Talking with young people about sexting is an important responsibility for adults

Researchers stress the importance of educating youth about the seriousness of sexting and other illegal online behaviors.

During the holidays, some young people will receive a cell phone, smartphone or other kind of electronic device that allows them to communicate with others using words, pictures and videos. Michigan State University Extension reminds you to consider your responsibility for helping these young people develop strategies for using these devices in safe and healthy ways, including talking with them about the issue of sexting.

Many young people (as well as many adults) are unaware of the serious legal outcomes that can result from sexting, which is defined as the electronic sharing of sexually explicit photos, videos or messages. Anyone, including young people who electronically sends, posts or possess nude or partially nude images of minors (anyone under age 18) may be charged with the production, distribution and possession of child pornography, all of which are federal crimes. 

While acknowledging that sexting is a serious issue, it’s also important to recognize that the vast majority of kids are not involved with creating, receiving or sharing these images. According to a 2012 study published in the Pediatrics journal, estimates about the prevalence of sexting have varied considerably depending on the specific definitions and activities involved. In the Pediatrics study, which involved a national sample of 1,560 young people ages 10 to 17, the authors found that one percent of youth reported appearing in or creating sexting images that could be considered illegal pornography. In addition, 5.9 percent reported receiving these kinds of images and very few reported forwarding or distributing these images. 

Although these findings were much lower than those in many reports that have received significant media coverage, these authors stressed that receiving and possessing potentially illegal images among young people is widespread enough that continued education about these issues is strongly warranted. It’s important to begin talking with young people about these issues before problems occur and as soon as kids are old enough to use electronic devices that could be used for sharing these kinds of messages.

In addition to stressing the seriousness of potential legal outcomes related to sexting, keep the following points in mind when having these important conversations with young people: 

  • Talk to kids in developmentally appropriate ways. Ask what they’ve heard about this issue and what their understanding about it is. Explain to young children that text and other online images should never contain pictures or videos of kids or adults without their clothes on or who are touching each other in inappropriate ways. With older kids, be very specific that sexting involves images of a sexual nature and that it is considered child pornography when it involves people younger than age 18.
  • Help kids understand that when these kinds of images are shared, there can be profound emotional, social and health impacts for those involved. There’s never a guarantee that these messages will remain private or that they’ll be deleted by those who receive them. Images can remain in circulation for years to come, potentially making them available to people like college recruiters or potential employers.
  • Help kids listen to their inner wisdom when they feel pressured to share something that makes them uncomfortable. Help them develop and practice responses to use in these situations. If they receive these kinds of images from others, encourage them to immediately follow up with you or another trusted adult.
  • Have conversations about the steady stream of media messages that portray girls and women using their appearance and sexuality to gain the attention from and please others, particularly boys and men. Encourage girls and boys to challenge these kinds of messages and to base their relationships (both friendships and romantic) on qualities that reflect the wholeness of who they are.
  • In addition to talking about sexting, emphasize the seriousness of cyber stalking and cyber harassment, which involve stalking or harassing another person through computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. Many states, including Michigan, have laws that prohibit these frightening behaviors and have used these laws to prosecute young people as well as adults.

Above all, don’t stop with one conversation. When these issues are the focus of media coverage, use this attention to check in about what your kids are thinking. Providing opportunities for ongoing dialog as kids mature will help ensure that they have the skills needed to communicate via technology in healthy ways.

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