Caught Your Teen Sexting, Now What?

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From politicians and celebrities to the various high school sexting scandals across the country, sexting has become a big issue for parents, schools and kids.

Since today’s kids and teens are always connected to the outside world through their mobile devices and while most of the time this can be a great tool, it also means they are continuously making decisions based on what others think of them.

This can become especially confusing and hard to navigate as teens start exploring sexuality, becoming more independent – all the while trying to fit in with their peers. While it’s said that an estimated 8 out of 10 adults engage in occasional “sexting”, studies also show that one in five teens have participated in sexting.

Considering so many teens are sending or receiving sexts, it’s important for parents to have a clear understanding of what sexting is and if it’s potentially dangerous. If you need help monitoring your child's phone use, consider using a parental control app to have instant visibility into their online searches.

What is Sexting?

Sexting is defined by the U.S. Court System as “an act of sending sexually explicit materials through mobile devices”. This can include:

  • photos
  • videos
  • sexual texts
  • other messages of a sexual nature.

Facts About Teen Sexting

The idea of your teenage son or daughter sending or receiving a sext is enough to send most parents into a panic. It’s easy to think, “my teen would never do that!” But in reality, teen sexting is much more common than some may believe.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy survey, 20% of teens have sent or posted nude photos or videos of themselves.

  • 22% of teen girls
  • 18% of teen boys
  • 11% of young teen girls (between ages 13 - 16)

And 39% of teens have sent or posted messages that are sexual in nature.

  • 37% of teen girls
  • 40% of teen boys
  • 48% of teens have received sexual messages

While the majority of teens participating in sexting, have sent such messages to a girlfriend or boyfriend (71% of girls and 67% of boys), 15% of teens who have sent or posted suggestive images online said they shared them with someone they only knew online.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting

  1. Ask What They Think
    Before jumping into a conversation about what you think about sexting, ask them if they’ve heard of it and what they think about it. If you’re lucky, they’ll talk openly about it, letting you know what they know.
     
    It’s sometimes helpful if parents “play dumb” and let the child educate you on something in their life. Use empathy in your response before you jump into a cautionary lecture. Saying something like: “I’ll bet it would feel really humiliating if someone sent something very private about you to someone else.”
     

  2. Create an Open Door
    Sadly, there are many examples in media where images and videos went viral only to ruin a career, a relationship, or a reputation. These are great stories to talk about with your teen. Wonder out loud with them about what would possess someone to take a picture of their private parts and send it.
     
    Talk about safety in relationships and discuss how you and your family work to develop trust with each other. Then connect it back to the examples you’ve been hearing in the media and maybe even from other parents.
     

  3. Stay Connected and Develop a Village
    Schools often discuss the problem of sexting in the context of bullying. Sexting targets and victims often feel mocked, coerced, or solicited and bullied into the behavior. Make yourself available for any parent meetings around these subjects and take the information home to discuss.
     
    Schools will often bring up incidents where students have been caught sending inappropriate information from inappropriate circumstances and gatherings. This is a great time to reach out and talk to other parents about using social media wisely.
     

  4. Help them Create Boundaries
    When they are small, we teach them about closing the door when they use the bathroom. We talk about good touching, bad touching and “stranger danger.” And when they approach puberty, we talk about changes in their body, relationships, and sexuality—learning about risk and how to avoid it. It's important to weave in the ideals of respect and consideration—for themselves and for another. 
     
    Even if the image, video, or text was only meant for one person, once it's been sent or posted, it's out of their control. It could be seen by lots of people, and it could be impossible to erase from the Internet, even after your teen thinks it has been deleted. When they know of someone who has been the victim of sexting, brainstorm with them how it could have been different.
     

  5. Have Small Conversations
    I once heard a kid tell me that listening to his parents lecture him was like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. Frequent conversations in small doses are far more effective than one long, boring or threatening lecture about not sexting and staying safe on the internet.
     
    When cell phone plans change, talk about safety, minutes, texting boundaries. When new relationships develop, talk about respect and spending face to face time with their friend. Begin to have conversations that get underneath the behavior of sexting. 

    Care about what compels them to offer sexual content and to ask for it. Are they being pressured from friends? Do they feel like they need attention and is that attention healthy? Brainstorm how they can resist peer pressure for many kinds of negative activities.
     
    Ask about their day, their friends and their school in a curious and caring way rather than making it feel like an interrogation. Conversations like this should occur throughout kids' lives — not just when problems arise.

Why are Teens Sexting?

There are a lot of opinions when it comes to why teens participate in sexting, but one clear reality is it’s a new way kids and teens are expressing and exploring their sexuality. It is typical behavior for teens to have a curiosity about sexual relationships and to begin exploring that. 

Sexual experimentation is a natural part of growing up and while a lot of parents think of sexting as bad behavior, some research suggests that it’s a form of modern day flirting. Rather than going streaking or skinny-dipping with friends, teens are sexting.

Sexting Apps Teens Use

Sexting doesn’t always occur through a phone’s regular text messaging function. In fact, many kids (and adults) use messaging apps for their ease of use and increased messaging functionality. For sexting, there are a few apps that have a higher instance of sexting on them that, as parents, you should be aware of.

Of course, there are dozens of other messaging apps besides these out there and just because your teen uses one of these apps does not mean they are sexting. Though, if you’re monitoring the apps on your child’s phone and see one of these, it might be a good time to have the sexting talk – just in case.

  • Kik
    Kik is a messaging app where users can easily chat with friends they know or find new friends based on common interests. Users can share text messages, upload photos, take live photos, make video calls and more. This app has a bad reputation for online predators and sexting due to the ease of chatting with anonymous strangers and lack of moderation.

  • Snapchat
    One of the most popular teen apps, Snapchat is a social media app that allows users to chat privately with disappearing text, photo and video messages. Because the messages disappear after a few seconds, there is no record of conversations, but users can take snapshots of messages before they disappear. Snapchat sexting can be easy to come across as strangers need a limited amount of information to discover you and moderation is nonexistent.

  • Tumblr
    Tumblr is a creative hub for microblogs has been around much longer than many other social media apps, with users having flexibility to share all types of media from short form blogs, videos, photos, GIFs, etc. There is also a messaging function within the Tumblr app where other users can message you directly. Tumblr, while its genesis began with creative sharing in mind, has a very active dark side where pornography, videos of drug use and violence are easy to find.
     

  • Skout
    Skout is a popular friend finding app that connects users to each other either for platonic, casual or romantic purposes. It is location based, so teens who use this will have the possibility to connect with people in their area, including potential online predators.
     
  • Whisper
    Whisper is a social networking app where users anonymous confess what they're thinking so others can comment on them. This app is also location based and the anonymous aspect of the platform can be problematic and the ability to directly chat with users can be abused by strangers.

Consequences of Sexting

Sexting on its own between peers may be relatively harmless, but there are serious dangers to consider if those sexts get into the wrong hands. Many kids are becoming targets of bullying after sending a sext and having it shared with multiple people or posted online.

There have also been cases of children and teens being targeted by online predators who manipulate them into sending sexts and then use threats to get them to send more graphic sexual content to be posted online.

Sexting can come with hefty penalties. Children as young as 14 have been charged with serious sex crimes after sending or receiving underage sexts. These penalties can include:

  • Registering as a sex offender
  • Getting kicked out of school
  • Probation
  • Serving jail time

These charges usually accompany not just simple sexting, but also manipulation or cyberbullying. It's important for all kids and teens to understand the dangers of underage sexting from both the victim and perpetrator’s standpoint. What may seem like an innocent or flirtatious sext, could end up being public knowledge in a matter of minutes with social media and the ability to save and send photos and videos online.

Federal vs. State Sexting Laws

Sexting has legal consequences, primarily because of its ties to federal child pornography laws. While sexting itself does not currently have a federal law addressing it, many states have begun to adopt their own sexting laws.  

Federal Law

Child pornography laws are under federal jurisdiction and according to the Department of Justice is defined as:

“Child pornography is a form of child sexual exploitation. Federal law defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (persons less than 18 years old).  Images of child pornography are also referred to as child sexual abuse images. Federal law prohibits the production, distribution, importation, reception, or possession of any image of child pornography. A violation of federal child pornography laws is a serious crime, and convicted offenders face fines severe statutory penalties.”

State Law

The laws on sexting vary state by state, but if you’re worried about what is legal for your teen to do, a quick Google search can provide you with the specific law statute if it exists. The following is an extremely general breakdown of how the statues are characterized.

If a minor sexts another minor:

Both parties can be held liable for producing, possessing and transmitting child pornography. The terms and punishments will vary from state to state and can include fines, misdemeanor prosecution and sex offender registration. Federal felony prosecution is possible, though unlikely, as the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act (FJDA) recommends that juveniles should be prosecuted in state, not federal, courts.  

If an adult sexts a minor:

Depending on the laws of majority in your state, again, this may vary. However, if an adult is sending lewd images to a minor, they are subject to felony and/or misdemeanor prosecution, prison sentences up to 30 years, fines and sex offender registration and could additionally face charges for obscenity. They are also subject to be prosecuted under federal law.

School Rules

Depending on your child’s specific rules and the circumstances of the incident, punishment could result in counseling, suspension or even expulsion. Some school incidents may stem from sexting, like revenge porn, and may ultimately result in harassment, bullying or other inappropriate behavior at school. There are currently no set rules for school districts regarding sexting, as each case is different, though focusing on community education on internet safety and counseling has proved effective.

Tips to Keep Kids Safe Online

It may be hard to completely prevent your child from participating in sexting, but here are a few tips for helping kids make good decisions when it comes to what they are sharing online:

  • Keep communication open and talk to your kids early about the dangers of sexting and sharing suggestive photos and videos online.
  • Help them understand that a photo, video, text message, social media post, or even a Snapchat, designed to delete after a few seconds, can easily be screenshot and shared among their peers.
  • Monitor your child’s online activity and cell phone use.
  • Don’t allow cell phones in the bedroom. Make sure kids and teens are using them in a family area where they are less likely to engage in dangerous online activity.

It might be pretty tempting to just shut down your teen’s accounts or to lock up their phones when they come home from school. But before you engage in a power struggle, try a conversation and then try it again. Teach respect and boundaries and let those values begin with you.

By teaching kids to take time away from mobile devices and talking openly about the dangers of oversharing, cyberbullying and sexting, parents can arm their children with the knowledge to make good decisions as they enter their teenage years in this high-tech world.

About Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD

Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD is a psychotherapist in Southern California with private practices in Santa Monica and Malibu. She helps parents, children, couples and individuals. A graduate of UCLA and Fuller School of Psychology, Dr. Miller also is involved in school-based education and consultation, an adjunct faculty member of the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Psychology, a wife, mother, and stepmother. 

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