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What’s wrong with sexting?

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 4.13.37 PMSexting is the act of sending sexually explicit photos, messages, voicemails, IM’s, videos, etc., either via phone, computer, webcam or other device. Sending suggestive and explicit content has been done for hundreds of years, what’s different now is the combination of technology that can broadcast this information instantly and virally, and the permanence of sending and storing this content on digital media – phones, computers, servers, and so on.

Though the frequency of sexting shows little gender variation, the pressure to participate in sexting is considerably stronger for girls. 51% of teen girls said pressure from a guy was the reason they sexted compared to just 18% of teen boys who said they felt pressure from a girl according to a 2008 study by National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and At the same time, the risks to girls are greater because society judges girls and women far more harshly for sexual exhibitions than it judges boys and men.

A 2010 nationwide survey sponsored by LG Mobile Phones found that 1-in-3 teens have participated in sexting and 1-in-4 thinks it’s a normal part of teen life. The survey also found that “for many teens, sending, receiving and forwarding these types of messages and images – and even being the target of such messages – is indicative of a higher social status.”

Perhaps more surprising is that the LG research found that 28% of parents polled said they are sexting. Charles Sophy, a child and family psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif., said many of his patients who are parents engage in sexting, and not always with their partners. “It’s a new and exciting way, for lack of a better term, to explore and express themselves when marriages are in bad spots.” He also noted that an increasing number of committed couples also are sexting with each other, and he believes that as long as they set parameters, the activity is not necessarily a “bad thing,” and it may be a way to “revamp” a relationship.

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That may be, but if the relationship is on the rocks, or a split comes later these adults will face the same risks their teens face, and no matter the age these issues will be devastating for some.

Protecting teens – and adults

Why sexting is a really bad idea no matter how many other people are doing it. Get past any naïveté surrounding the potential repercussions of sending sexual messages, photos, videos, chats, or describing sexual activities. Any of these actions can be, and likely will be, something the sender will regret at some point in the future. When you sext you risk:

  • Loss of control. Once an image, message or video has been shared, the sender has lost all control of where or how it will be distributed. While this has always been true, the means for mass sharing have only just been created.
  • Trophy syndrome. The girl- or boyfriend is highly likely to share it with friends (a main point of having the photo for most youth, and many adults, is to show people you have it).
  • Retaliation. When breakups occur, the malicious dissemination of an ex’s sexual images, messages, and videos is an all too common experience.
  • Humiliation. The humiliation caused by having your explicit content circulated can be devastating. Simply knowing your ‘private’ photos are seen and shared by potentially millions of people – possibly including family members, school teachers, your religious leaders, neighbors, and pedophiles can be overwhelming. Knowing these images are part of your permanent online history that can be found and viewed by people for years to come can be devastating. In some tragic cases the level of despair and shame has led people to serious self-harm and suicide.
  • Sextortion – a combination of the words “sex” and “extortion”. Extortionists and blackmailers have always leveraged their knowledge of other’s indiscretions, or their possession of compromising images and communications. But what the internet has brought to the table is increased access to the types of content and communications that many would rather not have exposed, and the tools to spread the information widely. There is no shortage of sextortionists hoping to leverage their victim’s sexual content for their own financial, or sexual, benefit. The number of sextortion cases by adults and teens in the news should be wake up call for anyone who is thinking of sexting.
  • Legal consequences. Sexually explicit photos, videos and communications, even when sent between minors, may be classified as child pornography, and the image taker, the image recipient, and anyone who disseminates the content may be charged and found guilty of crimes. Even asking another minor for sexual images may be criminal sexual solicitation.
  • Social consequences. These can include humiliation, bullying and cyberbullying, getting kicked off sports teams or other extracurricular activities, difficulties in getting scholarships or losing scholarships, difficulty in getting hired, and losing a job or elected position – as evidenced by the parade of elected officials and company officers who have had to step down over sexting scandals.
  • Physical consequences. Sexual content can increase the likelihood of becoming a victim of physical abuse. This abuse may come as forced sexual services demanded in exchange for silence in a blackmail scheme, through an altered expectation of sexual behavior by a date, acquaintance or family member, at the hands of bullies looking for an excuse to physically abuse someone, or even from enraged parents or guardians.

How to get help.

Unfortunately, not everyone will heed the advice to refrain from sexual exchanges online, and so understanding how to minimize the damage is critical – whether it be for you, your child, or to give your child information that will help another child.

  • Try to limit the dissemination. If the images and content haven’t been shared, ask the recipient delete these, and get help in insisting they be deleted if the recipient balks.
  • If the content has spread, and you or your child feels shame and humiliation understand that things will get better. The worst will blow over, and this does not define your life.
  • If bullying or cyberbullying occur, there is help. No one ever deserves to be bullied, cyberbullied or harassed. No matter what they’ve done to embarrass themselves. If the bullying or harassment is not something you can get stopped on your own, get help. Learn how to get help in these articles: How do I report cyberbullying to police or law enforcement?, My child is being cyberbullied – What Should I do? and How do I Report Cyberbullying to My Child’s School?
  • Extortionists extort. If they have one compromising image, video, or piece of information and they see opportunity in threatening a victim with it, giving them what they ask for is just providing more ammunition. It will not stop the exploitation – in most cases it will simply allow the extortionist to increase their demands.
    • Call it extortion, sextortion, or blackmail, it’s illegal. Get help. For minors, no matter how embarrassing the incident, parents are in most cases the best place to first turn to for help. Depending on the situation, it may be resolved through parents, or with school involvement. Where sexual demands or threats are made, it is a matter for immediate law enforcement involvement.
    • Parents, this puts a clear responsibility on you to create an environment where your children can be safe coming to you for help. In these kinds of situations some people are tempted to blame the victim, but that is way off target. Your child is the victim of a crime and they need your help with that crime. The question of why they chose to share compromising photos, video, or information is entirely separate and should be handled separately – and calmly.
    • Youth, if your parents aren’t going to help you through this, get a teacher, religious leader, or another trusted adult to help you. Few teens – and fewer younger kids are comfortable going to the police themselves.

How to reduce the pressure to sext

With the highly sexualized media environment, the popularity of sexting, and the pressure placed on teens to participate, sext prevention messaging is critically important, but it is often fighting an uphill battle. When parents themselves may be sexting, it may be particularly difficult to deliver this message.
The ‘just say no’ variety of messages are likely to be as ineffective against sexting as they were against drugs. Instead, efforts need to focus on:

  • Helping youth and adults see past their naïveté surrounding the implications of sending sexual messages
  • Helping youth and adults understand and assert their right to not be constantly badgered to send sexual content or images.

One of the best ways to remove the pressure or subdue requests is to prepare your responses. 3 basic strategies include: 1) keep it humorous, 2) get firm, 2) turn it around on the asker. To get yourself thinking about your response here are a few suggestions:

  • You want a naked pic? Sure, but only once so never ask again. – Then send a pic of a bear butt or something similar. Some girls send a nude baby pic of themselves (or of a random baby), and a few take pictures wearing a ‘boob’ shirt…
  • I heard your question, did you hear my answer?
  • You asked, I answered, don’t ask again.
  • Why don’t YOU send me your pic, then I’ll share it will all my friends and let it go viral. Let’s see what it does to YOUR reputation first.
  • My parents check my text messages; you want my dad/mom reading your request? I don’t.
  • Gee, can you say stupid?
  • Let me save us some time, the next 2,000 times you ask, the answer will still be no.
  • Have a parent text the guy – ‘don’t ask again’. Or send a text from her phone that says “This is ____’s dad, don’t ask again”.


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