By UCS Substance Abuse Coordinator Patricia Marshall
As a therapist that specializes in women’s issues, I am not surprised to note a new trend that is quite scary … “sexting.” Sexting is sending sexually explicit messages via cell phone or instant messenger. While this is most widely used among young people, as access to media increases faster than the speed of lightning, it is also being used by older people who are joining the world of online dating. Online dating, social media sites, and the You Tube phenomenon have skewed the boundary of “normal” to create a more complicated way to “date”. The days of cruising around in your father’s Thunderbird to pick up a girl are merely distant memories.
A recent Pew Survey has shown that one in five 14- to 17-year-olds has been involved in some type of naked sexting — either sending images of themselves or receiving them from other people. Most teens who sexted sent the photos to girlfriends or boyfriends, but 11% sent them to strangers, according to the study made public yesterday by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Cox Communications. Of teens who sext, 80% are under 18, the survey found.
I heard one client recently say that she met a boy online, dated him for six weeks, sent him photos of her in various arrays of nudity, and broke up with him — all after never having even met him. I should have been shocked, but the sad reality is that I was not. I hear this often, behind closed doors, by women of all ages.
Some people, including adults, do not know that sexting is currently illegal under federal law. It falls under the creation, distribution and possession of child porn and is a felony offense. While some lawmakers are working to change this, others are prosecuting both those taking the pictures and those possessing them. Laws to address youth sexting are in effect in 17 states. Another 13 states have pending legislation focusing on sexting.
Legislation passed by the Vermont Senate and pending in the House would remove the most serious legal consequences for teenagers who engage in “sexting.” The bill would carve out an exemption from prosecution for child pornography for 13- to 18-year olds on either the sending or receiving end of sexting messages, so long as the sender voluntarily transmits an image of himself or herself. The Bill, however, would not legalize the conduct. Legislators believe prosecutors could still use laws against lewd and lascivious conduct and against disseminating indecent materials to a minor.
- Education around the consequences of what happens once these “cyber photos” are sent out is vitally important, especially as a parent.
- Put up firm boundaries around cell phone use with your children.
- Another way to help is to invest the 99 cents for one smartphone app, TruthLocker. Every family should have it as a backup plan and a way to establish accountability. It saves texts, photos, Facebook and Twitter to a private and secure website that captures even deleted texts in real-time.
- Explain to your children that college admission officers or potential employers could end up seeing sext messages or photos.
- Make it clear to teens that the social and legal repercussions are endless. Sexting can lead to emotional damage, including one’s reputation, if an ex-friend sends it to others to make a teen look bad or as a form of revenge. Rumors, harassment and exclusion may follow.
Technology is a wonderful thing, but staying savvy at every level is important in an ever changing world. Knowledge is always powerful.