This is part one of a two-part series: Here, we’ll cover the basic facts about sexting among minors, and begin to discuss possible consequences. In Part Two, we’ll review legal issues and other consequences in more detail, as well as give ideas for parents and teens to help prevent a snap decision from turning into lifelong regrets.
Special thanks to Judge Derek Meinecke of the Oakland County 44th District Court and Ms. Stephanie Wright, MA, LLP, LPC, of Beaumont Children’s Hospital’s Ted Lindsay Foundation HOPE Center, for their invaluable input on this topic. Thanks also to Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica R. Cooper for publishing a brochure for minors.
Hold the phone! What is all this talk about sexting? Maybe you’ve heard of court cases or even found some sketchy content on your child’s phone. Personally, I knew very little about the prevalence of sexting among minors, but learned more after being asked to contribute to a story in the Providence Journal.
What is sexting? Sexting is defined as “the act of sending sexually explicit photos, primarily between cell phones.” It’s important to note that in Michigan, creating, soliciting, possessing or distributing sexually explicit photos of a minor (someone under 18 years old) is a felony. These charges can carry four to 20 years in prison! In addition there would be fines and court costs, and mandatory entry in Michigan’s sex offender registry.
How much does it happen? Estimates vary, and the numbers of teens owning cell phones has increased since a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, “Teens and Sexting”. That study found 4 percent of teens ages 12 – 17 had sent explicit photos, and 15 percent admitted to receiving such photos. Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica R. Cooper’s informational brochure states that 40 percent of teens state they’ve been shown explicit photos or messages originally intended for someone else. Twenty percent of teen girls and 33 percent of teen boys report having posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves.
Why do it? Sexting is not unusual and peer pressure can be intense to look. The ability to make rational judgments and use our long-term thinking skills isn’t fully mature until at least age 25. Teenagers also typically don’t believe that the bad things they hear about will actually happen to them. So even though they may be aware of the possible consequences, they may think, “Sure, but my boy/girlfriend would never do that!”
Stephanie Wright, MA, LLP, LPC, HOPE Center behavioral consultant, says that teens may think sexting is fun, exciting or “no big deal.” It’s not until the consequences are explained that they even begin to think of what may go wrong.
Often, sexting occurs between couples who are dating, or even as a way of initiating a relationship. Although the images may have been willingly created and sent at the time, one bad fight and suddenly what was intended for one person’s eyes only is being forwarded to many others. As the Cooper brochure states, “Once you hit send, you lose all control over any image you have sent.”
Another contributing factor may be the sheer volume of explicit material available on the Internet. In the past, boys might find their dad’s Playboy magazines and ogle the centerfold. This is worlds away from what kids see today with just a few mouse clicks. “The vast amount of material out there at the disposal of a young person whose Internet access is not being monitored is terrifying,” says Judge Derek Meinecke (Oakland County 44th District Court). He notes that even if your child’s access is monitored, his or her friends’ parents may not be as aware, and they may share this content with your child. Judge Meinecke also feels that viewing explicit content online, which is often impersonal and misogynistic, may set a tone regarding what the minor then expects in his or her own relationships as they grow older.
What should we do about it? All this information can be scary and overwhelming. Being a parent or a kid today is in some ways harder than it used to be, says Judge Meinecke. However, he also points out that parents today have resources available today that our parents never had. The Beaumont Parenting Program Blog is a great example!
In Part Two, we will further review potential consequences for minors who sext, and provide expert recommendations on how to talk to your children about this topic. Stay tuned!
– Lori Warner, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, Director, HOPE Center at Beaumont Children’s Hospital