These days, almost every teen has many ways to get online: via smartphones, tablets, and laptops, all of which can be used in private. It's very easy for teens to create and share personal photos and videos of themselves without their parents knowing about it.
Most of the time, this is no big deal. By sharing something with a friend, your teen could have a memory to enjoy forever. But if what gets shared is a little too personal, your teen's reputation could be harmed. Even if the image, video, or text was only meant for one person, once it's been sent or posted, it's out of your teen's control. It could be seen by lots of people, and it could be impossible to erase from the Internet, even after your teen thinks it has been deleted.
Any sort of photo, video, or message that shows someone doing or saying something embarrassing or offensive can be damaging to a reputation. But this is especially true if there's nudity, sex, or sexually suggestive content involved. This type of sharing, known as "sexting," has the potential to haunt a teen for the rest of his or her life.
Sexting (or "sex texting") is the sending or receiving of sexually explicit or sexually suggestive images, messages, or video via a cellphone or the Internet.
Examples of sexting include sending:
Many girls sext as a joke, as a way of getting attention, or because of "pressure from guys." Guys sometimes blame "pressure from friends." But for some, it's almost become normal behavior, a way of flirting, being seen as cool, or becoming popular. And teens get some reinforcement for that when lewd celebrity pictures and videos go mainstream and the consequences are greater fame and reality TV shows, not ruined careers or humiliation.
It's hard to know exactly how common sexting is among teens. Studies have found that about 1 out of every 5 to 10 teens — guys and girls — have sent sexually suggestive pictures. And about 1 out of every 3 to 8 teens have received them.
The studies focused mainly on pictures, not sexually suggestive comments, messages, or tweets. The percentage of teens involved in sexting goes up if written sexual content is included, but it's not clear by how much. But one thing is clear: Sexting is relatively common among teens.
Teens should understand that messages, pictures, or videos sent via the Internet or smartphones are never truly private or anonymous. In seconds they can be out there for all of the world to see. If a compromising image of your teen goes public or gets sent to others, your teen could be at risk of humiliation, embarrassment, and public ridicule. Even worse, it could damage your teen's self-image and possibly lead to depression and other mental health issues.
And don't overlook the potential for legal consequences. In some states, a teen could face felony charges for texting explicit photos or even have to register as a sex offender.
Beyond that, questionable behavior online can haunt a college applicant or prospective employee years later. More and more colleges and employers check online profiles looking for indications of a candidate's suitability — or giant red flags about bad judgment and immaturity.
Teens' decision-making skills, judgment, and ideas about privacy are still being formed. It can be hard for them to grasp the permanent consequences of their impulsive interactions. Just as they might not consider how smoking now can lead to long-term health problems, they can be reluctant to curb their "share everything" tendencies now for the sake of their reputations later.
One of the top responsibilities of parents is to teach their kids how to take responsibility for their own safety and their own actions. It's important to send that message about the virtual world too. Even if a teen's intentions are playful or harmless, if messages or pictures become public, the outcome can be anything but.
It's crucial to talk to your kids about how pictures, videos, emails, and text messages that seem temporary can permanently exist in cyberspace. One ill-considered picture sent to a crush's phone easily can be forwarded to the recipient's friends, posted online, or printed and distributed. Even an image sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend could lead to problems if someone else sees it or it's distributed after a break-up. Intense peer pressure to take or send nude pictures will pale in comparison with the public humiliation that follows when the images land on Facebook or the cellphones of hundreds of other kids and even adults.
So how can you get through to your kids? The answer is to have open conversations about personal responsibility, personal boundaries, and how to resist peer pressure. Conversations like this should occur throughout kids' lives — not just when problems arise.
Explain to your kids, early and often, that once an image or message is sent, it is no longer in their control and cannot be taken back. It can, and likely will, spread beyond the person who was meant to see it. Teach kids to follow the "WWGT" ("What would grandma think?") rule. If grandma shouldn't see it, they shouldn't send it.
In the meantime, parents can make it clear that there will be consequences if their kids are caught sexting, such as taking away cellphones and computers or having limits to when and how they can use these devices.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: June 2014
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