The latest on teen ‘sexting’

Back in the days of passing paper notes and talking on corded telephones, a classmate of mine brought to school a nude photo of a young woman cut out of an adult magazine. Once seen by a few peers, the incident quickly mushroomed into full-blown, graphic stories shared during lunch. The news spread around school as fast as things could spread back then, via whispers in class and taps on shoulders in hallways. However, gossip about the incident vanished quickly once the photo was confiscated.

The new adolescent taboo is “sexting” — a disturbing trend defined as the sending of sexually explicit messages or photos primarily via cellphones. Technology allows texts and photos to be disseminated at lightning speed. Once a photo is in cyberspace, there is no control over what can happen to it.

Muddling through statistics

Studies show diverse results. Some studies show that approximately 20 percent of teenagers have sent or received sexually explicit photos. A 2011 study conducted jointly by the Associated Press and MTV found that sexting is far more prevalent among young adults (19 percent) as compared to teens (seven percent).

David Finkelhor, PhD, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, explains that many of the studies have higher percentages, because they survey teens who are at or beyond the age of consent.

“Our research, a national sample of teens under the age of 18, shows that about one percent of teenagers have been involved in sexting.”

Studies also show that most teens send these photos to their significant others. Parents have long grappled with the problem of teens risking their reputations to attract the attention of another teen.

“Parents have for generations tried to warn their adolescents about the risks in getting involved in sexual relationships,” says Finkelhor.

Low self-esteem and peer pressure are catalysts.

“When we combine a teenager’s poor impulse control, curiosity about sex, and their close ties to their high-tech phones, sexting becomes the ‘it’ trend in boy-girl communication,” explains Ida Zarrabizadeh, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy master’s program at Touro University Worldwide.

Dangers and consequences

According to the July 2010 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, “An 18-year-old high school graduate committed suicide after a nude photo she had transmitted via her cellphone to her boyfriend was also sent to hundreds of teenagers in her school.” Students who saw the photo allegedly harassed her.

Not only can nude photos be used to harass an adolescent, but some incidents might also be considered illegal.

“It’s unusual that kids are being arrested for child pornography. Where there were arrests, something malicious was going on,” Finkelhor explains. He says that most incidents handled by police are considered aggravated cases — meaning an adult was involved or a minor engaged in malicious or abusive behavior.

Parents should talk to their teens about real life, tragic examples of sexting gone wrong, so teens are acutely aware of the negative consequences.

It happened — now what?

“It’s easy for parents to become overly emotional. Parents can go through a number of emotions from anger, to disappointment, to sadness,” Zarrabizadeh explains. So parents should seek a support system of their own such as a spouse or trusted friend.

Take action immediately if you’ve found that your teen has been harassed or exploited.

“If an adult has been involved or there is criminal activity (blackmail or selling and distributing photos), parents should get in touch with police,” Finkelhor advises. If content has been posted on a website, Finkelhor says parents should contact the website manager and say that the photos have been posted without permission.

Zarrabizadeh believes that having an open, non-threatening relationship will promote mutual trust.

“Emphasize how important her safety is to you.”

Additional resources

Crimes Against Children Research Center (University of New Hampshire):

High Technology Crime Investigation Association: Internet Safety for Children Campaign:

Tips and tales

“My 13 year old has a TracFone with limited minutes. Until I know she can be responsible, I monitor what she is doing.”

— Lisa Phillips, Hyde Park, NY

“Parents should state very clear expectations with a written contract. Discuss long-term consequences with your teen.”

— Maureen Primrose, Wappingers Falls, NY

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Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist, and author of the newly released book, “LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS: Expert advice and support for the conscientious parent just like you” (Unlimited Publishing LLC). For more information, visit