In an unfortunate coincidence since my last article regarding Internet safety (www.riverjournalonline.com/CyberSafety), we had an issue at one of our local high schools of teens being solicited by an unknown person to send nude photos via digital apps. Obviously, the matter is being investigated and appropriate actions will be taken.
The problem, however, goes deeper than finding out this particular solicitor. A quick Google search turns up many articles about teens and sexting going way back. On the first page was a CBS news article from 2009 about how common sexting was among teens. This has been happening for awhile and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Before I get into how to deal with this issue, let’s be clear on what sexting is. Sexting is the act of sending or receiving explicit photos or videos through electronic means such as text messages, email, or apps. In New York, it is a crime to ask anyone under the age of 17 to send explicit photos, and it is also against the law to possess an explicit photo of anyone under 16. In 2012, New York enacted a program whereby a teen accused of transmitting or soliciting nude photos of others could enter into an education/counseling program rather than go through criminal proceedings. Before this law went into effect, it was not unusual for teens to be processed as criminals and registered as sex offenders, or at least to face such a possibility before pleading to a lesser crime, if they solicited nude photos from their boyfriends/girlfriends or other peers, and/or shared pictures with others. You may also be surprised to find out that it is not unusual for boys to record girls giving them oral sex and then spread it to their friends. It happens fairly often among this generation and the consequences can be much worse than in the low-tech days of showing someone a blurry Polaroid.
So, as a continuation of last month’s article—how do you keep your adolescent safe when electronic communication and the Internet are so ubiquitous and important in kids’ lives today?
- First and foremost, teach your child that his or her body is private and his or her own. Also, teach your child to respect his or her body. While you don’t want your child to be embarrassed by nudity or his or her body, you DO want your child to be in control of who sees it, touches it, gives it pleasure, or derives pleasure from it. We do a good job of this when it’s little kids we are trying to protect from predators, but we do a bad job of it when hormones kick in and parents want their kids to develop a healthy attitude about sex, or, more likely, are too embarrassed to talk about sex with their teens.
- Teach your child the reach of electronic communication. Once something is out there, it’s always out there (Google yourself and see what outdated information might be out there). Unlike sharing an actual photograph which must be copied multiple times and given out to others, electronic communication can be shared to hundreds—even millions—of people instantly. In a moment of impulsivity, that photo can reach the entire school.
- It seems it would go without saying, but reiterate to your child OFTEN that any electronic solicitations should be ignored or reported. One would think that this tech-savvy generation wouldn’t be fooled by a familiar screen name or a charming text message, but you’d be surprised. I’ve had very bright, usually sensible kids give out personal information because, well, they’re still KIDS. It happens every day simply because teens are impulsive and sometimes quite dopey when it comes to their common sense. It’s simply developmental, and you will see it in everyone from the class clown to the valedictorian.
- Stress to your child the legal implications of doing such things as sending nude texts or other pictures. Even though New York has a program in place to protect children from jail time, this does not automatically mean that a child will be placed in counseling and sent on his way. There are still legal implications as well as other possible outcomes such as suspension or expulsion from school, suspension from a team or other school activity, social consequences, etc.
- Warn your child that a peer they trust today may not be a peer that is trustworthy tomorrow. Without making your child paranoid that everyone will turn on him or her, talk about the tenuous relationships that many of us have in adolescence, particularly romantic ones. Kids don’t want to hear that their hot romance is just “puppy love,” so don’t label it as such, but do talk about how sometimes even adults can turn on an ex they feel hurt by or angry at, or a peer of which they are jealous. That boyfriend who tells you how wonderful you are today may get revenge by sharing something you thought was private after you dump him for another peer.
Hopefully this current event will blow over quickly and investigations will yield information. But sexting is here to stay, and as parents, you need to protect and educate your child. You need to have tough conversations, and you may need to snoop a bit to see what your kids are up to. The last thing any parent wants is a picture of their child on the Internet forever because of a spur-of-the-moment decision.