Up to 84% of older teens are sexting. What do we, as parents, need to know to protect them?
If you are like me, trying to keep up with technology makes you feel like a dinosaur. I mean, I'm still trying to figure out Facebook (circa 2004) and only recently got onto Twitter (circa 2006). It's 2014, people. In a world where it's no longer raining men, but instead newer, better ways to connect online, I know I'm in trouble as a parent. The thought of understanding all the technology—much less being savvy enough to actually anticipate problems and protect my kids from danger—makes me want to quit my day job, especially when it comes to protecting their sexuality.
No wonder so many parents give in completely and allow unmonitored access. I get it. It's overwhelming. The problem is that real, long-term problems can arise from sexual activity in real life or virtual life. Obviously, we are all familiar with sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies. But using social media or texting to flirt creates a permanent document that kids will have to live with for the rest of their lives. A new study from La Trobe University in Australia found that 70-85% of sexually active 10-12th graders are sexting, half of which are sending nude or partially nude pictures out there to the vastness of cyberspace. Go ahead…cringe.
The worst part is once it's out there, it's out there and vulnerable to the whims of others—exes, jealous girls, predators. Think about how just one picture might impact, say, a career in politics…or teaching, for that matter. Think about their future children Googling them. Think about the possibilities for bullying. Cringing again, are we?
The study referenced above suggests that parents should start to accept that sexting is a normal part of modern dating. While that may be true, it is important to remember that all activities involving a screen create a disinhibiting effect. When we're texting or emailing or Facebooking, we are more likely to say or do things online that we would never consider saying or doing in person. If we want our kids to be protected from shaming, bullying, and potentially future damage, we have to coach them in taking a moment to pause and really think it through before they decide to sext.
I suggest sharing the following list with all teenagers:
1. Remember, technology has different levels of privacy. Sexual behavior is private behavior, so any sexual talk, displays, or behaviors need to be appropriately private, right? For me, it helps to think of technology like a house. For example, Facebook is like hanging out in your yard. People who are not invited (friends of friends, for example) can see what you are doing. Not private. Private messaging or text messaging is like coming into the house: more private to be sure, but we also don’t just let anyone inside. They need to be invited and appropriate.
2. Sending messages, images, or videos creates something potentially permanent that you are giving to someone else. For our house analogy, it's not like you're just inviting friends over to hang out for a while. No, it's like handing someone a key to your house. We only give our keys to people that we really, really trust, and this should be the same with any sexual messages exchanged. Trust is only built over time. Even though you might really like someone and think they're great, you can't really trust that until they've had time to show you how they handle things like disappointment, rejection, and conflict.
3. Don’t forget to get your key (ie. texts/pictures) back when you break up! People do all kinds of vindictive and careless things when they break up. Do you really want to walk around knowing that someone is angry with you and still has a key to your house? No, we ask for the key back or change the locks. So, ask your now ex to erase all those pictures and texts, or better yet, have them do it in front of you.
4. Problem is, the only way to “get your key” back is to ask for the person to erase the texts or images. You are completely dependent on them being willing to do this, short of hacking into that person’s phone/computer, which is illegal and beyond most of our abilities anyway. So, always remember that if you choose to send an explicit text or image, you really do always run a risk of those words or images being used against you.
5. In this world of accessibility, remember that these texts/images might come back to haunt you later in life. Try to imagine yourself as an adult. Will you always be so excited about these texts—especially if they are aired out to the public…and perhaps your future spouse…or employer…or child?
To me, protecting our kids from themselves means helping them learn how to think something all the way through. Sexting may be a way of life for today's kids, but it does not mean we, as parents, cannot help them learn to maneuver the risks with greater awareness.