In Part One, we covered the definition and prevalence of sexting in minors. Today, we review potential consequences, and most importantly, how parents can help kids make better choices. Special thanks again to Judge Derek Meinecke of Oakland County’s 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.
What criminal charges are involved with sexting? Judge Meinecke clarifies: Cases are dealt with individually based on the facts, and in many cases criminal prosecution is neither necessary nor appropriate. However, felony charges are a “necessary evil” for circumstances involving predatory behavior. Unfortunately some young people are not innocent in their intentions, and if we de-criminalize this behavior simply because the parties involved are all under 17, we create a dangerous loophole for child pornographers and pedophiles.
Age is an important distinction: Currently, 17-year-olds are treated as adults in Michigan and can be charged with distribution of child pornography. Even if you just turned 17 last week, this changes everything in the eyes of the law, so parents and teens alike should be aware of this legal game-changer.
Aren’t we over-reacting? Isn’t this just a high-tech version of what teenagers have always done? Maybe, maybe not. A 2012 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine study found higher rates of “risky sex behaviors” (e.g., multiple partners, using drugs or alcohol before sex, etc.) in teen girls who engaged in sexting behaviors. Girls may be more stigmatized for sexting than boys. The authors note, “Sexting may be a new type of sexual behavior in which teens may (or may not) engage.” (p. 832). For many teens, sexting behavior is not sinister, but being digitally savvy does not equal maturity and life experience (AAP, 2011). Even if sexting is just the latest version of sexual exploration, it can have long-term serious outcomes.
What can I do as a parent? All experts agree: The number one thing you can do is to have open, honest conversations with your kids. Yes, it will be awkward! They may ask you some pointed questions about your own past, or share information with you that is hard to hear. However, Judge Meinecke says, “You can be an extraordinarily dynamic parent and really help your kids” by taking time to be educated. Most importantly, he says, we need to be there for our kids, but “not as a friend or as an executioner.” We can be a source of information for our kids, a safe place. Ms. Wright shares this view: “They’re going to make mistakes. They’re still kids. But we need to educate them, not lecture.” As parents we have the responsibility to help set appropriate boundaries, but if our kids sense our extreme discomfort with the topic, they won’t open up. Ms. Wright suggests middle school as a good time to start the conversation, “The earlier you start talking about it, the better.”
You can also reach out to your pediatrician or family physician. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to be involved, and for doctors to talk openly with their patients and families about teen sexting.
Keep computers in public areas of the house and monitor usage. This AAP article suggests you are honest with your kids about this and show them you know how to use whatever apps they’re using.
Just like helping kids avoid the dangers of drugs, alcohol and smoking, there is benefit to making them aware of pitfalls, but a strictly fear- or punishment-based approach will turn them away. Being involved appropriately in your teenager’s life helps prevent future missteps, and real life ”face time” discussing difficult issues can create a strong, healthy relationship between you and your son or daughter.
– Lori Warner, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, Director, HOPE Center at Beaumont Children’s Hospital