A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 95% of teens have access to smart phones and 45% of them report using their smartphones almost constantly. Parents are understandably concerned about screen time and its impact on their teen’s cognitive, physical and psychological health as research shows that higher levels of screen time is associated with decreased white matter in the brain, unhealthy diet, obesity, depression and lower quality of life.
To add to parents’ worry related to smart phone usage is a phenomenon emerging among teenagers known as sexting. Sexting is generally defined as the sending and receiving of sexually suggestive or explicit photographs via a digital device. Sexting among teenagers appears to be on the rise. A meta-analysis (a larger study that combines the findings from numerous smaller studies) found that 1 in 7 teens reported sending sexts and 1 in 4 teens reported receiving a sext and that the number of teens who reported engaging in sexting behavior increased. Another more recent study of high school students found that 29% of them were engaged in consensual sexting.
Teens report sexting for various reasons. For many young people sending and receiving nude photographs is considered to be a digital courtship ritual and they are basically flirting with each other or showing commitment in a relationship, while others report that they do it as a joke or to shock one another.
So, is sexting among teens just harmless fun? The answer unfortunately is no. A 2018 report by Pediatrics warns that the consequences of sexting could be severe. In the United States, 23 states consider sexting amongst teenagers to be the crime of possession of child pornography and it can result in prison sentences and registration on the sex offender registry. While these types of outcomes are not common – they are not unheard of. In the United Kingdom where sexting between minors is considered a crime, the police have investigated over 6000 children under the age of 14. While many are arguing that charging sexting teens with sex crimes is not reasonable or appropriate, until the laws are changed this remains a very real danger.
Some teens also report feeling coerced to send naked pictures. Research shows that sexting can be an online extension to offline sexual coercion in adolescent relationships and that those who experienced sexting coercion endorsed more symptoms of anxiety, depression, and generalized trauma. Further those who experienced sexting coercion were also more likely to experience physical sexual coercion and intimate partner violence suggesting that sexting coercion may be a digital form of intimate partner violence
Another very serious consequence of sexting is having a sext forwarded to others or posted on-line without consent. In one study, 12% of teens reported forwarding a sext without consent while 8.4% of teens reported having a sext they sent forwarded without consent. Having a sext forwarded to others without consent can result in harassment, cyberbullying, and even blackmail. Subsequently these types of behaviors can lead to depression and even thoughts of suicide among those who have been victimized. Further once a sext is sent, the sender has no control of what happens to the picture and even if it is sent via apps that claim to delete the pictures, there are still digital footprints and screenshots can be taken.
Given these very serious consequences of sexting, parents need to be proactive and discuss the dangers of sexting with their children and teens. Below are some suggestions for parents on how to handle teen sexting.
1) Before your child has access to a phone discuss the dangers of sexting with your children/teens. The younger you start the conversation the more likely it will be that your child internalizes your values.
2) Talk to your teen about feeling pressure to send naked pictures and empathize with them, but then remind them that no matter how hard it is to stand up to pressure – it is much harder to deal with the fallout of having a naked picture shared without consent.
3) Teach your children to immediately delete any nude or partially nude pictures they receive and report it to a parent.
4) Use hypothetical situations or media stories to role play various sexting scenarios with your teen and how they would handle them. Use these types of exercises to teach problem solving and critical thinking skills around these issues.
5) Establish ground rules for cell phone usage with your teens. Many parents require that teens let them check their phones regularly as part of a condition of use. If teens are violating the rules, then phone privileges should be suspended.