Teen 'sexting' is part of the (too much) information age

Posted: Thursday, December 24, 2009

There must be parents whose years of raising teenagers to adulthood are perfectly pleasant and without problems. And then there are the rest, perhaps most, who find the experience quite trying and filled with trouble.

Kids are a joy no matter what age, but teenagers have unique abilities to tax parental understanding.

For those who are happily ignorant of sexting, it refers to sending explicit images through text messages on cellphones. Girls and boys send nude photos of themselves and others. Researchers say there are indications that it may happen more often among middle school students, when teens are beginning to explore sexuality.

"Please spend time discussing with your child the seriousness of sending, receiving and/or forwarding inappropriate photos of fellow students or anyone for that matter," Joros wrote to parents. He warned that sexting could be a felony.

It's one more way that the digital age has presented whole new challenges. As if teaching your child to have a healthy view of sex weren't difficult enough already. Now their cellphones, which have fast become a staple of teen life, make it even harder.

Of course, parents have to talk to their sons and daughters about this. A survey released Dec. 15 by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that 4 percent of cell-owning teens 12-17 say they have sent "sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos of themselves to someone else via text messaging."

Fifteen percent say they have received such images of someone they know.

Sexting typically takes place between people who are romantic partners or one of whom wants such a relationship, the Pew Center reported. The other typical scenario: One of those people shares the images with friends.

That last part is one more thing that teens and others must comprehend: Nothing that enters the digital world is private, and it can stay around forever. Ask Tiger Woods.

There is tremendous social pressure to participate in sexting, the Pew Center says. "My boyfriend or someone I really liked asked for photos," one girl said. "And I felt like if I didn't do it, they wouldn't continue to talk to me."

Time after time, other teens told Pew that sexting is "no big deal." That's always been teen talk for "don't get mad at me/grownups don't understand."

The Pew Center also talked with the parents of teens in its survey. The really bad news is that even strong action like periodically looking through the contents of their child's cellphone doesn't help. Teens whose parents do so are no more or less likely to send or receive nude or nearly nude images on their phones.

Still, something else apparently helps, according to the Pew Center. Teens whose parents restrict the number of texts they can send in a given period are less likely to use their limited texts for sending sexy images. Apparently, finding out who will be at the mall or at the party or other such valuable information is more important.



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