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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Sexting in the Digital Age: How Bad Is It and What Should We Do?

By Stacey Ross

Remember when we thought sex education was just about the most difficult topic we would need to deal with?  Well, welcome to the new age! Now we need to add a new unit called sexting, or the act of sending sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone.  While a common occurrence in the life of today’s teens, the behavior is not only risky reputation-wise, but also poses legal implications that are in the bigger scheme of things pose some great concerns among parents!

According to research published in the July 2012 issue of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 57 percent of teens had been asked to send a sext. Noteworthy is that most of the teens surveyed admitted to being bothered by the request, yet 28 percent of the students followed through and to tops also sent a naked picture of themselves through text or email.

What does the law say?

All 50 states have laws in place to protect children (minors) from exploitation through the distribution of sexually explicit images. If the law does not specifically address teen sexting, the child pornography law of the particular state covers the case, which can lead to felony charges and in some cases criminal charges. At least 20 states and Guam, as well, have enacted bills addressing the issue of sexting and minors since 2009.

What to look out for

If your child takes compromising photos: regardless if s/he is in them, distributes them, or takes them without being them, s/he can be held liable. The reality is that what teens might perceive as "consensual fun," can be considered a violation of child pornography laws which, if assigned, can be just as or even more damaging as the act, itself. This issue is yet one more area, along with bullying, that is just one of heightened parental concerns in this digital age. The good part about this is that it compels us parents to converse with our children in regards to dating, sexual activity and the use of digital media.

Serious business!

There are certain cases surrounding what many consider over-criminalization, resulting in what is considered "disproportionate punishment" (for example, consenting sexting teenagers labeled as felons and sex offenders). This is just one more reason that we as adults need to make really clear to our kids what is and what is not acceptable behavior, both on camera, and "behind the scenes" (if you know what I mean!).

Children who are drinking and driving, experimenting with drugs, sexting (all forms of risky behavior) are putting themselves at risk even more so today, especially when technology is comes into play.

This also plays right into social media posts and teens communicating with "new friends" (aka - strangers). Similar to the zero tolerance policies at public schools in which a kid is suspended due to having bitten away at a Pop Tart to have it look like a toy gun, the criminalization of consensual distribution of images tells the world that this is not something even worth (excuse the pun) flirting with!

Teen expert in the house?

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, co-author of Teenage as A Second Language: A Parent's Guide to Becoming Bilingual and the co-creator of the interactive website talkingteenage.com is an expert who specializes in issues relating to teens and parenting. When I asked Dr. Greenberg about today's sexting problem, she shared:

"It is a terrible problem. When teens text they feel anonymous. Hence things get much more sexual then they would in person. This is risky for a number of reasons...."

How risky, you might ask?

In contrast to other risky behavior that might be perhaps manifest into a one-time live-and-learn scenario, the serious consequences surrounding sexting involve the reality that the text and/or images that accompany it can resurface at any given time.  Once sent, there is no guarantee that the messages will not resurface.

Dr. Barbara Greenberg shared, on PsychologyToday.com: "You don't want these photos to fall into the hands of overzealous prosecutors - some states, including mine, have pressed charges on all of the teens involved."

Consequences for sexting are potentially very serious. "It's a felony in the second degree," says M. J. Donovan, lawyer for an Ohio teen charged with four felony counts. "It's the second highest felony in the state of Ohio."

In some states, the same consequences are applied, even when consenting teens are involved. Like it, or not. In many states, sexting teens might be required to register as a sex offender!

Well, talk about serious business; parents, as well, can potentially be charged for damages caused by their kids' involvement in distributing lewd images. While parents have the authority and responsibility over their minors, they have to submit to police family computers and cell phones if they suspect their child’s involvement in a sexting case. Not cool.

Meanwhile, it does not hurt to collect phones and tabs at slumber parties or even to consider uninstalling image-sending capabilities on certain kids' gadgets. Take some time to converse candidly with your kids and to build an open line of communication with them early on. You also might want to brush up on sexting acronyms (oh, boy...). OK, delete that! You might not want to, but would clearly have a better understanding as to the round-about ways teens text today if you were to.

Also, keep in mind that if, as an adult, you were to engage in some hanky panky online sexting (say a li'l afternoon spousal arousal), it might (or might not) come back to bite you (or really embarrass you) one day if, say, an uninvited party happened to stumble upon.....Oops! Just throwing that out there!

Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.

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