Sexting and Internet Safety Among Top Parental Concerns

by Gary Gilles

Sexting_Fotolia_79178943_XSGo back five years and few people could even define the term “sexting.” Now sexting is entrenched into both the conversation and habits of many people who find it both fun and stimulating.  According to Pew Research, sexting is growing rapidly among couples and singles. The number of young people 18-24 years of age who report receiving sexts increased from 26% in 2012 to 44% in 2014. Sophisticated technology found in smart phones makes snapping photos, sending, receiving and resending extremely easy.

Sexting and young people

Increasing numbers of children and teens also have access to smart phones and are picking up on the trend of sexting. And it has parents and public health officials feeling anxious. Based on a recent national poll on children’s health by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, sexting and internet safety are among the top ten health concerns facing children in the U.S. Internet safety is ranked at number 4 and sexting is 6th on the list. Pew’s surveys found that 20% of all cell phone owners (which include children and teens) reported receiving nude or nearly-nude images. This is up from 15% in 2012.

Cyber-bullying and long-term consequences

And it’s not only cyber nudity that has parents on edge. The ubiquitous use of smart phones among young people potentially exposes children and teens to the danger of predators and other harmful influences such as cyber-bullying that may also involve sexting-related messages or images. Many times the bullying moves from known peers to social networking sites and creates an overwhelming cascade of abuse that becomes hard to escape. Once these images are posted on the Internet they become available to anyone, including sexual predators and pedophiles. The media regularly reports on cases where teens have been ostracized, humiliated or even taken their life as a result of the public shaming they’ve endured by those who exploit them.

The sharing of these private images not only has potentially damaging social consequences for children and teens in the present but can follow a person into adulthood affecting their ability to establish themselves professionally. Modern media technology changes the way we view youthful indiscretions. Digital images are a permanent record that can circulate indefinitely as they are repeatedly passed from one person to the next.

What’s a parent to do?

So, if there is an intervention point to the growing concern over sexting among young people, where should we focus our efforts? Do we start with technology and build in protective technology measures into the phones we allow our children and teens to use? If we take this approach it seems likely that young people will find ways around those limitations. Perhaps we start with parental oversight and accountability. This is relatively easy when children are young but becomes a bigger challenge as the teen becomes more independent and spends less time at home and more time with peers. Every state either has laws in place for sexting or is in the process of establishing what is lawful and what is not. Generally, any transmission of sexually explicit texts or images to or from someone under 18 years of age is considered a crime and punishable by the laws established in that state. If we strengthen the message to young people that this is a crime, will that deter them? Maybe.

Chances are good that sexting will continue to gather momentum both among adults and young people. If we really want to see young people practice sexual restraint, perhaps more adults should model this restraint for them.

What are your thoughts about the trend of sexting in general and specifically about the growing trend toward sexting in children and teens?

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I’ve found that limiting cell phone usage as well as regularly inspecting phone content (my kids know I do this) helps them monitor themselves if they know I might see it. Also, social media apps are not allowed until at least high school. It’s a lot of work but we’ve got to do something, can’t just let the world have direct access to our children 24/7. Don’t forget to set website restrictions to filter out pornography too! There are finally books about screens and kids, read them.

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