Parents must confront reality of sexting

Those seemingly utilitarian calculators on teens’ phones might also be hiding a stash of private messages or sexually explicit photographs or videos. Tricky apps allow only the person who knows the passcode to access the secret pictures.

Messages and photographs shared via Snapchat, a popular social media platform, generally disappear after a short period of time, lulling many teens into believing it’s safe to send a sexy photo or two to their current love interest. But those Snapchat images easily become permanent via screenshots, making them ripe for sharing.

Welcome to contemporary teen life. Being a teenager today means those long-standing and painful facts of adolescent life — peer pressure, bullying and sexual exploration — are likely to unfold via digital means. Teens’ seeming inability at times to control impulses and their proclivity to make poor decisions can turn private moments into public ones as quickly as they can snap an image and hit send.

At the same time, too many adults remain digital novices or technologically naïve, making them unaware of the perils their kids face.

Many teens discover too late that their virtual lives have real-life consequences. In Stonington last month, five male Stonington High School students were charged with unlawful dissemination of an intimate image, a Class A misdemeanor. The incident involved the sharing of actual and doctored sexual images.

This is far from a Stonington-only issue, however. In fact, it’s probable this incident was neither isolated nor represented the worst of what might happen when teens’ digital prowess collides with coming-of- age inclinations and pressures.

A just-published research review in JAMA Pediatrics found 27 percent of teens reported receiving so-called sexts, defined as sexually explicit texts or photographs. About 15 percent said they sent sexts. More concerning was the finding that 12 percent of teens reported sharing a sext without permission from the person who sent it to them.

These statistics are evidence this behavior is happening in every high school, and probably most middle schools, in our region and elsewhere. Sexts are as likely to be sent, received and shared by so-called good kids as any other teen. That Stonington school officials and police became aware of this one incident means only that a student trusted a teacher and administrator enough to bring the behavior to the attention of adults.

Teens’ unfettered snapping and sharing can lead not only to criminal prosecution, as in this case. It is more likely to lead to unmitigated shaming, social isolation and even long-term mental health issues for the teens shown in photographs. Some digitally induced shame has been a prime factor in teen suicides.

With stakes this high, parents must step up to their responsibility to ensure both they and their kids are fully educated. Parents must educate themselves about the digital devices their children are using and understand how these devices can be misused. And just when they believe they are fully educated, they need to get re-educated because new apps, new social media platforms and new software is constantly introduced and existing apps changing and evolving.

Parents also must be sure their children understand some bleak realities: underage teens cannot legally give sexual consent; a person impaired by alcohol or drugs cannot legally give consent; a young person who shares an intimate photograph with his or her girlfriend or boyfriend is not inviting that recipient to share the photograph with the digital world; a person who shares an explicit message or photograph becomes legally culpable, and possession of sexually explicit images of underage persons can be considered possession of child pornography.

In addition, parents and schools have a responsibility to clearly and precisely inform teens about the consequences of their behaviors. Because of their status as juveniles, the outcomes of the cases against the Stonington teens will not become public. To help deter future behavior, however, adults should be clear about what punishments teens could face and, indeed, Stonington is now in the process of rewriting Board of Education policy on this issue to make these consequences more specific.

It’s often difficult for parents to see their kids as sexual human beings. Nor is it easy to frankly and openly discuss sexual activity. But good parenting is generally not easy, and sexual exploration, via digital means, is too ubiquitous and dangerous for parents to ignore.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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