Studies show that sexting is more widespread than many parents would know or would like to admit.
According to the Drexel University report released last year by the Journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy, more than half of the undergraduate students who took part in an anonymous online survey said they sent sexually explicit messages while they were adolescents.
Almost 30 percent said they included images in their sexts, and an astonishing 61 percent did not realize that it could be considered child pornography to submit nude photos via text.
Another study, this one by Galveston’s University of Texas Medical Branch, found that while students who admitted sexting were 32 percent more likely to report having sex the next year, teenage sexting was not correlated over time with risky sexual activity.
The study, published in the Pediatrics journal, found that teenagers who have sex are not more likely to have multiple sexual partners, use drugs or alcohol before sex, or not use birth control.
The study concluded that sexting could be the new “normal” when it comes to teenage sexual activity.
“Elizabeth Englander, professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, said, “There are now a few pieces of research that kind of converge on the same conclusion, namely that this is not a rare activity.
I’m not suggesting that it’s safe or that it’s innocuous, but it’s not a case where children who are insecure do this or children who have really low self-esteem do it,” said Englander, who researched sexting, for her recent book “Bullying and Cyberbullying,” as well as a host of other teenage behaviors.”
“It seems like it is common. Many kids who perform well and have no issues are interested in it, and it’s not really uncommon or special.
“You probably think: “I’m checking the phones of my kids. “In this household, no sexting happens.” But there are plenty of apps that teenagers can use to send messages that their parents can’t find later. Snapchat, Cyber Dust, VaporChat and others enable users to send messages that vanish after a certain period of time on both the sender and the recipient’s phones. Children and adults alike use these apps to send several messages, from completely harmless to potentially harmful.
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Diana Graber, who teaches middle schoolers “cyber civics” in Aliso Viejo, California, was blown away by the response she received from eighth-graders when she had a sexting session for the first time.
Everyone in the class said they did when she asked her students if they knew what a sext was, but what they did not know was the consequences of sending a sext and how it could be charged in some states as a crime under child pornography laws.
They had no idea what the implications were,” said Graber, co-founder of the parents, educators, and tweens and teens digital literacy site, CyberWise.org.” “I mean, it was a complete surprise for all 28 kids, literally, so it happened to me that no one ever bothered to tell these kids that they couldn’t do it.”
Graber said she first met another one that day. After the lecture held at the end of the school day, a few students decided to learn more about sexting and related things.
“With this class, that had never happened to me before… and I realized that I had created a secure space for them to talk about something that was super important to their lives.”
She is also hoping to make it part of her “cyber civics” program, and claims that parents and educators need to talk about sexting with children at even younger ages. She said it should be part of sex education.
We know that it’s too late to throw the book at them, but that’s not working,” said Graber, who offers parents tips on how to help kids have secure online relationships.”
“It’s very normal teenage behavior and we need to get ahead of the issue with the times, and just have these very easy discussions.”
In her experience, Englander, the psychology professor and researcher, says it’s not because adults should not alert teenagers about the criminal implications of underage sexting or how traumatic it might be for a teen if their nude picture became public.
The problem, she says, is that kids don’t hear the alerts because they don’t translate into reality.
She used an example of asking people to wear a seat belt in an online article because half of the country’s car drives end in someone crashing through the windshield. Since half of car rides do not cause anyone to go through the windshield, she says, a person does not listen to that warning.
“If you want to persuade someone that there is a danger, you have to persuade them that you know what you are talking about,” Englander said. And you can’t say to kids, ‘Yeah, if you sext, you’re going to go to prison.’ It’s not 100 percent unlikely, because even in the early cases of sexting, when kids were arrested by law enforcement, they didn’t go to jail.
“With this, people have a hard time. Not that I’m suggesting we’re not supposed to teach children that child pornography is a felony. It’s a felony, but we’ve lost our audience if we stress that that’s the major threat.
Englander said what concerns her most is not how common sexting can be, but how teenagers feel after sexting, especially if they feel forced to do it.
She said she found in her own research that 92 percent of teenagers who said they were not forced to sext showed no issues afterwards, but that figure is only 68 percent for teenagers who felt pressured to do it.
“Afterward, they felt crummy,” said Englander. “The most common result, in fact, was that they just felt worse.”
Lori Cunningham, the founder of Well Connected Mom, a family-specific technology simplification platform, said parents need to educate their kids about their own self-worth.
“And no matter how tempting it is to want to be ‘liked’ by someone, for someone else’s enjoyment, they are worth more than degrading themselves,” said Cunningham, a mom of two in Los Angeles. “If parents don’t have this conversation, there might be some tremendous pressure on their kids.”
Cunningham also says that parents need to be actively involved in the online lives of their kids. In an eBook, she explains the points that parents can go through with their child when they get a phone, including setting up a contract to control their phone so that they understand it.
“Phones are a right, not a privilege. They can only be issued to children with the understanding that mom or dad will review them on a regular basis.
What all experts agree is that parents and teachers should speak to children about compliance with the law, protecting their privacy and integrity, and respecting the right of everyone to keep their bodies private, as well as their own values about the issue.
Your children can go into these things knowing absolutely nothing, not knowing what you think is right or wrong, not knowing the truth, or you can talk about it with them. Those are the only two options, Englander said. “I don’t think you can assume in today’s world that they’re never going to go through sexting, they’re never going to see it, they’re never going to know that it’s going to happen.”