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Rising Concerns about Teen Sexting and Internet Safety

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

Sexting, defined as sending a text message with sexually explicit photos or images, is a relatively new phenomenon. The term wasn’t even coined a decade ago, but it is now well entrenched into both modern vernacular and the habits of many people who find it both fun and stimulating.  

According to findings from Pew Research, sexting is growing rapidly among couples and singles. The number of young people ages 18-24 who report receiving sexts increased from 26 percent in 2012 to 44 percent in 2014.  Modern technology in smartphones make it possible to post a suggestive selfie and send it within seconds, while receiving and re-sending these images is also extremely easy.

Not Limited to Adults

But while this may seem like a very adult practice, a large number of children and teens are increasingly picking up and practicing the trend of sexting. Naturally, this has parents and public health officials feeling anxious.

Based on a recent national poll on children’s health by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, sexting and internet safety are among the top ten health concerns facing children in the U.S. Internet safety is ranked at No. 4 and sexting is No. 6 on the list. Pew’s surveys found that 20 percent of all cell phone owners (which include children and teens) reported receiving nude or nearly-nude images, up from 15 percent in 2012.

Cyber-Bullying

It’s not just cyber-nudity that has parents on edge. Smartphone use among young people potentially exposes them to harmful influences like cyber-bullying and potential predator situations involving sexting-related messages or images.

Smartphone use among young people potentially exposes them to harmful influences like cyber-bullying and potential predator situations involving sexting-related messages or images.

Once these images are posted on the Internet, they become available to anyone – including sexual predators and pedophiles, who are constantly on the lookout for sexually explicit images of children and teens. The media regularly reports on cases where teens have been ostracized, humiliated or even taken their life as a result of the public shaming they’ve endured by those who exploit them.

The sharing of these private images not only has potentially damaging social consequences for children and teens, but can follow a person well into adulthood and affect their ability to establish themselves professionally. Modern media technology changes the way we view youthful indiscretions. Digital images are a permanent record that can circulate indefinitely as they are repeatedly passed from one person to the next.

Where to Intervene?

Where should we focus our efforts on this issue? Although the initial impulse may be to focus on built-in technology measures in phones, it’s likely that young people would eventually find ways around these limitations.

It should be stressed to children that underage sexting is a crime. Every state either has laws in place for sexting or is in the process of establishing what is lawful and what is not. Generally, any transmission of sexually explicit texts or images to or from someone under 18 years of age is considered a crime and punishable by the laws established in that state.

But the primary focus should be on parental oversight and accountability.  It’s difficult to encourage a child not to engage in sexting if that person is engaging in the behavior themselves. If we really want to see young people practice sexual restraint, perhaps more adults should model this restraint for them.

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