Sexting: What Parents Don’t Know May Harm Their Teens

SextingWhat happens when technology advances, without corresponding amount of moral development? With the growth of technology, new problems involving ethics and crimes evolve. One of these cybercrimes is juvenile sexting, which entails youths sending or posting sexually suggestive text messages and images, including nude or semi-nude photographs, via cellular phones or over the Internet. Unfortunately, juvenile sexting is increasing in frequency, and sexting can be very challenging to investigate.

Recent studies found 20% of female and male teenagers sent naked or semi-nude images of themselves or posted them online, and about 15% of adolescents who owned cell phones have received naked or nearly nude pictures via text message from someone they know. Although members of both genders can be victims or offenders of sex crimes, we will refer to male perpetrators and female victims for sake of simplicity.

As sexting increases in frequency, law enforcement and prosecutors will face a greater amount of pressure to handle these complex cases effectively and competently because the consequences to the victims and offenders can be quite severe. For instance, a 15-year-old boy received 12 months of probation for forwarding a picture of his private parts to a 13-year-old girl’s cell phone. Sexting can lead to tragic consequences to the victims, as illustrated by an 18-year-old high school graduate, who committed suicide after she sent a nude photo to her boyfriend and subsequent transmission of her photo to hundreds of teens in her school, followed by harassment and perpetual forwarding of the image.

Some adults also engage in sexting of children and adolescent nude photos, and the courts tend to deal more harshly with adult perpetrators, but overzealous prosecution of all juvenile sexting cases can present more problems. Some members of the general public and criminal justice system call for aggressive prosecution of sexting misconduct under the federal child pornography statute or perhaps a particular state statute.

The single viewpoint of the misconduct solely as a sex offense may lead to failure to file an alternative, but more correct, charge. For instance, charging an adolescent as a sex offender may be too harsh for the act of posting an inappropriate image of himself on a school computer as a prank. It can lead to possible sex-offender-registration issues and the social stigma of being labeled a sex offender. Thus, a teenager’s act of indiscretion can mar the rest of his life.

Any parent’s teenager may be a victim and/or offender of sexting, and it may require due diligence in investigation to sort out the victims from the offenders. For example, what is the victim’s age? Did she know about the photo? Is the victim the sole manufacturer of her nude picture? Who did she forward her picture to? What was the motive of sexting to particular recipients? Did anyone actively participate in the creation, sending, receiving, or mass distribution of the nude image?

The general public, including parents, expect law enforcement personnel and educators to be the first line of defense against the growing sexting problem, and indeed they can provide regular presentations to young people on the topic of Internet safety and the possible repercussions of inappropriate online behavior, but the person with the most important role in prevention of juvenile sexting is probably the parent(s) or legal guardians. However, the growing Internet community and rapid mobile phone technology and application advances daunt some parents, and thus they may not know what their teenagers are capable of doing with today’s communication devices. Teens need to learn how to use technology responsibly, but may lack an appropriate role model at home and instead receive insufficient oversight from parents who have surrendered parental control to a fear of technology.

Some parents need to catch up with and embrace the technology revolution in order to understand what can and cannot be done by their teens. However, probably the most important thing that a parent can do is to establish an open parent-teen relationship built on mutual trust and respect, and this process must start early in a child’s life.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children uses the typical adolescent’s point of view to provide the following advice for young people to discourage them from sexting:

Think about the consequences of taking, sending, or forwarding a sexual picture of yourself or someone else who is underage. You could get kicked off of sports teams, face humiliation, lose educational opportunities, and get in trouble with the law.

Never take images of yourself that you wouldn’t want everyone, including your classmates, teachers, family, and employer, to see.

Before hitting send, remember that you cannot control where this image may travel. What you send to a boyfriend or girlfriend could end up with their friends, and their friends, and so forth.

If you forward a sexual picture of someone underage, you are as responsible for this image as the original sender. You may face child pornography charges, go to jail, and have to register as a sex offender.

Report any nude pictures you receive on your cell phone to an adult you trust. Do not delete the message. Instead, get your parents or guardians, teachers, and school counselors involved immediately.

Tobey Leung, M.D.

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