A lot of sexting numbers have been tossed around the airwaves after four separate national studies. I'd go with the latest (last December) from the Pew Internet & American Life Project: 4% of US 12-to-17-year-olds have sent "sexts," 15% have received one from someone they know (see this for more). Why Pew? Because they focused on the age range and issue of greatest concern due to child-pornography laws in this country: 12-to-17-year-olds and photos – specifically, sexually suggestive nude or semi-nude photos, not sex-related text messages, which other studies included.
It's helpful to remember that there are two sets of concerns, here: legal and social, both deserving of respect.
First, keep in mind that what can happen legally depends a lot on the jurisdiction you live in and how police and prosecutors are applying the law to this bizarre legal conundrum where a child can be both perpetrator and victim at the same time. For example, students involved in a sexting incident in Perry County, Pa., where Susquenita High School is, received felony charges from their district attorney last year, while students involved in a separate sexting case in neighboring Franklin County, a different jurisdiction, were not prosecuted as felons. There are solid indicators that the tide is turning toward not treating juvenile sexting as a felony crime, but the possibility remains: People involved with creating, sending or even receiving a nude or sexually explicit photo of someone under 18 can be charged with production, distribution, or possession of child pornography.
A spectrum of causes
It's important for adults to keep in mind that sexting can have lots of causes – something that it seems law enforcement is beginning to understand, fortunately. The difference between parents and police is, we start with kids and adolescent behavior; police, rightfully, of course, start from the law. But, in some cases to tragic results, laws haven't caught up with kid behavior in a digital world. Sometimes the law can help, though: for instance if school officials confiscate and search student cellphones in states where a search warrant is required to search a phone as well as a home. The law may apply differently on school grounds, however. [It might be helpful for you or your PTA/PTO to contact your local district attorney and/or school board and find out what the law says about sexting by minors and searching private property, on or off school grounds, in your jurisdiction – just in case.]
The causes of sexting range from developmentally appropriate behaviors like "Truth or Dare" games gone very wrong ("I dare you to send a naked photo of yourself to the boy you like," says one 13-year-old to another at a sleepover – see this) to malicious peer pressure (popular boys pressuring shy girls in a "prank," an incident the mother of one of those shy girls emailed me about (e.g., this) to criminal intent like blackmail (e.g., this). In the Pennsylvania case I blogged about this week, the photo-sharing was all consensual – "among friends" – the girls themselves having taken the photos, I was told. But humiliation did become a factor on the girls' part, sadly; I can only imagine it kicked in very quickly.
The Pew study's "three main scenarios for sexting" are 1) romantic partners sharing images just between the two of them, 2) romantic partners sharing images of themselves outside their relationship (e.g., to show off, get revenge after a fight or breakup, and so on), and 3) the sharing of photo by someone who wants to get involved with the recipient – in a "flirting" or solicitous scenario. Most of this is not criminal behavior. I hope all adults, from schools to parents to police, will come to see that, as we deal with sexting incidents, punishment and prosecution are not the goal, but rather support for any child being victimized and community-wide learning in the areas of critical thinking, ethics, and civility (as well as restoration of order, if needed, so students can get back to being students).
What to tell your kid
What do you tell your child? If a sexting photo gets sent to a kid's phone, in most cases, he or she should just delete it. Certainly tell your child never to forward a "sext." At the very least that's truly mean to and disrespectful of peers; it also amplifies the problem and could potentially be seen as trafficking in child porn. Keep the conversation calm and supportive, get as complete a story as possible, and work through together how to proceed.
If your child came to you, that's great; you want to keep those lines of communication open because he or she may need a lot of love and support. Chances are, you're not the first to hear about the problem, and you need to be able to have as complete a picture as possible to help contain or stop harm to young people, especially the subject(s) of the photos. You may want to talk with the parents of other kids involved, but keep you child part of the process as much as possible. If you're not the first to hear, someone's probably already pretty humiliated, and that's almost certainly enough "punishment" – or better, enough hard lesson learning – for the young people involved. You don't want legal (or criminal) repercussions added on top of that for any child, not in the current legal environment.
By all means, help all kids understand the psychological risks, preferably and if possible before sexting happens, whether they somehow find themselves in disrespectful or abusive relationships or are floating in a "romantic" bubble of denial that says "maybe other people would share these private photos with anyone, but we never would." They must know by now that all digital media can easily be copied and pasted into the permanent searchable archive called the Internet! If not keep reminding them.
The key social concern
As for the very important social concern: An expert I heard at a conference recently said that, if you peel off all the legal and moral layers in these situations, once photos have been circulated, what you have left is violation of a friend's trust. That's tough for any human being of any age to deal with. Add to that the challenges of teen identity and social development, and these are extremely rough waters for a young person. That's why great care must be taken to support young victims.
This isn't about technology or some new thing under the sun. It's about learning to be respectful of one's self, peers, and community online and offline when surrounded by a pretty sexually charged media environment and tethered by phones and other devices to the 24/7 reality-TV drama of school life.
* To go more in-depth: "Sexting & Youth: Achieving a Rational Response," by Nancy Willard at the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use
* "We know that for teens the peer network is crucial in terms of their sense of who they are, the communities they build, the people they trust," said University of Texas Prof. S. Craig Watkins in his keynote at the 2010 Digital Media & Learning Conference (at about 45:18 in the video).
* "Kids need adults," said Philadelphia high school principal Chris Lehmann. "The world is bewildering.... The flow of information – you know, that drinking-from-the-firehose metaphor, it's happening to kids too. They need people to help them make sense of their world. But to do that we have to be willing to access their world.... If they're willing to let us into that world ... we should go there, and we should help them," Lehmann said in a talk at last month's TEDxNYed conference on the future of education.
* ConnectSafely.org's Tips to Prevent Sexting
* About the MTV study (released a week or so before Pew's last December), offering important insights on "digital abuse" and sexting
* About being tethered to "The Drama" of school life: "Parenting & the digital drama overload" and "Cyberbullying & bullying-related suicides: 1 way to help our digital-age kids"