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Kids face real dangers with ‘sexting’

Local psychotherapist weighs in on children sending sexual content digitally

Posted: January 23, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 23, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Children texting, “sexting” and otherwise communicating via handheld device should be encouraged to talk, listen and engage in face-to-face, real-time dialogue with their parents, a local psychotherapist said Wednesday.

“It is really important that parents encourage dialogue,” said Dr. Elena Michaels. “You have to schedule time with your kids.”

Michaels was approached by The Signal to reflect on recent published reports that more and more children are “sexting” — expressing sexual activity through words, photographs or videos transmitted by cellphone.

It’s an emerging trend she’s hearing about from local parents, she said.

“They’re talking less and texting more,” she said of children. “They don’t talk to each other.”

A study published this month in the journal “Pediatrics” looked at the texting and sexual behaviors of 420 children between the ages of 12 and 14 with “symptoms of behavioral or emotional difficulties” in Rhode Island. Of study participants, 22 percent said they had sexted in the last six months, 17 percent had sent suggestive texts, and 5 percent sent suggestive photos in their texts.

Study authors said adolescents who participated in such messages were more likely to engage in other sexual acts than those who didn’t.

While sexting may not necessarily lead to engagement in sexual acts, it may be an indicator of such behavior. Research in 2013 from the Guttmacher Institute claims that teens now are waiting longer to have sex than those in the recent past.

From 2006 to 2008, 11 percent of 15- to 19-year-old teenage girls and 14 percent of males of the same age had sex before they were 15 years old; that’s compared to 19 and 21 percent of 15- to 19-year-old girls and 15- to 19-year-old boys, respectively, in 1995 who had sex before age 15.

Teens who engage in sexual acts may be practicing safer sex, too. The teen birth rate in Rhode Island experienced a 52 percent decrease from 1991 to 2011, according to the Office of Adolescent Health.

But authors of the “Pediatrics” study warned sexting can become dangerous.

“Although adolescents may be more digitally savvy than their parents, their lack of maturity and inattention to consequences can quickly lead to serious negative outcomes,” they wrote.

Sexting poses dangers to both the sender and receiver, as it can spur bullying, or be classified as child porn, among other problems. Authors suggest starting the discussion about appropriate digital and sexual behaviors before adolescence.

Parents can also monitor their children’s phone and Internet use to curb bad digital behaviors.

In fact, Michaels insists the Santa Clarita Valley parents she sees learn who their children are texting.

“They’re just too young and they don’t know what they’re doing,” she said.

Michaels counseled one family concerned about their 10-year-old daughter’s online habits.

“I actually have concerns about some specific sites,” she said, referring some virtual property-building sites. “They’re game sites and the kids think they’re playing with other kids.

At one site, she said, the girl was offered extra game points if she would send a picture of herself with her shirt off to the other gamer. She did so and earned more credits, Michaels said.

“Parents must know who their children are interacting with,” Michaels said.

Deseret News Service contributed to this story.
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