 15% of teen have admitted to sending or posing nude or semi-nude pictures to someone they knew on-line.

In another teen sexting study, Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project (2009) surveyed teens ages 12-17, relating to texting sexual images via cell phone, below are some of their findings.

  • 4% of cell-owning teens surveyed admit to sending sexual images via text messaging
  • 15% of cell-owning say they have received sexual photos on their cell phone.
  • Older teens are much more likely to send and receive sexting images; 8% of 17-year-olds with cells have sent a sexual photo via text. 30% of 17 year-olds have received a sexual image on their phone.
  • The teens who pay their own phone bills are more likely to send "sexts": 17% of teens who say they pay for their cell phones send admit to sending sexually suggestive images via text
  • Results Concluded the three main scenarios for sexting: 1) exchange of images solely between two romantic partners; 2) exchange of images between partners that are shared with others outside the relationship 3) exchange of images between people who are not yet in a relationship, but where at least one person wants to be.

According to these findings it's apparent that we all need to take a role in educating our teens about the negative consequences of sexting. We also need to empower our kids with the ability to "just say no" if someone asks them to do something they really don't want to or know that they shouldn't do. Below are some parenting tips to help you ensure your teen's exercising good judgment on-line.

For Parents

For Parents

1. Talk to teens about inappropriate and appropriate use of modern technology. One way is to outline your expectations by creating a computer/cell phone contract with your teen.

2. Have your teens take an internet safety class. Just like many kids have to take Driver's Education in order to prepare for getting their license, have your teen take an internet safety course.

3. Know who your teen is hanging out with both online and offline.

4. Make sure your teens on-line profiles don't have private or personal identifying information (e.g., phone numbers, addresses, etc.)

5. Randomly, have your teen share with you any photos in their phone and computer gallery. Also, make them make you a friend on Face Book or share their username and password with you to any of their social networking sites. This way you can periodically check to make sure everything their posting is acceptable.

6. Teach your teen to not respond impulsively to anything on-line or via text. Filtering can help a trigger happy teen from making a permanent, potentially life altering mistake. Encourage your teen to evaluate the consequences of posting their thoughts or pictures before hitting the send button.

7. Make sure your teen understands that once pictures are out there, there's no way of getting them back, even if they're deleted from their phone or computer. This is a scary reality about operating on-line. Let your teens know that www not only stands for "World Wide Web" it also stands for "Whole World's Watching."

8. Most importantly, encourage an open dialogue between you and your teen. Set aside some time each day to just listen and talk with your teen about what's going on in their life.

Parents are not the only ones who have a responsibility in educating youth about sexting; Educators, Community Members and Business Leaders also play a vital role. We need to offer programs that help teens realize the consequences of abusing technology. Our programs need to be tailored to both the teen and parent, as both parties need to be made aware of the repercussions of internet abuse. We need to teach teens how to safeguard themselves in a techno savvy world. If we join our forces together we can prepare and equip our teens to make good decisions about what they post and share on-line.


The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy:

Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project:

Wired Safety

Real Psychology

CBS Video of Sexting and its Consequences

Extensive List of State Sexting Laws

"'Sexting': Should Child Pornography Laws Apply?" (The Phillip Alpert Interview)…

More from Raychelle Cassada Lohmann Ph.D.
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