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What is sexting?
“Sexting” usually refers to the sharing of nude or seminude and sexually provocative photos via mobile phones, but it can happen on other devices and the web. First of all, research shows most teens don’t “sext.” And most of those who do experience no negative consequences. But for teens who do sext, there are both psychological and legal risks, especially if coercion is involved and the images wind up being distributed beyond their intended audience. Sexting is certainly not just a teen issue, but these tips are specifically for parents and teens.
The reasons teens “sext” vary widely. In some cases it’s a form of flirting or a way of showing affection for a romantic partner or someone the teen is interested in dating. Sometimes it’s impulsive behavior, perhaps at a party or when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There are also cases where the teen is responding to peer pressure, bullying or even threats. In rarer cases, adults solicit images from teens. Some teens view sexting as a form of “safe sex” because, unlike physical sex, there is no risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.
The consequences of sexting can range from nothing at all to extremely serious. In most cases, according to a 2018 analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the image is never shared beyond the person it was sent to, so it’s unlikely that anything bad will happen. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk, because there is the possibility the image will be shared later, e.g., after a breakup or seen by someone else who has access to the phone, accidentally forwarded or even accessed and distributed as the result of a hack. And as you know, digital photos are easy to copy and paste onto the web, where they can be archived and searchable pretty much forever.
Advice for Parents
Talk with your kids about sexting. Ask them what they know about it. Express how you feel in a conversational, non-confrontational way. For one thing, help them think about what it might feel like to have intimate photos of themselves forwarded to any number of peers by someone they thought they liked or trusted. A two-way dialog can go a long way toward helping your kids understand how to minimize legal, social and reputation risks. If they want to avoid the conversation, that’s OK, have it anyway. Just don’t expect it to last very long and be respectful of how they respond.
Ask teen to delete images. If your children have received any nude pictures on their phones, have them delete the photos. Your family doesn’t want to run the risk of having what could be deemed “child pornography” on any of its devices.
Think before calling authorities. Consider very carefully whether or not to involve school authorities or law enforcement. Sometimes you need to get authorities involved, especially when there is coercion or if an adult is involved. Sometimes these issues can be worked out without risking the possibility of official sanctions.
Advice for Teens
Don’t share it. The safest way to avoid a picture getting into the wrong hands is to never take it or share it. Sadly, there are cases (sometimes called “revenge porn”) where someone shares pictures meant only for them — sometimes after a breakup.
No pressure. Period. Never take and send an image of yourself under pressure, even from someone you care about. And never pressure anyone to send you an image.
Scam alert. If a stranger asks you to take a revealing picture, it could be a scam that could lead to further demands and threats (“sextortion”). Do not respond and consider reporting it to the police, your parents and the CyberTipLine (800) 843-5678. If the picture is from a friend or someone you know, then someone needs to talk to that friend so he or she is aware of possible harmful consequences.
ConnectSafely is a Silicon Valley, California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to educating users of connected technology about safety, privacy and security. We publish research-based safety tips, parents’ guidebooks, advice, news and commentary on all aspects of tech use and