This article is the sixth in a series on how parents can address the issue of sexting with their teenage children (because, apparently, there is never enough to say about this topic). The first part of this series emphasized the importance of educating yourself as a parent and talking to your kids about sexting as well as internet and social media issues. Part 2 reviewed some of the ground rules to put in place. Part 3 identified some signs your teen may be trying to hide their tracks on the internet and in their social media use. Part 4 and 5 covered how to talk to your kid if you discover they have been sending sexts. This column will address what to do if you discover your kid has sexted.
What to DO if your kid has sexted.
Confiscate all forms of electronic communication. First, get control of the means by which your kid can sext. Gather every device that accesses the internet or transmits signals. Change the password to your wireless server so that only YOUR computer or devices can access the internet. This is not a permanent solution. It is a way to bring everything to a screeching halt while you address this serious issue.
Gather information. Who knows about the sexts? Who sent (or forwarded) the sexts (i.e., distribution of child pornography)? Who received the sexts (i.e., possession of child pornography)? Who asked for the sexts (i.e., solicitation of child pornography)? You MUST know what you are dealing with. Think carefully before you look at the images. It is surprising how disturbing it is to see your child being sexual. Some images can be difficult to get out of your head. It is often easier for the same-sex parent to view the images. Do not provide the images to anyone else, even the parents of the kid who appears in the image (otherwise you could be charged with disseminating child pornography).
Have the talk. Refer to the previous column for talking points in addressing sexting when your kid has been involved.
Erase all sexts? The most obvious thing to do if you discover that your kid has sexted or received a sext is to erase every image (and then empty the trash file). (Notice that I stated this is the most obvious thing to do. This statement in no way is encouraging you to tamper with potential evidence and thereby making me an accessory after the fact to potential criminal activity. Just wanted to make that clear.) Here is one problem. You really can’t easily or reliably erase files or images from your computer (for a number of technical reasons). The police have sophisticated programs that can recover deleted electronic files. In addition, images that have been posted on the internet are digitally immortal. Do what you can do to get rid of them on any devices or servers that contain the image(s).
Another problem with erasing sexts is that, technically, you are committing a crime by destroying evidence or not reporting a felony (i.e., child pornography) to the proper legal authorities. It is really interesting how difficult it is to get a straight answer from people in the legal system about what you should do with the sexting image in your child’s possession. Officers of the court (i.e., police officers, district attorneys, defense attorneys, judges, etc.) cannot recommend that you destroy evidence of a potential felony. That is breaking the law. On the other hand, when the sexting is private, consensual and between two kids, many criminal justice people give the impression you should quietly delete the images and address the issue within the family. (Here, here and here are a few resources from the perspective of the legal community.)
What you do about deleting the image will be based in part on how the images have been sent or received. If it is between two kids who are involved in a private exchange, it is reasonable to shut the whole thing down, delete all copies of the image and address this as a personal family matter between both families. However, if your kid has distributed the images (or if your kid’s images have been distributed) to multiple people the police are going to be involved. Get a lawyer. Seriously. Get a lawyer. Then begin the expensive process of damage control and trying to save your kid from criminal charges and being identified as a sex offender.