THE DETAILS: The most recent sexting survey, released Tuesday by the research and marketing group AK Tweens, found that among the 300 girls aged 9 to 15 years old who were questioned, 30 percent had sent or received sexual messages or photos of themselves. Girls as young as 10 also reported receiving sexy messages or photos from people they didn’t even know. When asked why they send or post these pictures or messages, the girls said it’s to receive attention, be cool, be like the popular girls, and find a boyfriend. Recently, a National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy survey discovered that 22 percent of teen girls and 18 percent of teen boys sent or posted online nude or semi-nude pictures. More than 30 percent admitted they have these types of pictures that were meant for someone else. In other words, this often is an experience shared by more people than the sender and his or her intended recipient.
WHAT IT MEANS: While the trend is shocking to parents, in most cases texting is likely rooted in normal adolescent urges, says Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH, research scientist and associate director of The Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana State University. “Communicating about sexuality or one's desire or fantasies can absolutely be a form of sexual expression, whether it's done in person, on the phone, via e-mail, or via texting or so-called sexting,” she explains. “Sexting can also be a form of identity exploration and expression. Teenagers are often trying to figure out who they are, how to express their feelings, and how to connect with friends or people they have romantic feelings for, and it would not be surprising that sexting is one of the many ways that teenagers explore.” And of course, peer pressure is a factor. “Pre-teens and teenagers are at a point in their lives where they very much want to fit in and feel liked, which may make them more likely to do things like sext, including sending sexy photos of themselves,” Herbenick says.
The best way to handle sexting? Good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication.
Here’s how to deal with the sexting issue with kids in your household:
• Decide if they really need those phones. Sure, it’s comforting to know you can pick up the phone and call or text your child anytime. But as this story suggests, cellphones bring up other issues. “Parents may want to look into different phone and text plans that help them to control or monitor the frequency with which their kids text,” suggests Herbenick. “Parents may also not want to give them a cellphone until they are of a certain age.” Or consider a phone without a camera.
• Ask the “what-ifs.” When adolescents and young adults are learning how to express their sexuality, it’s important that they consider laws and school policies. As recent news reports have shown, a 14-year-old’s idea of flirting in the digital age could wind up bringing felony charges or expulsion from school. Also ask your children how comfortable they’d be if you, their friends, or even their worst enemies at school saw the sexual texts or photos. “Anything that is ever put into the network, at any level, especially something that is digitized, is there forever," says Bryant Paul, professor of telecommunications at Indiana University in Bloomington. "That information is there for the world to see for the rest of eternity.”
• Point out that self-expression doesn’t have to be high tech. Remind your children that they can express their feelings to someone without running a risk of personal photos becoming public. Discuss behaviors that are appropriate for your child’s age and in sync with your family’s values, including talking, holding hands, hugging, and kissing, and other ways to be intimate that feel comfortable for both parties. Remind them that they can talk to you or to other trusted adults about sexuality when they need guidance.
• Make sex a recurring topic. Don’t wait until your kids are going through puberty to talk about the birds and bees. Be open about the subject early on. “The best way for parents to address sexuality is to make it an ongoing conversation that starts earlier in life rather than later,” suggests Herbenick. “Rather than having ‘the talk’ once or twice, parents should try to make themselves ‘askable’ parents who can always be counted on to listen without judgment to their kids' questions and expressions of sexuality and to intervene when necessary to protect their children from harm.”
• Read the phone bill like a magazine. Don’t put on your spying glasses and psychoanalyze your teen or tween’s every cellphone call or text. But do use the monthly phone bill as an opportunity to discuss the frequency of texts, what your child and friends text each other about, and to what extent your child feels comfortable seeing or reading some of the things their friends may send, suggests Herbenick.