How to Talk to Your Child About Sexting

2722304966_67efa7cf89_mChances are, that by the time your kids hit their teens, they’ll have cell phones burning holes in their hot little pockets. Cell phones with cameras. Some of them will almost certainly use those cameras to take nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves, their girlfriends, or that guy on the back of the bus that dared them to do it.

Then a few will use the magic of modern cellular networks to forward those pictures to their crushes, their friends, or just maybe their entire English class.

And unless current laws change, they’ll be creating and trafficking in child pornography when they do it. Those are federal felony charges that can send kids to prison, and create criminal records that will haunt them for life.

How can you persuade your kids not to sexts? Anne Collier talks to Lenore Skenazy and the crew at Free Range Kids about sexting, kiddie porn, and what parents can do.

The good news is that relatively few kids are sexting. A new study from Pew puts the number at just 4% of kids having sent a sext and 15% having received one.

The kids who are doing it can get in big trouble, though. Why do they do it?

It’s not because they’re into kiddie porn. The Pew study found that most common reason kids “sext” each other is to share a naughty picture with the person they’re dating. That’s right; most sexting is just teenagers in love sharing the pictures only with each other. The next most common scenario was revenge: a jilted boyfriend sharing pictures of the girl who dumped him. In third place were flirtatious sexts sent to a peer the sender hoped to become involved with.

Those might or might not be dumb moves, and revenge scenario is certainly mean, but none of them seem like criminal intent. As the Free Range Kids essay says:

Since most of this is not criminal behavior, prosecution should not be the goal. The goal should be support for any child being victimized. It should also be community-wide learning in the areas of critical thinking, ethics, and civility.

Sadly for kids and parents, prosecutors don’t always agree. Kids have been prosecuted all over the country for sharing naked images of themselves or their classmates with their friends.

How to talk to your kid about it?

Make sure kids understand that the consequences for making, sending or even receiving a sext can go far beyond the usual realm of schoolyard pranks. Like experimenting with pot or driving drunk, sexting is caught up in a legal tangle of zero tolerance laws that can mean big consequences for even a single misstep.

You can get through, Anne Collier suggests, by focusing on what the kids really care about: the breach of trust. When sexts get passed around a middle school, it’s not just a felony, it’s also a terrible betrayal of a friend. No one wants to be a total jerk.

Your kids should understand that:

  • Sending a sext, whether or yourself or someone else, can be considered child pornography. Even if the law doesn’t come down on you, it’s a mean thing to do.
  • Never forward a sext that someone else has sent to you.
  • In most cases, just delete it.
  • If your child knows about a sexting incident, consider reporting it to school authorities or the participants parents, so that the responsible adults can put a stop to it before the image gets forwarded out of control.

Ultimately, forwarding a sext outside the intended recipient – whether for revenge, to show off, or as a dare – is a low, disrespectful thing to do. As parents, we need to teach our kids the empathy and manners to treat their peers with more respect, whether on-line or off.

Photo: Orin Zebest

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