Thursday, October 8, 2009 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Teen Sexting: Punish or Educate ?

Playboy's newly released 2009 College Sex Survey found that 49% of college students admitted to "Sexting" (having sent or received sexually explicit messages and pictures via cell phones). A survey conducted a year ago by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and found that 20% of teens (13-19) and 33% young adults (20-26) have "sent/posted nude or seminude pictures or video of themselves." Together, these two studies give us a sense of just how prevalent sexting is.

Since nude photos of minors under 18 can be considered "child" pornography even if taken and shared voluntarily by the minor, there's a very real possibility that minors will be prosecuted for common (if inappropriate) interactions with their peers under laws that were intended to prevent adults from exploiting children sexually. This is serious stuff indeed when one considers the dire consequences of being convicted not just of a felony, but a "sex offense." Depending on state law, "sexters" put on a sex offender registry may spend the rest of their lives on sex registries as social pariahs with difficulty in finding a job, housing, being banned from using "social networking sites," etc.

The study conducted last year offered some excellent advice for teens, young adults, and their parents. Perhaps we ought to spend more time focused on education than on criminalization. The tips are worth repeating here. First, for teens and kids: "Five Things to Think about Before Pressing Send:"

Don't assume anything you send or post is going to remain private. Your messages and images will get passed around, even if you think they won't: 40% of teens and young adults say they have had a sexually suggestive message (originally meant to be private) shown to them and 20% say they have shared such a message with someone other than the person for whom is was originally meant.

There is no changing your mind in cyberspace--anything you send or post will never truly go away.
Something that seems fun and flirty and is done on a whim will never really die. Potential employers, college recruiters, teachers, coaches, parents, friends, enemies, strangers and others may all be able to find your past posts, even after you delete them. And it is nearly impossible to control what other people are posting about you. Think about it: Even if you have second thoughts and delete a racy photo, there is no telling who has already copied that photo and posted it elsewhere.

Don't give in to the pressure to do something that makes you uncomfortable, even in cyberspace.
More than 40% of teens and young adults (42% total, 47% of teens, 38% of young adults) say "pressure from guys" is a reason girls and women send and post sexually suggestive messages and images. More than 20% of teens and young adults (22% total, 24% teens, 20% young adults) say "pressure from friends" is a reason guys send and post sexually suggestive messages and images.

Consider the recipient's reaction.
Just because a message is meant to be fun doesn't mean the person who gets it will see it that way. Four in ten teen girls who have sent sexually suggestive content did so "as a joke" but many teen boys (29%) agree that girls who send such content are "expected to date or hook up in real life." It's easier to be more provocative or outgoing online, but whatever you write, post or send does contribute to the reallife impression you're making.

Nothing is truly anonymous.
Nearly one in five young people who send sexually suggestive messages and images, do so to people they only know online (18% total, 15% teens, 19% young adults). It is important to remember that even if someone only knows you by screen name, online profile, phone number or email address, that they can probably find you if they try hard enough.

And tips for "parents to talk to their kids about sex and technology:"
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 that messages or pictures they send over the Internet or their cell phones are not truly private or anonymous. Also 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. 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. 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 2a.m.

Be aware of what your teens are posting publicly.
Check out your teen's MySpace, Facebook and other 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? Talk with them specifically about their own notions of what is public and what is private. Your views may differ but you won't know until you 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 probably off-limits or certain language unacceptable in your house, make sure you let your kids know what is and is not allowed online either. And give reminders of those expectations from time to time. It doesn't mean you don't trust your kids, it just reinforces that you care about them enough to be paying attention.

posted by Berin Szoka @ 7:05 PM | Books & Book Reviews , Free Speech