Parent alert: Sexting the new teen danger
It started out as a joke. Rachel and Rebecca (not their real names) took racy pictures of each other using Rachel’s cell phone, and emailed them to Rebecca’s boyfriend. What happened next was anything but funny.
“Those pictures went around the school like wildfire,” recalls Tammy Morris, a Douglas County juvenile probation officer. “The boyfriend sent them to everyone he knew. The girl was so harassed she finally had to move.”
Even here in rural Douglas County, the Internet revolution is requiring parents to become extra vigilant, local experts say. “Parents will call us and say they just discovered their daughter has been sending nude pictures of herself to some guy in Oregon,” noted Victoria Sauer-Lamb, chief deputy juvenile probation officer. “Or they’ll find out that her Friends list on MySpace includes a dozen men she doesn’t even know – they might say they’re a 15-year-old boy, but it could be a 55-year-old predator.”
“Sexting” (the transmission of sexual words or images) could be more widespread than parents realize. An Associated Press-MTV Digital Abuse poll in 2009 reported that nearly a third of the 14- to 24-year-olds surveyed had received some type of sexual text or Internet message. And 18 percent said that they had received naked pictures or video from another person.
The consequences could be serious. “Here in Douglas County, we’re seeing more and more crime reports involving inappropriate photos being taken by teens, and sent to other teens,” confirmed Thomas Gregory, chief criminal deputy district attorney. “The kids might think that it’s harmless fun, but in fact the electronic transmission of pornographic images of minors is a crime that could potentially land them in juvenile court. And the juveniles involved need to realize that they have no control of where those photos wind up next.”
Also on the upswing across the nation, according to a recent AP news report, is the relatively new phenomenon of “sextortion.” Teens who allowed themselves to pose for inappropriate photos may find themselves contacted by strangers threatening to publicize the photos or to notify the teen’s family unless even more explicit sexual images are provided to the blackmailer.
What can a parent do? “Talk to your teen about sexting, and the dangers that come with it,” urges Sauer-Lamb. “Remind them that anything that gets out on the internet is there forever, and you can’t take it back. Pictures, posts, and emails, however silly they are at the time, can come back to haunt you when you’re going for a job interview, applying to college, or even just trying to keep your head up in high school.”
Don’t be afraid to check your teen’s phone randomly, pull up their MySpace page, and verify what sites they’ve visited on the internet, recommends Morris. “If you aren’t computer-savvy, find a friend who is and get them to show you how. Computers and cell phones are a privilege, not a right. This is a safety issue, not a privacy issue.”
References: AP-MTV Digital Abuse Poll: http://surveys.ap.org (December 3, 2009).
“Feds: Online ‘Sextortion’ of Teens on the Rise”, http://www.nytimes.com (August 14, 2010).