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How to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting

Parents need to talk to their teenagers about the severity of sending explicit texts, even if it's an uncomfortable conversation for both parties. asiseeit/Getty Images

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Bae u BMS. TDTM - u like Hentai? (No. That's not a typo.) While that message may look like gibberish to you, it probably makes total sense to young teen texters. That's because it's teen slang — or coded language — commonly used by teenagers in texting. (Oh, if you're curious, that coded message means something close to "Lover you break my scale. Talk dirty to me. Do you like anime porn?")

We assume much of this language is harmless, though, and is likely used by kids to get around prying eyes of parents. But what if it's not? What happens when simple slang leads to more suggestive texts, like using emojis to suggest sexual acts (eggplants plus water droplets) or even eventually to sending nude photos? That's where we are parents. Welcome to the perilous world of teens and sexting.

The ACLU Washington defines sexting as "the practice of creating, sending and/or posting sexually suggestive images or video via mobile phone, email or over the internet." These are often shared between couples or people who are dating, and are typically sent consensually. But when teens send or view these types of sexually explicit texts, the messages can be considered child pornography, and land them in serious legal trouble — even on the sex offender registry for life.

The Digital Age of Childrearing

A 2018 research review on minors and sexting published in JAMA Pediatrics found that 15 percent of teens have sent a sext while 27 percent have received one. The analysis was comprehensive and included a review of 39 studies with 110,380 participants, total. What's most concerning from the findings is 12 percent of teens said they've forwarded a sext without the permission or knowledge of the sender, and 8 percent of teens said their sexts had been passed on without their permission.

J. Tom Morgan, professor of criminal law at Western Carolina University and author of "Ignorance is No Defense: A Teenager's Guide to Georgia Law," says typically the No. 1 violator of sexting laws is 13-year-old females.

States are trying to catch up. By 2015, 20 states had passed laws to reduce laws related to sexting among minors, and while some of these consider it a misdemeanor offence, sexting in a more visual form — sending explicit photographs — can come with that charge of child pornography. Before Georgia changed its law in 2013, minors sending explicit photos of themselves could be sentenced to between five to 20 years in prison, and up to $100,000 in fines. Today, a 14-year-old in Georgia committing the same offense would typically be charged with a misdemeanor.

But that's not the situation everywhere. Consider the case of a 14-year-old Minnesota girl who sent explicit photos of herself to a boy at her school via Snapchat. The boy shared them with others at the school, and the selfie-taking girl was charged with felony distribution of child pornography, which could have put her on the registered sex offender list for up to 10 years if she was convicted. Thankfully, her case was dismissed by the judge who said prosecuting teens for sexting was not the intent of the state's child pornography law.

Clearly, the legal details and ramifications are more than many of the youthful "offenders" can comprehend. For parents hoping to protect their teens and tweens, having the important discussion, or better yet, an ongoing conversation about the ins and outs of safe cell sexting is the 21st-century version of the birds and the bees. For both parties, it's likely to be just as embarrassing.

What Parents Should Know

As a parent, the first step is to get informed. Laws about sexting, child pornography and even what constitutes "nudity" vary by state. Morgan recommends talking to a lawyer or doing online research, but warns that finding and interpreting the statutes can be difficult.

Parents also need to understand that this is a criminal offense involving children for which the state can pursue charges without a parent's approval. Schools are also mandated reporters so that if a teacher sees something on a student's mobile device, he or she is required to notify the administration and authorities. Parents should know (and teach their children) that not realizing one of the parties is under 18 is not a legal loophole.

"What happens often is that one person shares it with another person, and that person gets caught," Morgan says. "And they trace it back." Being the one on the receiving end of a sext doesn't make a teen innocent either. "[He or she] can be charged with felony possession and distribution" of child pornography if the image is not immediately deleted, Morgan says.

While teenage girls love to take selfies, they could be completely unaware of the dangers of sending explicit images via text.
CasarsaGuru/Getty Images

When to Start the Conversation

"The uncomfortable conversations need to happen, and they need to happen earlier than you think," says Titania Jordan, chief parent officer at Bark, a parental monitoring app. "Before you think your child has encountered it, they probably have." A 2018 Bark study found that 55.9 percent of tweens and 72.1 percent of teens encountered nudity of content of a sexual nature, (though not necessarily via text).

Even though it may seem like a stretch to go from texting a "suggestive" eggplant emoji to hitting send on a nude photo, the coded words, acronyms and emojis should still be concerns of parents, Jordan says. She recommends starting by talking to young children about what they could encounter online and explaining that there are good pictures and bad ones.

How to Make the Danger of Sexting Real

While it may be difficult to acknowledge that long before the age of 18, children can have sexual feelings, "getting past the shame part of it and addressing it in a very clinical way" can help, she says. For tween and teen girls, parents and caregivers need to instill the power to say no. They don't ever have to send nude photos to boys. Ever. Jordan suggests finding real-life examples online and showing kids what has already happened to other children.

"Conversations around the digital footprint are ones that parents today need to have with their children," Jordan explains. "What goes online lives online forever." She also advises paying attention to behavioral clues, which are similar to those for mental illness: a teen hiding their phone, deleting messages right away, being agitated, a drop in grades, truancy, a loss of appetite, loss of interest or change in weight.

Finally, because children may not be able to truly grasp the seriousness and permanency of sexting, don't give them a smartphone without a safety provision. "They know how to hide things from you," Jordan says. The American Academy of Pediatrics even suggests collecting cell phones at gatherings of middle and high school children to reduce peer pressure.

Once your child reaches high school or even age 18, that doesn't mean the conversations should end. Imagine an 18-year-old high school senior receiving nude selfies from his 16-year-old girlfriend. Even though the age of consent in many states is 16, child pornography laws apply to those under age 18. So keep talking. Keep warning of the consequences.

"Don't be judgmental," Morgan says. "Don't be accusatory." Instead, start a conversation with, "Hey I read this in the paper" or "I saw this online. Did you know this?"

"We tell our kids not to drink and drive," he says. "You need to tell kids, 'This is the law. You can have a serious impact on the rest of your life.'"

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