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Sexting: A Disturbing Trend

Mar 28, 2011 | By Gillian FitzGerald

Picture message on a cellphoneSexting - the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically - has seen a dramatic and disturbing rise amongst young kids and teens, often with dire consequences.

Recently an article appeared in the NY Times about a young girl, aged only 14 years old, who had been subject to a particularly vicious and humiliating backlash from sexting a nude picture of herself to her then boyfriend. The picture, for his eyes only, had been rapidly shared amongst her fellow students, escalating into a nasty storm of taunts and slander. Moving schools, even districts, didn't help. Because it was only a matter of time before someone else received the photo and it all started again.

Horrifyingly, this is not an isolated incident. There are increasingly numerous stories in the press about young kids being bullied and derided by peers about intimate photos leaked on Facebook, MySpace and other social mediums. The consequences are immense - from victim suicide to criminal prosecuton of perpetrators - so one has to ask oneself how does this all come about and what can we, as parents or responsible adults, do about it.

Technology access and exhibitionist culture

Young girl textingSexting is incredibly easy for teens who have ready access to technology in their cellphones, tablets or home computers. Sharing photos, music and thoughts electronically is a regular way of life. The rumor mill has moved from huddled groups on the playground to any portable electronic device carried by a kid.

Add to that, we live in a culture that readily endorses and glamorises flaunting of bodies in an oft intimate manner, creating an environment that tacitly says to kids it's ok and in fact, cool to do so.
Look at Kim Kardashian. Her entire career was launched from a leaked (but highly celebrated) sex tape with her then boyfriend at the time. Pop stars Taio Cruz and Kesha urge in their recent duet, Dirty Picture, to "send a dirty picture to me. Snap." And not to mention the humorous 2010 Superbowl advert from Motorola which featured a naked Megan Fox musing about taking and sending a picture of herself while in the tub.

Lack of awareness

Besides the fact that teens are still young and emotionally immature, they often don't have full awareness of the consequences their actions may have - to themselves and to others - which primarily are:

Can result in a criminal charge
Sexting itself is not illegal. But when the subject matter involves kids under 18 years, it becomes reclassified as child pornography, a Class C felony in the States. So in the case of the 8th grader in the NY Times article, her primary perpetrators were literally arrested and detained in county juvenile detention centre. Technically the victim could have been charged herself, but prosecutors felt that she had been punished enough already. 

Can rapidly escalate to severe emotional and/or physical bullying
The trend to forward funny or compromising pictures and stories of others, commenting viciously without much thought, is pretty common online amongst kids and adults alike. You just need to read the readers' comments on the gossip section of the UK rag, The Daily Mail, to see supposedly mature adults tearing into each other and the current day celebrities.
The problem is that this practice snowballs and when unleashed upon an unsuspecting individual, becomes destructive and overwhelming. An unkind word from a classmate or two is bad enough, but imagine if it came from an entire school or social network itself. Add physical intimidation and it's not hard to see where a young, insecure person may be knocked down to the extent where they consider suicide as their only salvation.

What we can do to help

Mother discovering sext on child's phoneIt would be easy to knee-jerk and ban all potentially offending devices from our kids' reach. No cellphones, Internet, or TV. Unfortunately, this has little real effect.
Technology is ubiquitous and kids, being kids, tend to rebel against and pursue what is outlawed. Worse, even if you did sucessfully shield them from it, you may simply be creating a naivety that may lay them open to later abuse.

Talking to and educating your kids on the subject is a more productive measure. Pretty much, "forearmed is forewarned". Delivery is key. Avoid the stern lecture, which can encourage deaf ears. Rather try to position it instead from a perspective that you would hate it if it ever happen to them. Finding real life stores of what has happened to others is a good way to broach the subject.

The key things to make them aware of are:

  • It's illegal when you're under 18 years. Highlight that kids who have been caught have sometimes been sent to jail. Not something you want on your record.
  • It devastates the victim, to the extent that some have even committed suicide. Getting them to imagine what it must be like if everyone turned against them can be a powerful lesson of "do unto others".
  • Things online last forever. The great and disturbing thing about the Internet is that nothing dies in cyberspace. Employers regularly google their prospective employees online and the last thing you need is a compromising photo of you popping up from when you were 14. Likewise, once an image has been sent from a cellphone it cannot be retrieved and is available for forwarding to and by anyone.

What to do if your child's involved

If your child has sent any intimate photos of themselves, advise them to stop immediately, especially emphasising the fact that they are at risk of being charged with child pornography.
If they have recieved photos or images of the like, advise them not to send it on for the same reasons.
If the photo has gone viral around their school, report it to the principal immediately. Reporting directly to the police is another viable action, but do consider that while you may be trying to protect your child, you may also be incriminating them and another child at the same time.

Tags : Kids, children, child, sexting, mobiles, cell phones, trend

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