By Jennie Park-Taylor, Marwa Saadawi & Elizabeth Casey
Today’s youth are increasingly connecting with others via social media. This is the current trend and there are no signs of it reversing anytime soon.
It makes sense then that their engagement in romantic and sexual behaviors are also increasingly internet-based. Indeed, acts like flirting, engaging in sexual behaviors and even dating, which previously took place predominantly face-to-face, are now happening more and more online. Therefore, it is not surprising that internet-based sexual activity; better known as sexting, is becoming commonplace among teens.
Are teenagers really sexting?
Sexting has been defined as the sending or receiving of sexual images, words, or videos via technology with the majority of sexting occurring via mobile devices. 1 in 7 adolescents has reported sending a sext, while 1 in 4 has reported receiving a sext. Sexting can start early. Youth as young as 11 years old have reported that they engage in sexting. Similar to increases in actual sexual activity with age, there is an increase in sexting as teens get older.
First off, sexting is not always consensual. 1 out of every 8 teenagers shared that they were the recipient of a sext without the consent of the sender or the receiver. Youth who are victims of non-consensual sexting may experience mental health symptoms, such as anxiety related to receiving sexual content on their cell phones and fears associated with getting in trouble for such activity. Non-consensual sexting may also produce similar feelings to those ones after an instance of non-consensual sexual behavior.
Even when teens engage in sexting consensually, they often assume that their sexts are private, when they can, in fact, be easily shared with others. Their sexual images or videos could potentially be spread across school and community populations. Once sexts are shared and made public, the sender of the sext is now vulnerable to mental health consequences such as shame and embarrassment, anxiety, depression, sexual harassment, and loss of friendships.
Legal Issues Related to Sexting
In some countries, such as the United States, there are legal consequences to people who share sexual images or videos classified under the distribution of child pornography. Individuals who are convicted of charges related to child pornography may even have to register as sexual offenders. There are also civil lawsuits that can be filed against the parents of a child who is convicted of such a crime.
Even if a sext is not shared, the receiver of a sext can threaten to share the content and then blackmail the sender, which has been referred to as ‘sextortion’. Sextortion can involve coercing a victim to engage in actual sexual behaviors and thus is wrought with enormous risks.
Adult Sexual Predators
Another important risk is when teens engage in sexting with individuals they do not know. The potential for danger in these types of exchanges is great as teenagers may be unknowingly sexting with adults, who pose as younger persons and who may lure them into situations where they are at risk for being sexually victimized.
How should parents talk to their teens about sexting?
It is important more now than ever to keep an open line of communication with your children. It may feel awkward, but it’s important to explain to children the risks of sexting. Below are the main points to cover.
- It should be made very clear that what is shared online is never private and once it is sent out there, it could essentially be sent to anyone.
- Encourage them to think before they post; as reputations can be damaged very quickly.
- Set an expectation that you will be regularly checking their phones and screening messages, pictures, etc.
- Discuss, model, and point out when possible the general signs of a good relationship. Having good communication with friends who are older than you and pointing out what good communication looks like and what poor communication looks like. Discuss respect and how to respect yourself and others. For example, if a boy is asking a girl for a selfie, what makes that selfie respectful and what crosses the line. Be sure to ask them what a healthy relationship looks like. Remind your children that they can talk to you if something ever makes them feel uncomfortable so that you can help them stay safe.
- Online porn has now become easily accessible. When discussing this, you should mention that sex in porn is fabricated, and more of a performance rather than reality.
Resources for Parents