Disgusted teen girl reading text

Sexting Part 1-Having the Talk

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

There is a perfect storm that has arisen around teenagers and sex: the internet, technology, the sexualization of our culture, stupid teenagers (and politicians and professional athletes and . . .), the rise of Romance and the ability to be anonymous (or at least avoid direct, face to face contact) when interacting with other people.  All this has conspired to raise the specter of teenagers wantonly sending pictures of their private parts all over the internet for any Tom, Dick or Harry.  The news is filled with horror stories of where these images end up and the embarrassment and shame kids feel.  The results can be catastrophic.

How worried should we be?  Well, very and not that worried.  First, while this “epidemic” makes for a good, literally, sexy story for news outlets, it really isn’t an epidemic.  There are problems with the the data used to generate these statistics as well as the interpretation of this data.    A more realistic view of the frequency of sexting appears to be closer to 4% of high school teens (65% of them girls) and that about 15% have received images.  Now this data is old so the number have almost certainly increased some but not to epidemic proportions.

Even so, there are a few reasons you should have a serious talk with your teen about sexting.  In Tennessee (as in many states) the definition of child pornography does not take into account if you are a stupid teenager.  If you have a sexually explicit photo of someone under the age of 18 (even if that someone is yourself), you are in possession of child pornography.  If you send a sexually explicit image of someone under the age of 18 (even if that image is of yourself) you are distributing child pornography.  People who possess or distribute child pornography get prison time and are placed on the sex offender registry.  All this is very bad.

Another reason you should have this talk (as if any other reason is needed after being terrified by the possibility of PRISON) is that teenagers are remarkably blind to the permanence and problems with digital communication.   They treat it like talking.  The permanent record part just doesn’t seem to register.  It is important to review internet privacy and protecting personally identifying information.

What’s a parent to do?

Educate yourself.  As always, know what you are talking about.  Do your homework about the laws in your state regarding child pornography.  Prepare yourself to talk about sex, intimacy, sexual intimacy, respect for yourself and for others, personal privacy, internet privacy and dignity (an old fashioned concept that seems to get little attention these days).

Have the talk with your kid about sexting.  So once you are prepared, sit your kid down and have a talk with them.  This should include a number of components.

  • Review the concepts of privacy and personal information.  Review the issues of online privacy and the protection of personal information (including what your sexual organs look like).  Talk about both the sexting aspect but also what information they are putting out there through their social media accounts and other communication applications.
  • Emphasize trust and good judgment.  Talk a lot about the importance of good judgment.  Have them give you examples when they have shown good judgment.  Give them examples of what it looks like.  Talk to them about how their freedom is built on trust; trust you have in them and trustworthiness on their part.
  • Permanent record.  Review with them the problems of electronic communication being a permanent record; even when you “delete” it from your device or program.  There are shadow forms of the information that can be retrieved.
  • Complete transparency.  Every social media account, phone, texting account, email, everything is open to your review at any time.  Period.  They don’t agree?  Collect up all their technology and shut down their access to the internet by phone, device, computer or game box.
  • Sex, pornography, flirting and sexual harassment.  There is a difference between private sexual intimacy and pornographic displays of sexual behavior.  In the old days, everyone knew what the difference was.  These days it is more difficult for kids to know the difference.  Given the pervasiveness of pornography on the internet and its influence on our culture, you need to talk with your kids about telling these two types of behavior apart.  Another related issue is the difference between flirting and sexual harassment?  It’s not always all clear to teenagers (and not a few adults) that there is a difference between an invitation versus imposing and pressuring someone.  It is important to address these concepts in this day and age.  There are any number of examples of prominent careers that have crashed and burned (sometimes, repeatedly) over people not getting the distinctions between these related but very different behaviors.
  • Don’t exaggerate the dangers.  They will know or find out if you are trying to scare them by making up stuff or distorting information.  The facts are scary enough.  Talk frankly with them about the risks and problems with sexting.  Know that the vast majority of sexting occurs between kids who are involved in an intimate relationship.  The majority of sexting images are not shared around with everyone but kept and considered a personal, intimate things between dating partners.  Unfortunately, it is still child pornography.
  • Sexual Communication and the law.  And, of course, talk to them about the legal ramifications of their behavior regarding sex and sexual behavior.
  • Encourage your kid to talk to you when they have concerns.  Make sure they know they can come to you if they get themselves into a jam.  There is nothing worse than a teenager trying to fix a mess they have already made.  This is particularly important if it involves sexually explicit images of juveniles.

to be continued . . .

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