pediatric housecalls Robert R. Jarrett M.D. M.B.A. FAAP

Sexting and Risky Teen Behavior

Perhaps the majority of the readers of this blog are parents and perhaps only a few teenagers visit. With that understanding, this post is about a topic which none of us parents had to even think about while growing up but which we better now, if we know what’s good for us – and our kids.

“Sexting” is the media’s “designer” word for when individuals take their sexual activities onto their cell phones or computers. If you “text message” someone about anything regarding sex it’s called sexting; but, due to technology advances the message no longer is limited to mere text, photo’s and even movies can easily be included.

I’d like to: a) make you aware of the issue and prevalence and what it means; and, b) give you some lead-in talking points to make it easier to engage your teen in a simple discussion. This, in addition to describing a recent study in the California school system and its findings.

If I am right now describing something you hadn’t heard of before then you’ve got some catching up to do. But, don’t beat yourself up about it because even now probably the majority of parents either haven’t heard of it or just don’t have a clue how prevalent it has become. Hence, the need for and timeliness of the studies.

We already know from prior studies in the countries schools that 20 percent of teenagers (22 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys) have either sent or posted naked or seminude images of themselves online or in cell messages. Another survey revealed nearly one in six 12 to 17 year olds, who own cell phones, have received naked or nearly nude pictures via text message from someone they know.

teen boy sexting on his phoneJuvenile sexting is definitely increasing in frequency. Nearly 2,000 high-school students in the Los Angeles California school system were studied in 2011 and finally reported about in the medical literature in 2012. This study correlated sexting behavior with actual sexual activity.

Three-fourths of the 2,000 students owned a cell phone which they used regularly, most were latino (normal school system demographic), one out of seven (15%) had sent a sexually-explicit text message or photo and sexters were 700% more likely (seven times) to engage in risky sex behaviors.

Similarly, in Houston Texas, they found that 25% of teens had sent a naked photo of themselves through text message or email – and they also were much more likely to be having risky sex. Girls in particular who’d sent naked photos were more likely to engage in risky sex, to have had multiple recent sex partners, or to use alcohol and drugs before sex.

And in addition the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 40% of teens with a cell phone admitted that they’d had sex, and about two-thirds used a condom the last time they did.

There are clearly regional and demographic differences but just as clearly no matter where or how the study is done they are finding that: the incidence is WAY more than most parents think, WAY more than they want and is definitely NOT going away but is on the increase.

Is it any surprise to you that sexting appears to be a reflection or an indication of actual sexual behavior or that what children do in their offline lives is what they do in their online lives? Now, research is underway to determine what other behaviors or personality traits sexters have, who is most likely to sext and which comes first, sexting or sex.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, in addition to the complete “no-brainer” aspect of what risks an emotionally-driven, immature decision-making, pre-marital-sex-having teen can face, there is the overwhelming life-limiting spin-off – police all over the country are charging such “perpetrators” with pornography!

boy and girl sextingTeens may think they know their “friends” better than we do BUT there is only a handful of people on the entire earth that they can truly trust to NOT put their photos on the internet and it is NOT their friends – it’s a close relative, the very persons who they would not want to even see them!

For example: Fifteen-year-old boy and girlfriends were sentenced in juvenile court for consensually possessing and sending nude photos on their cell phones; the girl sent a picture of herself to the boy, and another image allegedly was taken on his camera; A 15-year-old boy received 12 months of probation for forwarding a picture of his private parts to a 13-year-old girl’s cell phone; an 18-year-old high school graduate committed suicide after a nude photo she had transmitted via her cell phone to her boyfriend also was sent to hundreds of teenagers in her school. Other students, who apparently continued to forward the image, unrelentingly harassed the girl.

What to do

You’ve got to figure out a way to bring the topic up in a discussion with all of your teens. There is always some so-called “celebrity” or “politician” somewhere in a scandal of this kind. Use that as a spring-board into an off-handed conversation similar to:

teen boy sexting in back alley– “Do you know anyone who has ever gotten stung by sexting?”
– “If [name the hottest boy/girl in their class] became your friend and asked you to send a nude photo to them, would you be tempted?”
– “If someone you knew underhandedly got a nude photo of you and posted it for others to see, what do you think would happen – besides making you feel like crap?”
– “Is there anyone in your school who you could be absolutely sure wouldn’t pass on a photo like that of you?”

The police, legal, crowd-bullying and non-erasable-internet consequences of sexting are just so horrific and of such overwhelming magnitude that you just must talk to your teens about this! Even if you don’t think they will listen. And, even if you get the worlds worst eye-rolling treatment.

This is so important that a mandatory requirement of getting their first cell phone should be receiving “the talk” like I’ve described above and hearing at least one time in their lives the advice that I’ve listed below.

[Pediatrics, 2012.]

Advice for Young People

Boy with parents hearing about sexting– Think about the consequences of taking, sending, or forwarding a sexual picture of yourself or someone else underage. You could get kicked off of sports teams, face humiliation, lose educational opportunities, and even get in trouble with the law.

– Never take images of yourself that you wouldn’t want everyone—your classmates, your teachers, your family, or your employers—to see.

– Before hitting send, remember that you cannot control where this image may travel. What you send to a boyfriend or girlfriend easily could end up with their friends, and their friends, and their friends.

– If you forward a sexual picture of someone underage, you are as responsible for this image as the original sender. You could face child pornography charges, go to jail, and have to register as a sex offender.

– Report any nude pictures you receive on your cell phone to an adult you trust. Do not delete the message. Instead, get your parents or guardians, teachers, and school counselors involved immediately.

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