The rise of technology has dramatically changed the issues around adolescent sexual behaviour. Sexting is a combination of the words “sex” and texting” and refers to using a mobile phone or a media device such as camera or computer to produce sexually explicit images or videos of oneself or others and distributing these through text messages or via avenues such as Facebook, twitter, bluetooth, webcam, Skype and so forth.
A national poll in Australia revealed that 59% of teenagers have sent and/or received sexually suggestive or explicit messages. From a parent’s point of view, the problems with texting are manifold. To begin with, it is illegal for people under the age of 18 to take and distribute nude or semi-nude pictures, even if it is of themselves, as it is considered child pornography. Young people are often unaware that they could legally be charged as a sex offender which is an offence that puts them on the sex offender list for 25 years.
Aside from the legal ramifications, most teenagers are often also unaware of the many other consequences involved in sexting, including unauthorized distribution of pictures which could result in peer bullying or being targeted by sexual predators.
Many parents are horrified to find that their teenagers are involved in sexting and it can be very difficult to handle the situation appropriately. Feelings of anger and shame are common. Parents may also feel that they have been deceived by their children and that the trust has been broken. Many parents respond by confiscating phones, laptops, webcams and limiting or disconnecting internet accessibility as punishment. Whilst these methods can all be appropriate, it is even more important to understand and educate teenagers about why sexting is such a big concern.
Firstly, it is important to avoid demonizing sex and sexuality and restrain from any forms of name calling such as “slut” or “skank” or referring to them as disgusting or repulsive. Teenagers are incredibly sensitive and may take these comments to heart and begin defining themselves as such.
When explaining to young people the reasons why sexting is a concern, educating them about the legal implications is important. Encouraging and allowing the young person to consider how they are putting themselves at risk empowers the young person to take responsibility for his or her actions. This could include allowing the young person to realistically assess the risk of the explicit material being distributed and the impact that would have on them. It is helpful to engage the young person in thinking about situations in which such pictures or videos could be damaging or embarrassing to them.
Furthermore, when talking to teenagers about sexting, it is crucial that parents understand how common it is. The prevalence of sexting, combined with the absence of education about consequences, gives young people the impression that “it is ok” and that “everyone does it”. Unfortunately as a result of the prevalence of sexting, the line between “flirting” and engaging in sexually explicit acts has been blurred. In fact, many teenagers report that flirting nowadays include nude or semi-nude pictures and has become the norm. Therefore, not engaging in sexting can sometimes be difficult for the young person and can result in bullying and name calling such as “prude” or “frigid” which also can lead to bullying and isolation.
The world of a teenager is indeed very difficult one to navigate, and it is not always easy to refuse the pressure from peers or to resist the desire to fit in. Parents need to be aware and supportive of the challenges that young people experience in regards to sexting. Communicating clearly and non-judgmentally is often the most beneficial way for parents to educate their teenagers about the legal and social consequences of sexting, and can facilitate setting clear boundaries that takes into account the pressures that the young person faces within their peer group.
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