Smartphones enable teens to connect and engage with their friends and the world. These devices can also capitalize on the impulsivity of teenagers. Add in hormones and boyfriend/girlfrend, teens may be tempted to take or share a sext.
I wrote about sexting with Amy Lang, from Bird+Bees+Kids, almost 4 years ago. We collaborated on a script to help parents talk with their young teen about sexting. At the time, sexting and Snapchat were creating headlines but most research showed sending nude or partially nude photos among teens was very rare.
Sexting did not feel rare when I heard teens were sharing nude photos at the local high school. At a parent education class, our high school resource officer talked about sexting on campus. While most teens were not sexting, some teens had sent nude or partially nude photos. These students were surprised to hear that taking and/or sending these photos were illegal when under 18.
Unfortunately, many kids are only hearing about sexting at an internet safety assembly in middle school. At this age, most kids probably can never imagine a situation where they would share this type of picture. The risks of sexting are easily forgotten. Flash forward to 11th grade and sharing an intimate photo may not seem so far-fetched.
The one-off internet safety class is not going to cover them through graduation. Families should take some time this summer to revisit sexting. A quick google search of “sexting” will provide many news stories to help start a conversation. Parents can use these stories to talk about what sexting is, the risks and what they should do if someone pressures them to send a photo or if they receive a photo.
You would think this would be the easiest part of the article. The definition of sexting changes depending on the study or article. For example, some studies include sexy texts while others limit sexting to only photos. Based on your values and age of your child, parents may want to adjust their family’s definition. Generally, the definition is “sexting is the sharing, creating and forwarding of sexually suggestive texts or nearly nude or nude images.” For this article, I am limiting the definition of sexting to only photos.
Depending on what study you read, sexting is either an epidemic or an outlier activity. I can find studies that say 4% of teens have sent a sext and some that say 40%. This variability is due to how sexting is defined, what ages are surveyed and how the survey is conducted. Honestly, to a certain extent does the percentage matter. Parenting is not about covering the most likely scenarios. While we hope it is not our kid, there is always that parenting voice that says “may be our kid.”
Sexting & the Law
While teens may see sexting as no big deal, it is legally a big deal. In some cases, teens can legally have sex but still not legally send a nude or nearly nude photo. For most states, the age of sexual consent is 16. Here in Washington, the age is 16 but there can only be a 4 year age difference between the couple. When under 18, sexting is a felony.
Under US federal laws, a sexually explicit image of a child under age 18 is child pornography. This is true even if a teenager chooses to take a picture of themselves. After taking the picture, they are now in possession of child pornography. If they share it, they are distributing child pornography. Whoever receives it is in possession of child pornography.
Some states are making an exception for teenagers sending a nude or semi-nude photo within a consensual relationship. A survey conducted by US cyberbullying of sexting laws and minors found 20 states have included provisions for minors that have sent or received sexually explicit images of other minors. Many of these laws reduce consensual sexting between minors as a misdemeanor. In all states, most prosecutors are reluctant to pursue felony charges unless there was an adult (over 18) involved, the teen felt coerced into sending the photo, the photo was shared beyond the couple or posted on a public website.
Talking with Teens about Sexting
While it is important to talk about the legal issues, the conversation should not end at sexting is illegal so don’t do it. They reality is they probably know someone who sent a sext and was not hauled off in handcuffs. Families should also include the other risks and harms of sexting.
Most teenage relationships do not last forever. When a relationship ends and hurt feeling are involved, those pictures they promised never to send can leak out. Teens may be under the false impression that photos, sent through apps like Snapchat, disappear. Within any app, friends can take a picture of the screen or take a screenshot. These photos never truly disappear and can be forwarded or posted the next day or years from now.
Before you are dealing with a naked picture on a phone, talk with teens about the facts and the risks of sexting and let them know about your expectations. Here are a 7 talking posts adapted from Adding Sexting to “THE TALK”.
- Friends may tell you sexting is no big deal but sexting is a big deal. These photos are considered child pornography and it is illegal to take and send these pictures. Even a picture you take of yourself is illegal.
- You may feel pressure to act sexy but you are in charge of your own body and image. Sexting gives someone else that control. No one who loves you or cares about you should pressure or demand a text or image that could hurt you.
- If someone is pressuring you to send a suggestive photo, I hope you will let us know. You can always tell them your parents check your phone so you cannot have these type of pictures on your device.
- Whoever receives this image can easily copy it and send it to people who you do not trust or would not want to have access to this image. Once a text like this is sent, it can be forwarded to anyone.
- You should never ask someone to send or forward a sexually suggestive text or picture.
- If you do receive an image or message, you should not forward or share it with others. The best course of action is to delete the photo. If you do receive these images, we hope you will let us know.
- I want you to know that I understand kids make mistakes and do stupid and impulsive things. If you do something like this, please tell me. I might be mad and disappointed, but I would do everything I could to help you figure out what to do.
Adults, over 18, can legally sext. According to a recent survey, 88% of adults have sent a sext. For adults, sexting is becoming part of intimate, committed relationship.
There is no such thing as safe sexting. Sexting always carries risks. Just like in high school, these pictures can be shared more widely. If you have a teen over 18 or getting close, parents may want to add safer sexting tips to their conversation (or leave this article from PCMag open on their laptop).
6 Tips for Safer Sexting
- Enthusiastic consent – This means both agree and are equally excited about sharing photos. Partners can offer to send a sext but they should never ask or demand a photo. Pressuring someone to send a photo is not part of a healthy relationship.
- Two way street – When both have photos, they both share the risk. This is considered mutually assured destruction. Unfortunately, society judges women much more harshly for sharing these type of photos than men. This is not a perfect solution. Even so, both partners having sexy photos shows a level of trust on both sides.
- Remove identifying details – To prevent a picture from coming back to haunt them, adults can remove identifying features such as their face, background and exif data.
- Never forward these pictures – These pictures should never be shown to a friend, posted on social network/website or forwarded. Private, intimate photos are only for couples.
- Lock your phone – Do not have these pictures out in the open where if someone grabbed your phone they could find and forward these photos. Your phone should be locked down or the picture removed off the phone.
- Delete photos – Once the relationship ends, the pictures are immediately destroyed
For more information on sexting, check out these amazing resources
- The Sexting Handbook for Teens by CommonSense Media
- Talking about Sexting by MediaSmarts
- Your Guide to Safe Sexting by PCMagazine
- How to add sexting to “The Talk” by KidsPrivacy