When you were in school, kids passed flirtatious or even racy notes to people they liked. Sometimes those notes got dropped on the floor or confiscated by the teacher, and before long, everyone was gossiping about what was supposed to be a private message.
Now add a cellphone with a camera and Internet access to that scenario. Suddenly, the scene is set for sexting, the newly minted word for sending or posting nude or semi-nude photos, videos and sexy messages.
A survey done last fall by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 22 percent of teenage girls and 18 percent of boys had sent such pictures. Even more—40 percent of the boys and 37 percent of the girls—said they had sent or posted sexually suggestive text messages.
Of the teens who send provocative pictures, most share them with a boyfriend or a girlfriend on the often mistaken assumption that they will stay private. Half agree it’s common for such material to be seen by other people. Often such pictures make the rounds after a break-up when one half of a young couple wants to embarrass the other.
Are these pictures homemade pornography or are they simply the inevitable result of technology meeting adolescent curiosity about sex? Is distributing the pictures criminal behavior, bullying with a sexual dimension or teen foolishness? Experts—and for that matter, parents—answer those questions in different ways.
Legal matters. Sending naked pictures of a minor fits the legal description of distributing child pornography. Penalties vary but a child who posts or forwards such pictures to friends risks being charged with a misdemeanor or even a felony. In the worst-case scenario, a teen could be added to a state list of registered sex offenders, which could have lifelong consequences.
Self-image. Today’s adolescents have grown up in a culture permeated with sexual images. As they start to have their own sexual feelings, it’s not surprising that they will feel confused about how to present themselves. Talk to your child about the difference between being attractive and being provocative. And remind your child that digital photos are never private once they have been forwarded or posted.
Friendly photos. Plenty of cellphones don’t take photos. Giving one of these to your teen will at least keep him or her from being the source of impulsive pictures. If your teen already has a photo phone or a digital camera, talk about using it responsibly. Friends should ask themselves: Would my friend give permission to have this photo distributed?
Harassment hints. Many young women and some young men wind up sending naked pictures because they are pressured by a partner. Remind both boys and girls that someone who actually cares about them won’t push them into doing things that are uncomfortable. Introduce your child to Thatsnotcool.com, a public service Web site that helps kids handle all kinds of online harassment, including "pic pressure."
Every generation discovers sex. What parents should do is encourage kids to slow down and think about their choices. Sending a naked picture or video is something that is likely done in haste and repented at leisure. By talking frankly about why it’s a bad idea, parents are more likely to protect kids from the consequences of letting hormones override common sense.