Teen "Sexting" Isn't All That Dangerous

Filed under: Opinions

Texting naked photos of yourself is stupid, but it's not the most problematic thing kids are doing online. For most teens, cyberbullying is a far bigger problem.

When I was a teenager, our parents worried that we were having sex, but they didn't think about whether or not we were taking nude photos of ourselves and passing them around at school. These days, though, kids are having cybersex at an alarming rate -- or so the media would have you believe. One recent study found that 20 percent of teens admit to texting racy photos of themselves to friends and classmates. School administrators argue that the numbers are far higher than that.

"Sexting" is a terrible idea, clearly, but is it really dangerous, or just stupid? Concerned parents and teachers say it is incredibly dangerous, putting kids at risk for all kinds of sexual attacks. That photo your daughter takes for her boyfriend could easily find its way onto the Internet, where crafty pedophiles have access to it -- and to your daughter.

At least, that's the claim.

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The reality, though, is that sexting does not make our kids any more likely to be targets of pedophiles. In fact, Harvard researchers claim that "the risks minors face online are in most cases not significantly different from those they face offline." In other words, most teens who wind up having sex with someone via the Internet were looking for someone to have sex with. The Web doesn't increase their risk; it's just a new place to search for partners.

The biggest danger kids face from the Internet and related technologies like video and cell phones is old-fashioned bullying. Over a third of teens report being cyberbullied. This kind of bullying includes threatening messages, having private emails or embarrassing pictures posted without consent or just general rumor-mongering. In this context, sending out sexy photos is still an incredibly bad idea -- not because it makes your child a target for pedophiles, but because it provides the cyberbullies with fodder.

And who are those cyberbullies? They're the same kids (schoolmates, neighbors, etc.) who were bullying long before there was an Internet.

So can we stop worrying about this whole "sexting" thing? Sort of. It turns out that unlike my high school peers, who just had sex, today's teens appear to be substituting sexting for actual biblical knowledge of other teens. Today's kids are actually having less sex than their parents were at their age, according to Kathleen A. Bogle, a sociologist at La Salle University. The number of teen virgins is up. Yes, teen birth rates have risen, but Bogle connects that to a reduction in contraceptive use, possibly affiliated with abstinence-only sex education.

So much for the Internet as a hotbed of teenage promiscuity.

Still, sexting is alarming to parents because it seems so extreme -- why on earth would your child send naked photos of him or herself to anyone? We don't want our kids looking at porn, and we certainly don't want them creating it, especially not with the cell phone we bought them.

What can you do to protect your kids? The most important thing is to talk with them. Explain to your kids that while you respect their privacy, you have a right, as their parent, to review their on-line communications and text messages if you think there is reason to worry about them. Also, talk about bullying, and make clear that they shouldn't be embarrassed about being bullied or put up with it for any reason.

And finally, if you're still fretting about sexting, make sure your kids understand that the Internet is forever, and that photo they think will be so fun to send to one person could wind up being viewed by thousands. A little embarrassment goes a long way.

Are you more concerned about sexting or cyberbullying?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.