The tabloids are full of stories about celebrities and politicians caught in scandals due to sexting. The scary thing is that today’s teenagers are also involved in sexting, and the repercussions can be lasting. Sexting is the sending of sexually-oriented messages or photos via text or email messages on Smartphones or other electronic devices. Many of these photos and texts later wind up posted on the Internet for all to see.
Most teenagers have a solid knowledge of technology and any teen with an electronic device–even a gaming device–can potentially engage in sexting. As parents, we cannot take every electronic gadget away from our kids, nor can we completely “unplug” our teens, but we can help protect them from harmful behavior by educating them. Frank talks about the damage that can be done by sexting–and how long that damage can last–are the best defense.
Why is sexting a growing issue among teens?
The short answer is accessibility–78 percent of teens now have a cell phone and nearly half of them own a Smartphone. Twenty-three percent of teens have a tablet and 93 percent of teens have their own computer or have access to one at home. A whopping 95 percent of teens use the Internet. In short, today’s teenagers have easy access to electronic devices and the information superhighway, pretty much around the clock. That puts a lot of temptation at their fingertips, as well as an amazing capacity to spread not just information, but illicit photos and incriminating messages.
How many teens are sexting?
A University of Texas study recorded that 28 percent of teens admitted to sending a sext. Girls (68 percent) were asked to send a sext more often than boys (42 percent).
Why is sexting harmful?
Sexting is harmful in many ways. First, it can easily take the form of cyberbullying. Teens can feel pressured to send a sext–especially girls–for fear of losing their boyfriend. They can also be pushed into sexting by peer pressure. They can be afraid of looking like a prude or not being cool if they don’t indulge in risky behavior such as sexting.
The problem is that sending a sext is not the end of the problem but the beginning. Once a sexually-provocative photo is out there, the person in the photo has lost all control of it. It can be sent to anyone, posted on social media, and from there, literally make its way around the world. Adding to the problem, the image can be out there forever. One lapse in judgment can wreak havoc years down the road. Let’s be honest, the temptation for a teenage boy to share a photo of a nude teenage girl with his friends is huge, and what was initially supposed to be an intimate sharing of images between boyfriend and girlfriend can quickly become something else.
Teens may also feel “blackmailed” to continue to sext even if they don’t want to, as partners or “friends” threaten to share or post images if they do not comply. Ex-boyfriends and girlfriends may use the images in retaliation after a bad breakup. Once you sext you are vulnerable, and peers can quickly become bullies.
Another reason for concern is that a study by an internet watch group found that 88 percent of self-made explicit images are “stolen” from social networking sites to be used on porn sites.
The bottom line is that images used in sexting can be used in ways not intended, and can remain on the Internet long after they were sent. This means that future employers, spouses, neighbors and others can potentially see them. Before you post or send ANYTHING always ask yourself, do I care if the world sees this? If this answer is yes, don’t send it.
Can sexting lead to mental health issues?
Yes, depression is a growing concern and can occur as a result of sexting. Girls especially feel a sense of betrayal when pictures that were supposed to be private are shared. Their self-esteem plummets and many say they feel worthless and ashamed. Girls have seen their reputations shattered as intimate images they shared with a boyfriend have wound up being seen by their entire student body, and even by students at neighboring schools. Those victimized in this way have endured name calling, nasty social media posts and harassing emails. As a result of these attacks, their grades fell and many dropped out of school activities and school itself. Other reactions to sexting have seen teens resort to self-abuse by engaging in cutting, pulling out hair, bulimia, burning themselves with cigarettes, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. It is no exaggeration to say that sexting can destroy young lives. Trust in relationships is shattered and those involved are virtually held up for public ridicule.
Can sexting lead to legal issues?
Yes, many teens do not realize that if you send or keep a nude or sexually provocative photo of a minor you can run the risk of porn trafficking charges. If your emails or texts show that you are coercing someone into sending sexts, then that can also be considered a crime. Teens engaged in this behavior can face jail time under the current laws in some states, and as a result, forever have a blot on their records.
What can parents do?
The most important thing is to have a calm conversation about sexting and its implications. Don’t rant or threaten, simply introduce the topic and first ask if they are aware of what sexting is. You might bring up a case that has been in the media, either with a celebrity or regular teen, and use that as a place to start. Ask them if they think sexting is an issue at their school or with their friends. Explain that true friends do not ask for sexts, and that as a friend they should never share or post one if a sext is sent to them. Give them plenty of time to ask their own questions and LISTEN. It is important to understand what is going on in their lives. Then you can get a sense of whether they are in potentially harmful relationships or being pressured in any way–both of these scenarios can lead to sexting and other issues.
Another thing to consider is a house rule about access to electronic devices. Studies have shown that most sexting is done between midnight and early morning when most family members are asleep. Some parents control access to devices during these hours.
What if my teen has been sexting?
Again, the most important thing is to not over-react. Yes, it is upsetting but your teen needs your support and help in getting out of a damaging situation, not a lecture. Have a conversation and try to understand what led to this behavior. Is it peer pressure? Boyfriend pressure? Are they lonely and trying to fit in? Once there is some understanding as to why, then stress the ramifications and why this behavior must stop. Next, try to undo the damage by deleting all photos. If you fear a relapse, limiting access to technology may come into play. Your phone provider can also provide programs to limit sexting.
What can teens do?
If someone sends you a sext, tell them to stop. If they are a friend, explain the dangers–they may be unaware. If the person persists in sexting, tell your parents and have them contact the authorities. Keep copies of all of your message requests asking them to stop.
If you have been sexting, stop and delete as many pictures from your phone, computer and social media as possible. Ask anyone whom you sent sexts to to delete them. Send your requests in electronic form so you have proof of your request. Report the issue to the authorities if pictures are not taken down or removed. Google yourself to see if any photos show up on other sites. Local law enforcement cyber units can also advise you on how to restore your online image.
Teens are naturally curious about sex, and that’s normal. However, sexting can lead to real emotional damage and mark young lives for years to come. That’s the real message that needs to be sent.
About Dr. David Schopick:
Dr. David Schopick is a psychiatrist in private practice in Portsmouth, NH. He is Board Certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in adult, adolescent and child psychiatry and has been serving patients in the Greater Seacoast area and beyond for more than 22 years.
For more information, call (603) 431-5411 or visit www.schopickpsychiatry.com