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Ask an Expert: Is sexting real, or more media hype?

Q. Is sexting really something parents should be worried about? Or another scary story hyped by the media?

A. I don’t believe the media even comes close to hyping the concerns about sexting. In working with teens and schools every day, I cannot believe how big a problem sexting is on a daily basis. Parents should be worrying about sexting and the consequences associated with it. Teenagers who talk sexually and send or receive naked or partially naked pictures are committing a felony of sexual exploitation of a child (child pornography).

Just because it is the teenager’s photograph doesn’t mean that he/she cannot be charged with distributing child pornography. Anyone who distributes a naked or partially naked picture of someone under the age of 18 can be charged with sexual exploitation of a child. Anyone who possesses a picture of someone under age 18 can be charged with sexual exploitation of a child.

I see these cases happening more and more with the popularity of cell phones. It doesn’t matter whether naked or partially naked pictures are distributed through computer or cell phone – it is still a crime to distribute them or be in possession of them.

I would rather parents and teenagers be educated than to have our teenagers facing charges sexual exploitation of a child. These cases can have long-term consequences, not to mention the fact that your son or daughter could be labeled a sex offender in the eyes of the law.

I do more than 160 presentations a year, many to teenagers in schools. I tell teenagers the consequences of taking inappropriate photos of themselves and sending them out over the Internet or via cell phones. I also tell them that these pictures will remain in the technology world forever. A teenager who makes the mistake of sending a picture of themselves naked or partially naked will remain that age FOREVER.

These images are like a bullet. They travel from one person to another very fast. Once sent, the damage cannot be undone. In telling teenagers about this in presentations, many still do not take my message seriously until I tell them about a 16-year-old teenage girl that I met.

This 16-year-old girl was your typical teenage girl, who I will call Sally to protect her identity. Sally had a boyfriend and was well liked at her high school. Sally’s boyfriend started asking her to send him a naked picture of her. Sally’s boyfriend was very insistent, stating that she said she loved him this would prove it. Sally was resistant, but knew other girls at her school had sent out their pictures. After a couple of weeks, Sally gave in and sent her boyfriend a photo of herself without clothes on. Sally told him, “Don’t show anyone.” Sally’s boyfriend told her he would not and told her he knew she really loved him.

You can guess how this story will end.

Two hours after receiving Sally’s incriminating photo, her boyfriend sent it to his two best friends. Sally’s boyfriend told them, “Look how hot my girlfriend is, but don’t show anyone.” They, too, said they would not. As you could imagine, Sally’s photo began circulating so fast that many students at her school saw it. So did complete strangers.

A couple of weeks later, Sally still had no idea that the photo was being circulated until she walked into school on a Monday morning. As Sally walked toward her locker, she saw the photo of herself taped to her locker. About the same time, her friends came running up the hall after having found 11 other copies of the picture taped up around the school. Sally was shocked, hurt and embarrassed. Sally chose to leave the school she loved rather than face the shame and humiliation.

When I tell teenagers about Sally’s story in my presentations, I can literally see the teen’s body behaviors change. Sexting is very common among our teenagers. Parents do not want to think that their precious child could do something like this. Today’s environment is much different than the one us we grew up in.

Some of the issues we face with misuse of technology by teens stems from the fact that many parents still recall what life was like when they were young and fail to understand what’s happening now. Parents must interact and talk with their children about the responsibilities associated with having – and using – technology. We cannot just give technology to our children without relaying this message.

Sexting isn’t a scary story hyped by the media. It happens to our teenagers every day.

About our First Person series:

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