They may think they’re seizing the moment, but sexting can ruin your teen’s life in a flash. Here’s what you can do to stop it.
by Erin Hesselink
When APRIL* got a notification saying someone had tagged her in a photo on a crude revenge porn website, she was mortified. A photo she had sent to someone she was sexting almost five years ago, when she was 16, had ended up online.
“It’s humiliating to have pictures like that of you seen by anyone, and what I did in high school was coming back to haunt me,” April said.
As soon as April saw the photo, she contacted the police, who criminally charged the man with distribution of child pornography. “I’m now married and have a son. My husband was so upset.”
April, who started sexting at 14 years old, says she started because of peer pressure from boys, along with her own desire to feel accepted. “It made me feel good to be called sexy and that was one reason I did it.”
April admits that she knew sexting meant her photo could end up in the wrong hands, but, like many teens, she never thought it would happen to her. Feeling invincible is common among teens that decide to seize—and snap
—the moment without thinking of possible future repercussions.
Today, the consequences of sexting can be serious, and even devastating. That’s why it’s more important than ever to talk to your teens about sexting and why they shouldn’t do it.
WHAT IS SEXTING?
The act of sexting is to send someone sexually explicit photographs or texts that vividly describe sexual activities. WHO’S DOING IT
Think your teen isn’t sexting? Think again. A 2014 study by Drexel University in Philadelphia revealed that 54 per cent of undergraduate students had sent a sext as a teenager. Of these, 28 per cent had sent sexual photographs. Another 2014 study from the University of Texas found that teens who sext only have slightly higher odds of being sexually active. So far, researchers have found no connection between sexting and other risky behaviours, like drug use or underage drinking. Unlike April, who used sexting as a way to get what she then deemed as positive attention, many teens begin sexting just for fun.
WHY THEY’RE DOING IT
According to the Pew Research Center’s survey, Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015, almost three- quarters of teens have access to a smartphone, making digital communication easier than ever.
Social psychologist Elizabeth Englander’s independent research revealed that the most common reason for sexting is that a boyfriend or girlfriend wanted the picture. She found that 70 per cent of girls feel pressure to sext, but only 12 per cent of girls actually send a sext because of the pressure. Englander says that some younger girls think that sexting can get them a boyfriend, or that they’ll be perceived as daring and self-confident.
Kathy Buckworth, author of six books including her latest I Am So the Boss of You (McLelland Stewart, Spring 2013), as well as mother to four children aged 13, 16, 22 and 24, says that the general stigma around sexting is part of what makes teens so interested.
“Peer pressure, naturally, has always been a factor in teens engaging in risky behaviour…as well as the appeal of doing something that your parents wouldn’t necessarily approve of, but probably won’t find out about,” Buckworth says.
There’s also the fact that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and understanding consequences, is still growing throughout the teen years.
Without a mature prefrontal cortex, teens are more likely to take risks compared to adults, according to a study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
THE DANGERS OF SEXTING
On the surface, a sext can seem harmless, especially if one is sending it to someone she trusts. However, a 2014 study from Drexel University revealed that it’s anything but. The study found that 61 per cent of teens don’t fully understand that teen sexting is legally in the same category as child pornography. The legal penalties of which can be harsh and devastating to the lives of young people.
Police can charge sexting teens with possessing and distributing child pornography, even if the photos are of the teens themselves. Until recently, there were no laws in place that treated sexting any different from pornography. Teens could do jail time and get a criminal record, destroying their reputations and potential careers.
In April, Canada came up with Bill C-13—an anti-cyber-bullying law—making it illegal to share intimate photographs of a person without his or her consent. The outcomes are still decided on a case-by-case basis as our justice system figures out how to deal with the sexting phenomenon.
Interestingly, according to the study by Drexel University, 71 per cent of teens reported knowing a teen that had experienced negative consequences because of sexting. Still, the rates are growing exponentially.
HOW TO PREVENT YOUR KID FROM SEXTING
Buckworth hopes teens will get smarter about sexting, especially since they see how quickly a private photograph can go viral. To start the conversation with your teen, she recommends drawing attention to a current news story to use as an example.
Take, for instance, the 17-year-old girl in Victoria, B.C. who was convicted of distributing child pornography last year. She was found guilty because the person in the photographs she was sending was also a teen, making it child pornography—an offence that could land her in prison for five years.
“Without asking your teen specific questions about their own behaviour, it can simply be a discussion about what the victims in the story could have done to protect themselves.” Buckworth stresses that parents should educate teens about the potential consequences instead of using a ‘See what could happen?’ tone.
MONITORING THEIR SMARTPHONES
Rowdan Messenger created TeenSafe, an app that allows parents to monitor everything on their child’s devices from deleted messages to call history to location and more.
“I believe that every child has a right to privacy,” Messenger says. “However, these devices become such a fundamental part of our kids’ lives that if you don’t parent their digital lives with the same values as you do with normal parenting, then you’re not fully parenting.”
He recommends monitoring your teen when they start using devices and slowly scaling back as they earn your trust. At the beginning, you might be checking in every day. When your teen proves that they can handle being responsible online, scale back to weekly check-ins, then monthly. “It’s about building trust with your child,” Messenger says. Do it to ensure your teen’s safety, he adds, noting that many parents using the app have discovered things like sexting before they became bigger issues.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU CATCH YOUR KID SEXTING
Finding a sexual photo or scandalous texts on your child’s phone is every parent’s nightmare. But it can also serve as a wake-up call for teens who aren’t aware of the dangers of sexting.
“You should call them out on it,” says Buckworth. Ideally, you have talked to your teen about sexting before this situation happens, so you can take the opportunity to remind your teen about boundaries and discipline.
Buckworth suggests “grounding” your teen from the cellphone to some degree, even if taking the phone away entirely is not an option. “It also might be worth looking into finding out what your local police have to offer in terms of sessions and videos to watch that reinforce how quickly images can be spread virally on the Internet,” she adds. Parents need to use their best judgment to determine the appropriate punishment.
Sexting is scary. A photo in the wrong hands can send a teen’s life in a downward spiral. That’s why instead of shying away from the topic of sexting, no matter how awkward the conversation is, it’s important to talk openly about it with your teens, before lives are ruined in a flash.
*Full name withheld for privacy reasons.