Thirty-nine percent of teenagers have sent or posted sexually suggestive messages, according to a survey done by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. We're talking about texts, emails and social media that may or may not include videos and pictures.
The survey also found that 21 percent of teen girls and 18 percent of teen boys have sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves.
Sound unbelievable? Well, a quick check of recent sexting cases pulls up more than you would want to know about.
Last spring, detectives in Indiana caught dozens of middle and high school students with inappropriate pictures of fellow students on their phones. In Connecticut last year, 50 high school kids were sharing explicit videos and photos of other students. Three boys are even suspected of selling access to the images and videos. They are now charged with possessing and distributing child pornography.
Most states haven't quite kept up with the times and don't have specific laws dealing with sexting. Only 20 states have passed legislation to differentiate the crime of minors sending nude photos and videos of themselves and other minors, compared to an adult doing the same.
The Cyberbullying Research Center notes that Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia have varying versions of sexting laws (you can see full details here).
That means the majority of states that don't have updated statues often fall back on child pornography laws that could land a teenager in prison for 15 years and require them to be listed on sex offender registries for the rest of their lives.
My fifth-grader's middle school just had a presentation about this, pointing out to students just how serious sexting can be. They also made sure the kids realized they can get in big trouble for even looking at such images, let alone taking them, having them on their phones or sending them out to one another.
So it's time parents talk with their children about sexting — what it is and why it's so dangerous. How detailed you get will, of course, depend on the age and maturity of your child, but be open. It's likely that they know more than you think they do.
Sexting is sending sexually suggestive or explicit photos, videos or messages to someone else. It's dangerous for many reasons. First is the criminal implications I've already mentioned. Second is the correlation the journal Pediatrics found that suggests teens who sext are at an increased risk of becoming sexually active about a year afterward. There is also the danger (and frankly the likelihood) that any image sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend — which is how sexting often starts — will not stay private.
We all know that nothing is ever truly erased from a phone or the internet. Explain that we can never really know where a photo or video might end up. Remind kids never to text or post anything they wouldn't want posted on a neighborhood billboard.
Parents should be informed. There's a whole secret language to sexting. Some communication comes in the form of emojis (which I've written about before and you can read here), and there's also a texting shorthand that comes into play.
The company Bark has a safety app that can give parents warnings when it detects kids are using possibly inappropriate words or content. It has a full list of text slang here, but I'll just list a few:
53X = a way to write the word sex
LH6 = let's have sex
GNOC = get naked on camera
WTTP = want to trade photos?
99 = parents are gone
And finally, one that has apparently been around a while, but I only recently discovered is the phrase "sapnu puas." Any guesses? Think back to when you were in fifth grade and would type 58008 into a calculator. Yes, if you turn the phrase "sapnu puas" upside down, it reads, "send nudes."
How can parents possibly be expected to keep up with such sneaky ways some teens are using texting? I'm not sure if they can. But moms and dads can be aware that this happens, and then as soon as children have unsupervised access to electronics, have a heart-to-heart. Parents must have serious conversations with kids about the emotional harm, and possible criminal consequences, sexting can have on everyone involved.