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Gone are the days of 'LOL'

What teens and parents need to know about the practice of 'sexting'

Posted: March 27, 2009 12:16 a.m.
Updated: March 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Tap, tap, tap and the frenzy of flying thumbs. Did you know that 45 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds, about 11 million teens, own cell phones? According to Pew Internet Research, a third of those teens use their phones to text others. Researchers say nationally more than 75 billion text messages are sent a month and the most enthusiastic texters are 13 to 17 years old.

Texting has been a preferred system of communication between teens for a while, especially when parents are around and because of its stealth nature. Since our teens will never be without the "anywhere, anytime" communication cell phones offer, we need to help teens make responsible decisions about their cell phone use.

Most parents know little about who their children text or what is being said. "IMEZRU" read this out loud, letter by letter, and you find that it means what it sounds like, "I'm easy, are you?" The latest use of cell phones by their teenage owners has gone from texting to sexting. This new mode of teen communication goes beyond "Hi how are you?"

Sexting ranges from sending flirtatious messages to describing a sex act or even sharing sexually appealing or nude photos. In many instances when teens are too shy to begin relationships, texting is often an "opening line" and the beginning of a relationship, "I like you, do you like me?" so there is no rejection. However, in many instances it has evolved beyond the innocence of "I like you, do you like me?"

As a high-risk teen counselor, I have the privilege of engaging in conversations with teens about all sorts of topics. Jillian, 17, said sending sexual messages and images is so common that most teens don't even think twice before hitting the "send" button. Allan, 15, said his cell phone is his "personal space" and he doesn't want his parents spying on him without a good reason, but many parents would be shocked to learn teens often send sexual content over cell phones.

Justin, 17, believes many teens send sexual messages and images to get noticed or to be flirtatious, but said sharing sexual content over cell phones and the internet can sometimes come back to haunt you. Sharon, 16, said she is shocked most teens don't understand sexual messages and images will be shared with people for whom they were not originally intended. She said teens don't think about the real consequences of sending sexual content and like sex, most teens do it in the "heat of the moment."

According to a survey commissioned by the National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.Com, in 2008, one in five teen girls and 11 percent of teen girls ages 13 to 16 years old said they have electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude images of themselves. These racy images are also getting passed around; one-third of teen boys and one-quarter of teen girls said they have had nude/semi-nude images originally meant to be private shared with them.

Fifteen percent of teens who have sent sexually suggestive content such as text messages, e-mail, photographs or video said they have done so with someone they only know online.

Teen girls are not the only ones sharing sexually explicit content. Almost one in five teen boys said they have sent or posted nude/semi nude images of themselves. One-third of young adults, 36 percent of women and 31 percent of men ages 20 to 26 said they have sent or posted such images. What teens and young adults are doing electronically seems to have an effect on what they do in real life. Nearly one-quarter of teens admit that technology makes them personally more forward and aggressive. More than one-third of teens said exchanging sexy content makes dating or hooking up with others more likely and nearly one-third of teens believe those exchanging sexy content are "expected" to date or hook up.

From the latest social networking sites to the hottest new cell phones, it is evident teenagers have adopted well to new and changing technologies. While being tech savvy is positive, there is a negative side as well. It's important for teens to understand there are consequences of their behaviors and parents need to provide them with guidance and encourage them to make smart choices. However, parents must understand their notions of what's public, what's private, and what's appropriate, may differ greatly from how teens and young adults define what's public, what's private, and what's appropriate.

Other findings from the survey include:

n Sending sexually suggestive messages is more prevalent than sending nude/semi-nude images. Nearly half of young people have sent sexually suggestive text messages or e-mail messages to someone.

n Even more have received sexually suggestive messages - 48 percent of teens and 64 percent of young adults. Fully one-third of young teen girls (ages 13 to 16) have received sexually suggestive messages.

n Teen girls who have sent or posted sexually suggestive content provide a number of reasons why: Two-thirds said they did so to be "fun or flirtatious," half did so as a "sexy present" for their boyfriend, and 40 percent as a "joke."

n Even though nearly three-quarters of young people said sending sexually suggestive content "can have serious negative consequences," nearly one-quarter said sending sexually suggestive content is "no big deal."

Talk with your teen
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 sex and relationships, you also want to discuss online and cell phone activity. Make sure your kids fully understand messages or pictures they send over the Internet or their cell phones are not truly private or anonymous. Make sure they know that others might forward their pictures or messages to people they do not know or want to see them, and that school administrators and employers often look at online profiles to make judgments about potential students/employees. It's essential that your kids grasp the potential short-term and long-term consequences of their actions.

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. 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 part of your job as a parent. Many young people consider someone a "friend" even if they've only met online. What about your kids?

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. Consider, for example, telling your teen to leave the phone on the kitchen counter when they're at home and to take the laptop out of their bedroom before they go to bed, so they won't be tempted to log on or talk to friends at 2 a.m.

Be aware of what your teens are posting publicly. Check your teen's MySpace, Facebook and other public online profiles from time to time. You are not snooping, this is information your kids are making public. If everyone else can look at it, why can't you? Talk specifically about what they believe is public and what is private. Ask, listen and discuss.

Set expectations. Make sure you are clear with your teen about what you consider appropriate "electronic" behavior. Just as certain clothing is off-limits or certain language unacceptable in your house, make sure you let your kids know what is and is not allowed online. Remind them about your expectations. It doesn't mean you don't trust your kids, it reminds them you care about them enough to pay attention and set boundaries.

Cary Quashen is a high-risk teen counselor and certified addiction specialist. He is the founder and president of ACTION Parent & Teen Support Group Programs and the ACTION Family Counseling Centers. Quashen may be reached at (661) 713-3006. The ACTION Hotline number is 1-800-FOR TEENs. The ACTION Parent & Teen Support Group Program meets at Saugus High School on 7 p.m. Tuesday evenings, in the Q building.


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