Sexting – The Digital Hickey?

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3141Sexting_320 For tweens and teens today, their cell phone is the ultimate, all-in-one method of communication. In fact, it’s more than that—it’s their connection to their friends, their relationships, their social status, and every little change or comment that may or may not have an effect on it.

To give you an idea of just how engrossed teens can become in their digital lives, researchers at the JFK Medical Center found that in 2010 teens were sending an average of 33 emails and text messages…overnight (read more here). A concerning statistic, sure, but even more worrisome is the increasing trend of sexting in the tween and teen community, and the frightening transition from nude photos to nude videos. But I’m optimistic, and here’s why:

Though I talk to my kids about issues like sexting and cyberbullying, and all the consequences that can follow, last night I asked my 17yo daughter a question I hadn’t asked her yet: Have you or any of your friends ever sent or received a text or email with nude photos/videos of someone you/they know? I told her I was conducting “unofficial research” and that her response would be anonymous.

I always make a note NOT to embarrass my children through my writing. I only write what I would say with 25 other people in the room. 

My daughter told me, and told me she was okay with me quoting her, “I don’t know a single person who has sent or received a text or email with anyone naked in it.” She said she’s heard adults asking her and her friends, “are those texts you’re sending ‘sexting’?” She said, “Nobody I know is doing it. Who would? That’s so awkward.” After her reply I said, “Really? NY Times is writing about it. Teens are being interviewed and they’re saying ‘everyone’s doing it’.”

While I’m not gullible, I absolutely believe my daughter. And to be honest I’m relieved to hear that not everyone is sexting, at least in the high school crowd.  But sadly, sexting is just too easy for our children, and the sexual nature of reality TV stars and pop artists doesn’t help.  In fact, I believe it has a major influence on the way our children perceive self-image or self-representation.  One can argue that sexting has been embraced by celebrities like Rihanna, Chris Brown, and Vanessa Hudgens—when instead they should be seen as positive role models in the youth community.  

Professional athletes are guilty as well—my younger boys are huge fans of Brett Favre. Although my husband and I have talked to our boys about sexting on a number of occasions, I’ve found myself explaining that even grownups make mistakes. Sadly, these are the same celebrities whose stickers are on our children’s binders and the same people they hear or see on the radio and TV every day.

However, not all tweens and teens are influenced by Hollywood’s young stars and starlets, and their reason for sexting can’t be applied to their favorite celebrity. Some have a deeper reason for sexting, and it ties into the one, basic question that most parents have: why? What’s the reason for sending nude photos or videos? I think the NY Times did a good job of addressing that question to the best of their abilities:

“The primary reason teenagers sext is to look cool and sexy to someone they find attractive.”

“Having a naked picture of your significant other on your cell phone is an advertisement that you’re sexually active to a degree that gives you status,” said Rick Peters, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for Thurston County. “It’s an electronic hickey.”

The NY Times took their “investigation” a step further and individually interviewed dozens of teenagers from New York and Philadelphia, asking them what their thoughts are on sexting, why they do it, and how common it is in their schools. The responses are interesting:

Q. Is sexting ever O.K.?

Kathy, 17, Queens: There’s a positive side to sexting. You can’t get pregnant from it, and you can’t transmit S.T.D.’s. It’s a kind of safe sex.

Q. Why do girls sext?

Zoe, 18, Lower Merion: A freshman girl doesn’t consciously want to be a slut, but she wants to be liked and she likes attention from the older boys. They’ll text to her, “Hey, hottie,” and it will progress from there.

Q. How are texts used differently from photos in sexting?

William, 18, Lower Merion: Photo sexting is done more in middle school when you just get this technology and you’re horny.

Farrah: As you get older, kids use raunchy texts more. They’re things kids wouldn’t want to say in person. But they can really send the wrong message.

Q. How common is sexting at your school?

Kathy: At my school, if you like a boy and you want to get his attention, you know what you have to do. When I was with my last boyfriend I refused to sext and I would go through his iPod and find pictures of girls’ breasts, and in weird ways that I never wanted to see. And they were all girls in my school.

Q. Did you know that sexting under 18 is illegal?

Saif: There’s a law? I didn’t know that. How would you catch somebody when everyone does it?


As you can imagine, the last answer “how would you catch somebody when everyone does it” gives you a glimpse into a few things:

  1. The lack of education in schools and at home about the (very serious) consequences of sexting. When it comes to sexting, you can be both the victim and the perpetrator as sexting laws categorize these images/videos as child pornography when shared or distributed between two minors. This, of course, isn’t even touching the privacy risks and cyberbullying opportunities that can follow.
  2. How popular sexting actually is. Remember, these interviews were only conducted in two schools in two different cities. This issue is nationwide, and the responsibility lies with the parents to educate and protect their children from falling victim to something as irresponsible (and dangerous) as sexting.
  3. The “everyone’s doing it” syndrome. This is something that we normally associate with drug and alcohol use, but should refuse to accept with sexting. “There is a widely held view that would make light of this [sexting] as a kind of an ordinary personal expression by teenagers between each other […] we need not normalize that type of behavior”. – Michael Fraser, a communications law professor from the University of Technology. (full article)

Parents, expect the eye-rolling that you’ll get from your teenager when you talk to them about sexting (I did!). Of course, they’re probably thinking “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” True, most parents DON’T sext, but what we do know is what’s good (or not good for that matter) for our children.

Even if your children are in elementary school, it’s not too early to sit down with them to talk about sexting.  Remind them that, ultimately, what makes them truly special isn’t their body; it’s their personality, their smile, their intelligence, their interests and their talents. Be candid. Be direct. Tell them you love them no matter what the answer is. Look them in the eye and let them know you mean it. I’m glad I did.

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  • Kids don’t realize that those cell phones are in their parents’ names and it can be construed as child pornography. We’ve explained to our teens that my husband’s job would be in jeopardy – his security clearances and polygraphs could be affected by pictures like that on a cell phone in his name…they don’t begin to understand the magnitude of the damage that behavior could create.

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