The bell rings, class lets out and students flood the hallways. After being stuck in class for 50 minutes there are a lot of words being exchanged, laughter floats above the sound of footsteps and conversation is a dull roar. In all of that are the unspoken words passed from students in neatly folded notes with a pull tab or heavily creased folds with a name written on the outside.
These notes were the primary avenue for conversation between two people that were dating or maybe a flirting couple prior to the question: Will you go with me? Ha! Say that to your kids and they'll put their shoes on. In the digital age of communication teens can have long, intimate conversations from the privacy of their bedrooms with no long phone cord to obstruct the hallway or an impatient sibling waiting to make a call. The issue is what's being "said" or sent in the privacy of a snap-chat streak.
In fact, all of these conversations are taking place on a wide variety of platforms and all easily accessible from the palm of their hands. To be clear, ALL of the essential and non-essential social media platforms contain some sort of private messaging capabilities including the ability to send pictures and short videos. Did you know there are over 18 social media apps kids are using right now to do so.
So what's the big deal right? A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 95% of teens have access to smartphones and that 45% of them report using their smartphones almost constantly. In addition to being worried about screen time and online harassment from tell-all sites and bullying, sexting is on the rise among young teens. In fact, 1 in 7 teens are sending these inappropriate messages and 1 in 4 are getting them. In fact, according to CBS News in 2018 this is the "new relational norm."
The first thing parents say is: NOT MY KID. I get it, no one knows your student better than you and you are probably right, however, having some knowledge about the matter may help in case you discover that your teen has been solicited for a text or has been sending them.
Kristin and I have both sat down with devastated parents or taken a phone calm from a parent who is sobbing because they NEVER thought they would be having this conversation. (The number is far higher than we'd like to think. And those are only the ones who've come forward.) The problem is, it's more prevalent than we think but parents just aren't discussing it because of a perceived shame. It's not a sign of" bad parenting" or "not enough time with dad", it's the product of a new generation of young people who don't see the dangers.
Nearly every thing we do is online. We eat a delicious burger or salad and we post a picture as well as a review on "YELP!" so that others can have the same experience. A homeless man gets beat up and rather than getting involved, it's streamed to Facebook Live. Very little is private and even less is "sacred."
This idea of "my body, my choice" no longer applies to just inconvenient pregnancies, it has also made its way into our homes via parents who may be afraid to put their foot down when it comes to teaching our kids that our sexuality is not a commodity to be traded for likes. (More about this below)
"So...how do I know if my teen might be sexting?"
Here are a few of the signs:
Being secretive such as turning away to text/surf
Being anxious about their phones (you should ALWAYS know your teen's passwords etc.)
Deleting histories (Trust but verify)
Getting uncomfortable, angry, or defensive when you question them about their secretive phone use.
Overreacting when you pick up their phone (We often forget "who is paying for the phone and that it is a tool, not a "right")
Friend changes. If you check your child’s social accounts and notice an increase in flirty photos and language, or friends who do the same (It could be a sign of risky digital behavior.)
Crying, isolation and a change in grades or behavior which may be the result of public ridicule from exposure to sexting (teens lack the ability to know "how" to handle these situations on their own, they need your help)
Trust your instincts. If you suspect your teen may be sexting, you are probably on to something. As you know full well, a parent’s intuition is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal. Do not deny your suspicions—bring them out into the open and deal with the issues.
Review their texts. That’s right. Ask your kids for their phones and review their texts. While you are at it, review their email and Facebook messages too. Some teens—and even parents—may cry “privacy violation” at this point but teaching mobile responsibility is a serious thing. Remind your teen that nothing sent digitally is in your control and keep in mind that hormones and teenage judgment are not sound tools for decision making.
What do I Need To Be Aware Of:
"Why in the world is she/he doing this?"
According to a focus group held by the Pew Research Center, there are several reasons why teens decide to take part in sexting:
Some see sexting as a “first step” before they decide to become sexually active;
Sexting can be used in a romantic relationship between partners;
Other teens think that sexting is a good way to tell someone that they show interest in a future relationship.
There are several other reasons, unrelated to personal relationships that also lead people to send nude images on cell phones. The most common was peer pressure that leads many young teens, especially girls, to feel that they have to send sexually explicit images of themselves over the Internet.
Others treat sexting as an experiment, wanting to send these images before they become sexually active.
"How Can I Help Him/Her?"
The FIRST THING is to recognize that being oogled isn't the same as being cherished. If you are valued for your body, you can just as easily be looked down on and rejected if you don't feel like you "measure up" to someone's standards, especially when the standards aren't real due to excessive airbrushing and surgical enhancements.
The SECOND THING is to teach our teens that sexting and other types of "things before sex" are just as harmful as "going all the way." While nearly 70% of teen boys and girls who sext do so with their girlfriend or boyfriend, 61% of all sexters who have sent nude images admit that they were pressured to do it at least once. The act of sending photos is often considered to be a compromise to not having physical sex but the fallout can be just as damaging. A recent study, out of Norway, hints at the possibility of sexting affecting children’s future relationships. It also puts them at risk of learning to objectify the person of the opposite sex. That they are there solely for their gratification and therefore not worthy of being honored.
In fact, a study, using a sample of 1,000 teens between the ages of 14-17, found that sexting teens experienced four times more physical violence as adults. As adults, those teens were two-and-a-half times more likely to experience sexual abuse, three-and-a-half times more likely to experience psychological violence, and are more likely to become a victim of intimate partner violence.
The THIRD THING is to help them to understand the legal ramifications of sexting in this day and age. First of all, those mysterious disappearing photos from SnapChat, it turns out they aren't "gone forever." In a hacker event called "The Snappening" hackers dumped over 200,000 user photos online, many featuring content that would be considered child pornography. What goes on your phone is online almost immediately if you have a "cloud-based" apps and storage. Not only that, 17% of sexters share the messages they receive with others, and 55% of those share them with more than one person. The recipient often swears to keep the picture secret or to delete it immediately, but statistics show this is often not the case. The reason all that matters? The person in possession of the images can be charged with possession of child pornography if the sender is under the age of 18. Also, if the sender can be identified, they themselves can be charged with the distribution of child pornography.
The LAST THING is to help them to understand what it means to "honor your body."In his letter to the people of Corinth Paul confronts this mixing of Christ and immorality. In chapter 6 Paul warns the church to “flee immorality” (v. 18) and then explains why this is so important: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (v. 19)
Paul was making a profound point here, when he says our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit,” he’s indicating just how valuable our bodies are to God. We have the profound honor, as Christians, to bear the Spirit of God within our very hearts.
We need to teach our teens that their purity matters, not because God will love them less or because they will be damaged goods or not good enough, but because their FUTURE HUSBAND/WIFE is worth waiting for. We would want to know that long before they even met, our future partner was willing to forego immediate gratification.
Pastor Mark and Kristin have helped many parents navigate through this process and it is done in complete confidentiality, and wold welcome a conversation with any parent at any time. We ALL feel ill-equipped to walk through these moments and RARELY if ever see them coming, so don't be shocked and don't struggle alone, reach out to us--we're all in this together.