Is Your Child Sexting? What Parents Need to Know

Is Your Child Sexting? What Parents Need to Know

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Updated on May 19, 2009

Parents may never have heard of it, but surveys show that 20 to 60 percent of teens are doing it: “sexting”. While this troubling trend continues full speed ahead, parents, teachers and lawmakers are struggling to react appropriately to the phenomenon that puts kids at risk for exploitation, harassment, and even felony charges.

What is sexting? A combination of the words “sex” and “text messaging,” “sexting” is the sending of sexually provocative messages or visual images to and from cell phones and computers. Kids as young as 9 years old may be doing in it, according to the research of Susan Lipkins, a psychologist specializing in bullying and hazing.

Some teens and young adults use sexting to flirt, others to have fun or be funny, and still others to gain recognition, improve their social status, or hurt or harass. “Sometimes it's gossip, sometimes it's a mating call, sometimes it's sexual harassment,” says Lipkins, who urges a nuanced view of the phenomenon.

“It's an abrupt change that's uncomfortable and scary to adults,” she concedes, but says parents need to look at the trend as an expression of larger changes in the way teens and young adults relate sexually. “It's really an expression of the kinds of sexual behavior they're having,” she says, noting that young people today may be more interested in casual sex than relationships, in contrast with past generations. “Many girls are not looking for a relationship: they're looking for experience and looking for freedom. Sexting is just a reflection of what's actually going on.”

Sexting makes use of cell phone and computer technology to send sexually provocative images and messages, and with increased accessibility comes greatly increased risk. Gone are the days of a girl slipping a suggestive Polaroid photo to her boyfriend: now, provocative photos sent in private can be forwarded to the entire school body after a break-up, posted online, and available in perpetuity over the Internet. That's exactly what happened to 18-year-old Jessica Logan, who committed suicide on July 3, 2008 after her ex-boyfriend forwarded nude images she had sent him to hundreds in their high school.

Emotional trauma is just one of the dangers associated with sexting behavior. Several teens across the country are now facing child pornography charges for sending or receiving sexually provocative images of themselves or peers. In Wyoming, three high school girls have been threatened with child pornography charges over digital photos in which they appear topless or in their underwear, and similar cases have appeared across the country, with charges ranging from misdemeanor to felony obscenity.

"Kids should be taught that sharing digitized images of themselves in embarrassing or compromised positions can have bad consequences, but prosecutors should not be using heavy artillery like child-pornography charges to teach them that lesson," said Witold Walczak, Legal Director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which has filed a lawsuit against the Wyoming County district attorney. "Child pornography is a terrible crime that involves the abuse and exploitation of children, neither of which exists here," said Walczak in an ACLU press release. "In many states these charges would land these kids on Megan's Law databases, with their pictures on Internet registries for ten years or more, and prevent them from getting many types of jobs.” That means that convicted teens could end up as registered sex offenders for the simple act of taking and sending photos of themselves.

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