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Sexting: The cell phone's latest challenge for parents

  • Published
  • By Joe B. Wiles
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
Sending suggestive photos and messages via cell phone has a name -- sexting. And while it can have legal ramifications for adults, it can have life-altering consequences for teenagers. 

In Seattle this past year, two cheerleaders were suspended from Bothell High School when school officials received copies of naked pictures of the girls that were electronically circulating among the football players. 

According to CBS News, this past October, a Texas eighth grader spent a night in jail after a coach found a nude picture on his cell phone, sent by another student.

In January, according to the San Jose Mercury News, three teenage girls from Pennsylvania were charged for creating child porn and the three boys who received the images on their cell phones were charged for possessing it. 

Lt. Bryan Skaggs, with the Enid Police Department, says there is a lot more sexting going on among teenagers in the local area than parents know. Enough that the Vance AFB Airman and Family Readiness Center invited the lieutenant to the base to discuss with parents what to watch for on the social networking sites. 

Results from a survey conducted this past fall by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com, show that 20 percent of teens, ages 13-19, have posted online nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves. 

The survey also reported that 39 percent of teens have posted sexually suggestive messages. Of those teens, almost 75 percent sent the images or messages to a boyfriend or girlfriend. 

Sexting is difficult for parents to deal with, said Sheryl McMullen, Vance's sexual assault response coordinator or SARC. "They are often not as technologically advanced as their children, but they are going to have to get savvy," she stressed. 

According to Lieutenant Skaggs, when people receive sexually suggestive images of a minor on their cell phones and they forward them, they are distributing. The law is having difficulty keeping up with technology. The question is, who to prosecute -- the minor who took the images, the people who received them, the people to whom they are forwarded or all three? 

Ms. McMullen recommends parents sit down with their children and discuss sexting and its repercussions. 

"If someone sends you a sexually suggestive image of another teen, don't forward it. It is illegal; it is child pornography and you can go to jail," she said. 

The national survey offers the following five tips to help parents speak to their children about sexting: 

Talk to your kids about what they are doing in cyberspace. Just as you need to talk openly and honestly with your kids about real life relationships, you also want to discuss online and cell phone activity. Make sure your kids fully understand that messages or pictures they send over the Internet or their cell phones are not truly private or anonymous. 

Know who your kids are communicating with. Of course it's a given that you want to know who your children are spending time with when they leave the house. Also do your best to learn who your kids are spending time with online and on the phone. Supervising and monitoring your kids' whereabouts in real life and in cyberspace doesn't make you a nag; it's just part of your job as a parent. 

Consider limitations on electronic communication. The days of having to talk on the phone in the kitchen in front of the whole family are long gone, but you can still limit the time your kids spend online and on the phone. 

Be aware of what your teens are posting publicly. Check out your teen's public online profiles from time to time. This isn't snooping -- this is information your kids are making public. If everyone else can look at it, why can't you? 

Set expectations. Make sure you are clear with your teen about what you consider appropriate "electronic" behavior. Just as certain clothing is probably off-limits or certain language unacceptable in your house, also make sure you let your kids know what is and is not allowed online. 

"We need to do a better job of teaching our girls to be assertive when it comes to themselves, their rights and their boundaries," Ms. McMullen said. "If a boyfriend says, 'If you really love me, you'll take a nude picture of yourself so I can look at it all the time,' we want our girls to have the self-esteem and assertiveness to say, 'No.'"