The first few links will pop up all of your familiar trendy magazine headlines, a few dictionary site definitions, and if you look hard enough you might find the few articles warning of the negative effects of Sexting. Which of these articles do you believe will appeal to your child?
When that special someone starts to text your child and the excitement of it all reaches a peak, how will they choose to express themselves? What will they do when presented with a request to engage in an explicit texting relationship? Will it make them a little uncomfortable and give them a small pause? And if they don’t know what a Sext is, will they go looking for ideas? This is the screen they will be looking at, and their eyes will have the opportunity to stop on “if you aren’t sexting anyone these days, you clearly aren’t part of the cool crowd-everyone is doing it!” If they continue their curiosity, they will open up the pages and read lines like “very popular among people of all ages” and “sending nudes or sexy texts is the new way to keep the spark alive.” What decisions do we expect our children to make, when the only information available to them comes from the flashiest headlines of the internet’s deep rabbit hole?
“I live literally in the middle of nowhere,” the girl told me. “And this boy I dated lived like 30 minutes away. I didn’t have a car and my parents weren’t going to drop me off, so we didn’t have any alone time. Our only way of being alone was to do it over the phone. It was a way of kind of dating without getting in trouble. A way of being sexual without being sexual, you know? And it was his way of showing he liked me a lot and my way of saying I trusted him.”
While often on the other side of the phone..
“A lot of girls, they stubborn, so you gotta work on them. You say, ‘I’m trying to get serious with you.’ You call them beautiful. You say, ‘You know I love you.’ You think about it at night, and then you wake up in the morning and you got a picture in your phone.”
“You wake up a happy man,” his friend said.
“Yeah, a new man.”
“Yeah, I’m the man.”
How do you feel about the girl after she sends it?, I asked.
“You can’t love those thots!”
Danah Boyd author of It’s Complicated, advises parents not to shut down accounts but to take a deep breath and ask questions. “Kids can have a million motivations to send a naked picture of themselves, and unless you ask, you won’t know whether the one that was in their head seems more like reasonable experimentation or something else”.
As parents there are some things we can do and conversations we need to have when we hand a child their first cell phone.
- Be honest and let them know you will be monitoring the calls and texts. Take note of who is in their contact list and make sure you know them. You don’t need to read each text but when a new number pops up, there is a dramatic increase in messages, or messaging at very late hours occurs check it out. Ask some questions.
- Familiarize yourself with Apps that are on their phones and create your own account.
- Share things that happen on your social media and create a dialogue so they are open and feel comfortable talking about it. Anything fun on Snapchat? Look at this meme that someone posted on my FB page.
- Keep your children’s computers/ I-Pads in a common area so that you can check on what your kids are doing online and how much time they are spending there. Set time limits to cell phone and internet use. And look for the following signs skipping or dropping activities, not eating meals, grades drop or they don’t want to go to school.
Ask your child if they know what sexting is. Have they ever heard of it or know someone who has done it? If they say no ask what they think it is and that will give you a starting point. Try to keep it age appropriate.
- If your child is young enough to not know what sex is but has a phone. Explain that they should never have a text of kids or adults with their clothes off or pictures of a type of kissing they have never seen before. And that if something like that shows up on their phone they need to let you know immediately.
- For your older children use the term sexting and give them specific examples of sex acts. It is important to find out what your teen thinks about sex and if they are sexually active. Tell them your expectations and values surrounding sex. Be open and create an atmosphere that will allow your child being open and feeling supported in making good decisions.
- Make sure that every age understands that sending pictures is considered pornography and it is criminal. Police and schools are taking sexting very seriously and have dire circumstances like expulsion, notes on their records that could affect acceptance into college, and even felony charges in some states.
The earlier you set boundaries and expectations for your children around social media and cell phone use, the better. If at age 5 they know they can only play the I-Pad for 30 minutes. There will be less arguing when you set limits on cell phone use. Research has shown that the abstinence only, slapping on a bunch of restrictions, and deleting accounts doesn’t work.
As a parent you need to know what Apps or Social Media they are using on their phone. Facebook and Tumblr are two areas often used for bullying or the spreading of gossip. Snapchat is an app that allows pictures and short 30 second videos to be taken and then sent to friends. The picture and video are supposed to disappear. The idea that what was sent would be lost shortly after sending created a false sense of security and became a hot spot for teens sending naked pictures to each other. However a capture screenshot is available on phones and soon those pictures were being saved and sent around or used as blackmail.
The conversations are not easy but they need to happen. It’s important that you are engaged and know what’s happening in your child’s life. Open communication will allow you to be one of the most important influencing members on your child’s decisions, and at the end of the day isn’t what every parent should strive for?