Tips to Help Your Teen Understand the Serious Consequences of Sexting

There have been too many stories about normal, everyday teens whose lives have been changed forever by the click of a camera phone. Like the story of Jessica Logan from Cincinnati, Ohio who texted nude pictures of herself to a boyfriend. When the two broke up, the boyfriend texted the nude photos to girls at their high school. These girls harassed Jessica and called her a slut and a whore causing her to become depressed and afraid to go to school.

In May, 2008, Jessica told her story to the Today Show in an effort to “make sure no one else will have to go through this again.”  Two months later, at the age of 18, Jessica Logan killed herself in her bedroom.

Sexting is defined as sending sexually explicit messages or revealing photos to others via cell phone or instant messenger. What typically starts as a picture message to a boyfriend or girlfriend can be passed on quickly from friend to friend and will stay on the internet forever.

A joint study by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl suggests:

  • One in five teenage girls between 13 and 16 years old say they have electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude images of themselves.
  • 21 percent of teen girls and 18 percent of teen boys have sent images of themselves.

What can we do as parents to protect our children?  The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy has several tips for you to help keep your teens savvy online.

  •  Talk to your kids about what they are doing in cyberspace. Just as you need to talk openly and honestly with your kids about real life sex and relationships, you also want to discuss online and cell phone  texting activity. Make sure your kids fully understand that text messages or pictures they send over the Internet or their cell phones are not truly private or anonymous. Also make sure they know that others might forward their pictures or messages to people they do not know or want to see them, and that school administrators and employers often look at online profiles to make judgments about potential students/employees. It’s essential that your kids grasp the potential short-term and long-term consequences of their actions.
  • Know who your kids are communicating with. Of course it’s a given that you want to know who your children are spending time with when they leave the house. Also do your best to learn who your kids are spending time with online and on the phone. Supervising and monitoring your kids’ whereabouts in real life and in cyberspace doesn’t make you a nag; it’s just part of your job as a parent. Many young people consider someone a “friend” even if they’ve only met online. What about your kids?
  • Consider limitations on electronic communication. The days of having to talk on the phone in the kitchen in front of the whole family are long gone, but you can still limit the time your kids spend online and on the phone. Consider, for example, telling your teen to leave the phone on the kitchen counter when they’re at home and to take the laptop out of their bedroom before they go to bed, so they won’t be tempted to log on or talk to friends at 2a.m.
  • Be aware of what your teens are posting publicly. Check out your teen’s MySpace, Facebook and other public online profiles from time to time. This isn’t snooping— this is information your kids are making public. If everyone else can look at it, why can’t you? Talk with them specifically about their own notions of what is public and what is private. Your views may differ, but you won’ know it until you ask, listen, and discuss.
  • Set expectations. Make sure you are clear with your teen about what you consider appropriate “electronic” behavior. Just as certain clothing is probably off-limits or certain language unacceptable in your house, make sure you let your kids know what is and is not allowed online. And give reminders of those expectations from time to time. It doesn’t mean you don’t trust your kids, it just reinforces that you care about them enough to be paying attention.

The best way to make sure our teens get clear and consistent messages is for parents and schools to form a strong partnership.  For example, I have suggested to parents and schools a great DVD on Sexting.

The Dangers of Sexting:  What Teens Need to Know (2010)
Human Relations Media, Inc.
Target Audience:  Grades 7 – College
Length:  17 minutes
Cost:  $139.95

There is also one for younger kids on texting.
Be Careful W U Text:  The Dangers of Texting and Sexting.
Target Audience: Grades 5-9
Length: 19 minutes
Cost: $139.95

From my experience, the parents who have seen this DVD want it shown in schools as soon as possible and school administrators are ready, willing and able.  It would be great for PTA’s and/or PTO’s to use their money to buy a couple of these — one for the school to use and one for the parent library at school.  A parent library is a convenient way for parents to get the most up to date resources and tools to communicate with their teen at home.

Don’t wait – Act Now!   Just a little bit of your time to call the school principal, bring the issue to the attention of the PTA or PTO or write something for the school newsletter can make a big difference.  The power of one can prevent the tragic story of Jessica Logan from happening in your teens’ school.

** This information has been shared with you by Barb Flis, mother of two and creator of Parent Action for Healthy Kids.