Parents Beware The Dangers of "Sexting"Michelle V. Rafter
“High School Musical” teen star Vanessa Hudgens discovered the hard way what happens when you send a revealing cell phone picture to a friend. These days, something meant to be private can easily end up splashed across the electronic universe.
Unwitting teenagers across America are following in Hudgens’ unfortunate footsteps -- often with dire consequences -- as more use ever-present cell phones to text pictures of themselves wearing few or no clothes, a practice that’s been dubbed “sexting.”
According to one study, 20 percent of U.S. teens say they’ve sent or posted revealing pictures or videos of themselves. Most teens who have sent suggestive images say they were intended for a boyfriend or girlfriend. But 15 percent say they sent the pictures to someone they knew only online, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which conducted a survey of 1,280 teenagers and young adults in fall 2008 in conjunction with CosmoGirl.
What may have started out as innocent fun has turned deadly serious in some states where teenagers caught sexting have been kicked off teams, suspended from school, or in a few instances, charged with child pornography or felony obscenity. In one of many recent sexting cases around the country, six high school students in Greensburg, Pa. are facing child pornography charges after three teenaged girls texted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves to three male classmates. In another incident, police in Waukesha, Wis., are considering filing felony charges against a high school student who texted friends a nude picture of his 14-year-old ex-girlfriend.
Whether or not it’s a crime for one minor to text a nude picture of him or herself to another is being hotly debated on blogs, TV newscasts and between parents, teens, school administrators and legal experts.
A Mandate to Parents
At the heart of the issue, according to school administrators and adults who work with teenagers, is how ignorant parents can be about kids and cell phones. Many parents don’t think anything of handing a child a camera-equipped cell phone they themselves don’t know how to use, says Don Clarke, campus ministry director at Jesuit High School, a private school with 1,160 students in Portland, Ore.
If parents are concerned for their kids’ safety, it’s important to learn about the technology. It’s also vital to make sure that kids are sensitive and mature enough to handle a “pretty volatile piece of technology,” Clarke says. “We ask our students to think about their Internet persona, the images and information that people have access to about them online and if it’s really what they want to be saying about their life.”
Teens who text explicit pictures of themselves obviously aren’t thinking about the career repercussions of having an X-rated image floating around cyberspace -- but they should, says Naomi Bloom, a human-resources management consultant with Bloom & Wallace in Ft. Myers, Fla. “Who's going to employ someone who’s featured naked all over the Internet?” Bloom says. “How can these kids ever run for public office?”
Think Before You Text
According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teenagers shouldn’t assume that anything they text or post online will stay private, odds aren’t it won’t. Other recommendations: resist giving into pressure to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable; realize that even if you sent something as a joke the person on the other end might not take it that way; and nothing is truly anonymous -- even though you may have sent a text from behind a screen name, someone can track down who you really if they try hard enough.
According to the organization, parents should:
Talk to kids about what they do online. The birds-and-bees talks you have should include a frank discussion of the dangers of putting sexually explicit images online where they aren’t ever really private or anonymous.
Know who your kids talk to online. You know who they hang out with in the real world, now make sure you know who they’re spending time with online too. Ask questions about people they’re communicating with online, especially if they don’t know them personally.
Set limits on electronic communication. Establish house rules. For example, require that cell phones and laptops remain out of bedrooms at night so kids won’t be tempted to text into the wee hours.
Know what your kids are posting. Check out their MySpace or Facebook pages. If they accuse you of snooping, say you’re simply looking at what’s out there that other people can see, and you’re concerned for their safety.
Set expectations. There are certain behaviors you wouldn’t allow them to do in the real world, so make sure your kids know there are certain things they can’t do online either.
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