What Is Sexting and How It Leads to Bullying

Ideas for preventing teens from sexting

teen girl on a smartphone

Today's teens live their lives out online. They have no qualms about sharing the details of their experiences with their friends, family and even the world. Whether they are posting photos on Instagram, tweeting about a concert or sending countless texts, they thrive in their “always connected” culture. But sometimes being "always connected," can prove disastrous. Sexting is an example of how one click can come back to haunt teens.

Sexting occurs when kids take sexually explicit, provocative or nude pictures of either themselves or others and send them via text message. It is also considered sexting to redistribute or share those pictures electronically.

Although the images involved in sexting are usually vastly different from child pornography, some law enforcement officials have indicated that sexting violates child pornography laws because the sexting usually involves a sexual picture of minor.

As a result, the person sending the sexually explicit message could be charged with distributing child pornography in some states. And the person receiving the photos could be charged with possessing child pornography. Even school administrators can be charged with possession of child pornography if they hold onto the photos while investigating the matter.

Meanwhile, some states have passed sexting laws to address these issues.

The laws also help eliminate any gray area in existing child pornography laws.

Why Do Kids Engage in Sexting?

There are a variety of reasons why kids engage in sexting. But here are the most common reasons.

  • To show off. Teens, especially boys, believe that they look cool or masculine when they have nude pictures of their girlfriends. Sometimes they will even distribute what is supposed to be a private picture to their friends as a way to brag about their relationship. Other times, pictures are shared because of the entertainment value. People share the photos without any thought to how the person in the photo may feel.
  • To entice someone. Sometimes teens will send nude or sexually suggestive pictures of themselves to prospective boyfriends or girlfriends hoping to spark interest in a relationship. In fact, for some teens sexting has become a dangerous way to start or maintain a relationship with a significant other.
  • To prove commitment to someone. Couples will sometimes share sexually provocative pictures as a part of, or instead of, sexual activity. Additionally, research shows that boys often pressure or even bully girls into sharing photos. They argue that the photos demonstrate a commitment to the relationship. As a result, girls often worry that if they do not participate in sexting they will lose the relationship. Many go against their better judgment and send the photos.
  • To embarrass or humiliate someone. When a relationship ends, sometimes the partner with the explicit photos will distribute them out of revenge. The goal is to humiliate and embarrass the person in the photo because the relationship ended. Other times, bullies will hide in bathrooms or locker rooms and snap nude photos of other students without their knowledge or consent. They then distribute them via text to humiliate and embarrass the victim.

    How Are Sexting and Bullying Connected?

    Aside from the embarrassment and humiliation of having intimate photos shared with a mass audience, sexting can lead to social isolation, relational aggression, bullying and cyberbullying.

    Victims are harassed and tormented by comments, snide remarks and derogatory names. There also are usually rumors and gossip circulating with the photos, which compounds the pain victims experience.

    Dealing with these social issues, can lead to serious emotional and self-esteem issues. As a result, kids who have engaged in sexting often display the same warning signs as any other bullying victim.

    And in some instances may even contemplate suicide because the public humiliation is often so intense and so relentless that they feel hopeless with no other way out.

    Sexting also can result in unwelcome sexual solicitations, sexual assault and even violence. Once the photos begin to circulate there is no controlling who will see them. In fact, sexual predators have contacted some kids as a result of sexting.

    What Can Parents Do to Prevent Sexting?

    Talk to your kids about the consequences of sexting. Do not wait for an incident to occur to have the conversation. Instead, casually bring up the topic. Use television programs or songs as conversation starters. And try not to lecture your kids. Ask questions to keep them involved in the conversation. And be sure they know that they could get in legal trouble for sexting.

    Use new technology as an opportunity to talk. When you explain to your child how a new piece of technology works or what your guidelines will be concerning its use, be sure to include guidelines on sexting. Also, point out how to be careful using a smartphone or a webcam. For instance, kids should pay attention to how they are dressed before using a webcam.

    Talk often about digital etiquette. Kids may not always know that they need to be as kind and courteous online as they are offline. Stress that digital etiquette extends to email, text messaging, video chatting and social networking. Make sure your kids also know that anything posted online, sent in an email or included in a text can be saved and shared with others.

    Remind your kids that once an image is sent, they can no longer control it. Be sure your kids know that even if someone promises to keep photos private, this does not mean they will stay that way. Make sure they also get in the habit of thinking about each text message before they click send, especially those involving photos. Remind them to think about how they would feel if their teachers, parents or the entire school saw the picture or the message.

    Talk about the pressures to participate in sexting. Be sure your kids know that you understand how others can pressure them or dare them to send something inappropriate. Make sure they also understand that no matter how much peer pressure they receive, the social embarrassment and humiliation they may experience afterwards will be much worse.

    Teach your kids to do the right thing. Stress to your kids the importance of deleting inappropriate photos and messages as soon as they receive them. Be sure they know that if they have the photos in their possession they could be charged with possession of child pornography. And if they send the messages to others, they could be charged with distributing child pornography. Let them know that it’s also best to tell you or another trusted adult so that the situation can be dealt with immediately before it gets out of hand.

    Be calm and rational if you find out your child has sexted. It is never productive to berate your kids for a mistake. Instead, ask them what led them to make that decision. You may find that your child is being harassed, and that you need to take steps to help them overcome bullying. Or you may discover your child is in an abusive dating relationship and this is just one of many things that your child’s significant other has demanded. Once your discover your child’s motivation, you will be better prepared to handle the situation.

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