Kids think they have privacy when they send texts and Snapchats to each other. Enter sexting: Using social media to share messages, pictures or videos sexual in nature.
It’s bad enough managing your tech devices as an adult in the 21st century — try being 13. Voila! You’re a seventh grader — raging hormones and all — and your peers all have smartphones and know how to use them. Middle school marks the sweet spot of life, when boys and girls transform from children into adolescents, complete with acne, slamming doors, ups and downs, and the occasional sexting selfie. Say what? It happens. And as quickly as that indecent selfie is Snapchatted out it goes poof! Into thin air. But data is data … and the reality is, data never goes away.
Media is full of sexting stories among high school kids. Now we’re learning about kids sexting in middle school. If a high-schooler doesn’t realize sexting is risky business, what on earth can a middle-schooler know? The hard truth: In order to be ‘liked’ on social media, many kids willingly degrade themselves for someone else’s enjoyment. But today’s middle-schoolers were born into the digital age and exposed to technology and the internet very early.
What You Need to Understand
Parents know this: When you give a child a phone — and plenty of kids in third grade and up have them — you’re signing on for monitoring of his devices. A Smartphone in a kid’s hand provides the freedom of the wild, wild west. You think you can protect your child from the wide world of indecent exposure, but can you really? Experts say if you think your child would never “sext,” think again. Lots of kids are doing it willy nilly and they’re not the so-called “bad” kids. They’re the regular, come-from-a-good family kids who don’t know any better. And since sexting knows no boundaries, you owe it to your kids to know what’s going on.
How much are kids texting and sexting behind their parents and teacher’s backs? “It appears to be widespread,” says Bullying and Cyberbullying author Elizabeth Englander. “It’s engaged in by many kids who are functioning well and not having problems and it’s not very unusual or rare,” she adds.
Rob Zidar, a cyber-security expert and co-founder of Third Parent, an online security site, agrees. “Kids witness things like posting inappropriate selfies at an earlier age than parents might think,” he says. “In some cases, they feel a pressure to ‘fit in’ and emulate those actions.”
Just last month, Nashville’s Metro Sex Crimes Unit reported 90 percent of sexting incidents came out of middle schools from kids 11 and 12 years old. In fact, authorities say they are seeing a spike in the number of local kids sexting each other. As Tennessee seeks a way to turn sexting by minors from a felony to a misdemeanor (it has not been done yet) and other states work on similar legislation, days drift by with kids simply doing what they do with their phones and parents trying hard to trust that they are doing the “right” things.
Life at Home
If you have a preteen or teen, you’re probably no stranger to his closed bedroom door and silence on the other side. So do you know if your child has ever received or sent a sext? Before you say, “No, never!” plan on having a little talk about it with your child.
“The proliferation of cell phones, social media and apps among kids has changed the way they interact with each other and content online,” says Zidar. He believes early exposure to unsafe content leads to sexting.
At the Well-Connected Mom, a site specializing in simplifying technology for families, founder Lori Cunningham says parents need to have conversations with their kids about not degrading themselves.
“No matter how tempting it is to want to be ‘liked’ by someone, kids are degrading themselves for someone else’s enjoyment,” says Cunningham. As soon as you put a device into a child’s hand that has access to the internet and social media apps, you have to be on top of what your kids are doing.
“Phones are a privilege, not a right,” says Cunningham. “They should only be given to kids with the expectation that Mom or Dad will be checking it on a daily basis.” The truth is, if you give your kids a smartphone or an iPad and don’t monitor their activities, then why should you be shocked to find out he’s learned how to sext?
“Your kids can go into these things knowing absolutely nothing, having no idea of what you think is right or wrong, having no idea of the facts,” says Englander. “I don’t think in today’s world you can assume that they’re never going to run across sexting, they’re never going to see it, they’re never going to know it happens. That’s a big assumption to make.”
Staying Safe With a Phone
— Tell your kids not to send pictures of their private parts to ANYONE ever. It seems obvious, but a 13-year-old seeking acceptance isn’t thinking about consequences.
— Tell your kids all pictures can be saved with screenshots.
— Know that location settings are embedded in photos — anyone you send a photo to can use a GPS-based app to find your location — and they are accurate to within a few feet.
— Have regular conversations with your kids to know what they’re doing and what apps they’re using. The younger you start these conversations, the better.
— Let kids know “their” devices are YOURS and you will be monitoring them regularly. Say, “I love you and I’m going to watch what you’re doing.”
— Don’t lose your cool if you find something on a device. Anger may make your child less likely to share information with you.
— Make sure your kids know NOTHING is private on the Internet.
— Teach your kids some people online may try to trick them into doing things that will harm them.
— Teach your kids if you don’t know someone in real life, don’t let them follow you.
— Control your child’s app downloads by setting devices so only you hold the iTunes password.
SNAPCHAT A messaging app that lets users put a time limit on the pictures and videos they send before they disappear. Most kids use the app to share goofy or embarrassing photos without the risk of them going public. However, there are lots of opportunities to use it in other ways.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Data is data. The image that is sent never truly goes away. It’s possible to take a screenshot of the image before it disappears.
BURN NOTE A messaging app that erases messages after a set period of time. Unlike many other apps of this sort, it limits itself to text messages; users cannot send pictures or video. That may reduce issues such as sexting — but words can hurt, too. WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: It allows kids to communicate secretly. It may encourage risky sharing. You don’t have to have the app to receive a Burn Note.
WHISPER A social “confessional” app that allows users to post whatever is on their minds, paired with an image. With all the emotions running through teens, anonymous outlets give them the freedom to share their feelings without fear of judgment.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Whispers are often sexual in nature. Although it’s anonymous to start, it may not stay that way.
YIKYAK A free social-networking app that lets users post brief, Twitter-like comments to the 500 geographically nearest Yik Yak users. Kids can find out opinions, secrets, rumors and more. Plus, they’ll get the bonus thrill of knowing all these have come from a 1.5-mile radius. WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: It reveals your location. Some teens have used the app to threaten others making it a mixed bag of trouble.
Currently, in Tennessee anyone — regardless of age — who creates, distributes or possesses an image of a minor engaged in a sexually explicit act may be prosecuted under the state’s child pornography laws and if convicted, will generally be required to register as a sex offender.