Sexting and Your Kids: Strategies for Parents to Reduce the Risk

15 percent of teens say they have received ‘sext’ messages.

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Just 4 percent of teenagers admit to "sexting," or sending sexually explicit photos of themselves or others by cellphone. But 15 percent of teenagers say they've been sent nude or nearly nude photos, according to a new survey, so clearly somebody's not telling the whole story. With sexting so much in the news—even Tiger Woods's mistresses were sexting, for crying out loud, and High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens found her nude photos all over the Internet after she sent them to a boyfriend—those numbers will undoubtedly grow. Combine their legendary ability to make boneheaded decisions with the ease of sharing digital photos, and it's no wonder that teens can find themselves in a heap of embarrassment, or even legal trouble, for doing something they thought of as sexy fun.

"When I was about 14-15 years old, I received/sent these types of pictures," one high school girl told the surveyors for the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which just released the new data. "Boys usually ask for them or start that type of conversation. My boyfriend, or someone I really liked, asked for them. And I felt like if I didn't do it, they wouldn't continue to talk to me. At the time, it was no big deal. But now looking back, it was definitely inappropriate and over the line."

Parents are worried about children's inappropriate use of cellphones, but most parents try to control that by limiting phone time, according to new data from the C. S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health. In that survey, 68 percent of parents of preteens said that they limit their kids' phone use, compared to 50 percent of parents of teens ages 13 to 17. Limiting phone use is a great idea, but parents can do more. Here's advice from the experts:

  • Remind kids that all photos can go public. Explain to your children that there's no guarantee that images they send will remain private. The consequences can go far beyond embarrassment. Cincinnati teen Jesse Logan committed suicide in 2008 after a nude photo she'd sent a boyfriend was circulated at her school. And 18-year-old Phillip Alpert was convicted of transmitting child pornography for sending nude images of his 16-year-old girlfriend to her parents, grandparents, and friends after a spat. Alpert is now a registered sex offender.
  • Tell your children to delete images they receive. That helps remove the temptation to forward images in anger. And as the group Common Sense Media points out, sending nude photos is distributing pornography, which is illegal.
  • Block images on your children's phones. Parents can block transmission of images on their children's cellphones, but just 33 percent do that, according to the C. S. Mott survey. Cellphone service providers will block images for a $5 to $10 monthly fee. And entrepreneurs are working on new tools that parents can use to monitor children's use of cellphones and social networking sites.
  • Digital social life can be nasty; learn how to deal with it. Bullying and harassment have moved from the playground to cellphones, Facebook, and other social media. The site thatsnotcool.com has great videos that lay out strategies for dealing with pressure to send nude pictures or with boyfriends and girlfriends who harass via text message.
  • What's your strategy for keeping your teenagers safe in the digital world? Do you limit cellphone time or monitor their use of social networking sites? I recently wrote about a survey that found that teenagers are using social networking and sexting much more than their parents realize. So we could all use some good advice! Please share.