New Rules of the Digital Age - Sexting
By Kristin Fairholm, Executive Director
Our adolescent years are not easy. Everyone will agree. Add the digital age to the mix and we are all playing a new game except we don’t know the rules - even the adults. What we do know: social media is changing the landscape. What we considered to be age-appropriate benchmarks for childhood development are shifting. A new normal is at this very moment creating itself. One where teens develop an entire life online. A digital life subjected to scrutiny, abuse, aggressive peer pressure, social dynamics and legal ramifications no one could have dare dreamed of fifty years ago.
What is the best move when faced with the unknown? Educate yourself. We work hard at Eyes Open Iowa to be your go-to resource for adolescent sexual health in the state of Iowa. And there is a reason for that. We believe in evidence-based information that leads to healthy family dialogue. Dialogue creates a door for prevention and informed decision-making among teens. While these conversations may sometimes be uncomfortable, teens and parents alike, should always remind themselves the conversations will always be more comfortable than the potential consequences.
A new emergence and alarming trend among teens has now emerged. The days of secret polaroids are no longer a thing whispered about among friends. The digital life teens are now living has brought to the forefront a new method of expression where the stakes are much higher.
Sexting is defined as sending or forwarding sexually explicit photos or videos of the sender or someone known to the sender via a cell phone. All studies point to an increase in this behavior across the country with prevalence increasing with age. Once a risque behavior associated with teens who are deemed to be sexually active and non-users of birth control, sexting is now found to be normalized among all teen groups. With 88% of self-generated sexual photos or videos being collected and posted online without an individual’s knowledge or consent, we have work to do and the time to educate ourselves and our teens on this practice is now.
What Parents Can Do:
1. Create a space for your child to feel safe enough to communicate their mistakes, fears and questions with you. If they learn to trust you with the small things, they will most certainly come to you with the big things.
2. Begin age-appropriate comprehensive sexual education in your home as early as 18 months. Give your child the correct language for their private parts. Teach good touch and bad touch. Give them lessons about healthy boundaries and bodily autonomy and privacy.
3. Lead by example, ask your child’s permission before taking their picture and before posting to social media, and respect their right to say no. And no matter how cute or how young, refrain from taking or posting any photos of your child naked or in the bathroom. Parents too, should remember that they lose all control over that photo once it’s placed on the internet. While your intent is harmless, you have no idea what others might do with that photo.
4. Discuss peer pressure just as you would in terms of drugs, alcohol, and sex. Help them understand the internet holds information forever, which means an innocent teenage mistake could follow them indefinitely. This should also include conversations about the pictures they take and share of friends, family and acquaintances. Again model, the need for permission before taking and sharing photos online.
5. Review the law with your child when it comes to social media. Most children do not know that sending a “sext” can lead to a charge of distribution of child pornography in many states. The consequences are heavy and can last a lifetime.
6. Help them understand that just as offline sexual offenses are statistically perpetuated by family members, acquaintances and intimate partners the same holds true for online sexual behavior.
What Teens Can Do:
If you are being pressured to send or forward a “sext” either of yourself or someone else, please ask yourself the following questions first:
1. What if you trust the person but he/she lost his/her phone?
2. What if a friend borrowed the phone?
3. What if a parent checks the recipient’s phone?
4. What if the recipient decides to change their mind about keeping your photo private?
5. What if your relationship changes with the recipient and he/she is still carrying your photo on his/her phone?
6. Am I okay with losing control of this image?
As humans we all want to be liked but please remember: Once you take a picture and send it, you lose control. Your privacy no longer matters or exists. Keep your control by keeping it offline.
To learn more about comprehensive sex education including sex and social media, turn to Eyes Open Iowa for the answers. For more specifics about sexting and dating abuse, please check out www.loveisrespect.org It’s never too late to make a healthy choice. Everyone deserves the right to keep their body private.
Download a copy of this important article The New Rules of the Digital Age about Sexting by Kristin Fairholm, Executive Director.