What every parent (and child) needs to know about sexting

We’ve all heard shocking stories on the news involving teenagers who send explicit photos of themselves to their peers, seemingly unaware of the possible social and even legal consequences. However, many of us feel removed from those headlines. Not my child, parents might think, or Not in this school district. Well, prepare yourself for a bombshell: Around one in four teens is already involved in sexting, and that number could—quite possibly—include your own offspring.

“Many parents and teens have absolutely no idea of how serious and pervasive an issue sexting is,” says former district attorney and nationally recognized expert on the prosecution of crimes against children J.Tom Morgan, author of Ignorance Is No Defense, A Teenager’s Guide to Georgia Law. “And that ignorance can be extremely costly.”

If you fall into that “no idea” category, consider these sobering statistics. According to a recent New York Times article, “24 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds had been involved in ‘some type of naked sexting,’ either by cell phone or on the Internet.”

“Clearly, sexting isn’t as isolated as many parents would like to think,” Morgan points out. “And when it comes to light, they’re often shocked and mortified to find out that their kids are doing this stuff. Meanwhile, the teens themselves are forced to learn painful lessons—sometimes at a very harsh cost that can haunt them for years.

“As adults, it’s our duty to protect our kids—even from themselves. Clearly, many young people are not getting the message, despite hearing horror story after horror story on the news. Parents must take responsibility for talking to their children about what is and isn’t appropriate…and for enforcing consequences when lines are crossed.”

Read on for twelve things Morgan urges you to keep in mind regarding talking to your child about sexting:

Don’t wait. It’s a mistake to assume that your child is too young or too inexperienced to worry about sexting. Parents need to start having conversations with their kids as they head into the sixth and seventh grades. Remember, almost one in four teenagers engages in sexting and many of them begin at an early age.

Be a broken record. If you’ve had a conversation with your child about sexting, great. Now repeat it. In order for parents to be effective in preventing their children from getting involved in a sexting scandal, a continual dialogue must go on in your household.

Understand the world they live in. It’s important for parents to realize that virtually everything around today’s teens tells them that sexting is okay, or at least “not that bad.” They live in a world of sexualized messaging in music, movies, and even conversations at school. Pornography is easy to access on the Internet. Plus, electronics ranging from cell phones to computers are readily available. Realize from the outset that you might be up against an (understandable) what’s-the-big-deal mentality.

Know the consequences. While it’s not something that teens are apt to consider, the fact is that child pornography laws can apply to sexually explicit images if any party involved is under 18. And that can lead to steep legal ramifications.

Realize that being registered as a sex offender is possible. The stark fact is, in some states, sexting can land a teen on the sex offender registry—a designation that can severely and irrevocably alter the course of a young person’s life. It’s vital that students understand that they do not fall under the same set of rules that apply to consenting adults.

Make it clear that any involvement is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if a child is the original sender of the material, a recipient, or “only” forwarding something that was sent to him or her. Any and all involvement with a sexting scandal can have serious legal repercussions. If your child is a recipient, tell your child to delete the material immediately and never to forward it.

Understand the scope. While the word “sexting” calls to mind texts sent via cell phone, it’s not limited to that medium—any explicit material sent via any electronic device, including email, Skype, video chat, instant messaging, and text, qualifies.

Realize that sexts don’t go away. If you send something electronically, it can last forever. Teens (and adults, for that matter) have no control over how long someone saves an image or to whom it might be forwarded. With social networking sites as well as pictures and videos going “viral,” it’s not unusual for compromising pictures to resurface years down the road!

Put reality over ideals. Most sexts originate with girls, many of whom never imagine that a picture sent to a trusted, “special” boy might be seen by anyone else. Especially if you have a daughter, set up a scenario she can relate to in order to help her realize that something she shares electronically probably won’t stay a private matter. For example, you might start by saying, “Say you’re dating a guy you really like, but then you have an argument…”

Be wary of recordings. Live video (like Skype) can be recorded and downloaded for distribution and streaming later. Teens can’t assume that a live chat is over once they’ve logged off.

Avoid predators. Parents need to warn their teenagers never to send pictures of themselves to strangers they meet on the Internet. The friendly stranger who claims to be your child’s age may actually be a sexual predator. Unfortunately, sexual predators on the Internet are skilled at convincing teenagers to remove their clothing on camera. Sometimes these pictures end up on Internet porn sites.

Communicate consequences. It’s imperative for parents to let their children know that you will have zero tolerance when it comes to sexting. Make sure they know that they will lose privileges as a result of sexting themselves or for passing another’s sext along. Accept no excuses and follow through on enforcing the consequences you set up.

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to talk to your kids about the consequences of their actions every single day,” Morgan concludes. “When children see their friends sexting and getting away with it, they feel like they can, too. You have to keep a constant stream of reminders in front of them in order to move their behavior in the right direction.”

J.Tom Morgan is a nationally recognized expert on crimes involving young people and has appeared on CNN’s Talk Back Live, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Court TV, the Today show, and 48 Hours. He served as the district attorney of DeKalb County, Georgia, in metro Atlanta, for twelve years and was the first prosecutor in Georgia to specialize in the prosecution of crimes against children. Among his numerous awards, J.Tom was the first United States prosecutor to receive the Special Achievement Award from the International Association of Prosecutors. J.Tom has dedicated his career to child advocacy and is committed to helping young people avoid being both victims and perpetrators of crimes. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book Ignorance Is No Defense, A Teenager’s Guide to Georgia Law and coauthor, with constitutional law scholar Wilson Parker, of the newly released book Ignorance Is No Defense, A College Student’s Guide to North Carolina Law. J.Tom is a frequent speaker at schools and parent and teacher organizations. He is licensed to practice law in both North Carolina and Georgia and currently is a trial lawyer in private practice in Decatur, Georgia, specializing in criminal and civil litigation.

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