Sexting: How To Protect Your Kids

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A shocking one in five teenagers engage in sexting, a term the media and parents use to describe a phenomenon of plague portions among our young people–the electronic sharing of suggestive, intimate, and often vulgar pornographic images and words, primarily between cell phones.

One study reports 20% of teens (ages 13-19) and 33% of young adults (ages 20-26) have shared nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves either via text or by posting online. A frightening 40% of all teens have sent sexually suggestive text messages. If all that isn’t bad enough, another poll has 6% reporting they started sexting at 9 years old. 9 years old!

girl texting

If you line up your child with four others, one of them is likely to be engaging in this activity–and there’s a pretty scary chance it could be your child.

Some other dangers associated with sexting are:

One in three teens (12-17) have experienced online harassment, which is often associated with sexting. Usually teenagers, especially teenage girls, are prone to drama and, in truth, many have found  themselves on both sides of this issue, harassing and being harassed. Included in this harassment can be “sextortion.” A common version of sextortion occurs when a young person breaks up with a boy/girlfriend and the ex passes around naked pictures of them for revenge.

Predators know how to find vulnerable young people, and those who post explicit or suggestive photos of or discussions about themselves definitely create a blip on the predators’ radar.

According to a report called Online “Predators” and their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for  Prevention and Treatment, boys who are questioning or struggling with same sex attraction are at particular risk. Twenty-five percent of online predator victims are boys and almost all of their offenders are male. Boys tend not to think of themselves at risk for sexual exploitation, but they are.

If your child is in a class of 25 students, you can be statistically assured at least one of them has received an online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make offline contact.  Of those incidents, 27% of the time the solicitor has requested a sexually explicit photograph–and many teens are stupid enough to provide one. (Security tip: turn off the GPS feature on your camera and phone so no geographical information is embedded in the digital pictures.)

But even without these additional danger no one wants their child sexting!

According to Pew reports on the subject of sexting and media use:

75% of teens ages 12-17 have cell phones. Four percent of them self report having sent naked or near naked pictures of themselves, and 15% say they have been sent such pictures by someone else.

While there are many ways to help safeguard our children from sexting, they are all based on two key concepts:

First, we are the adults, we are in charge and responsible for our family’s safety. 

Secondly, parents need to develop a realistic understanding of “privacy.”  

There is no such thing as complete internet privacy.

If the government can see what your kids are up to, so can you. If your child is a big privacy buff, they can choose not to use the internet. Period.

This doesn’t mean invading your child’s privacy unnecessarily or reading every personal message. It does mean you as a parent can check on what they are doing anytime you believe there is a need. As teens grow older and have earned more trust you will probably give them more personal space, but online privacy is not a given, it is earned.

1. Rethink the necessity of every family member owning a private phone and laptop.

If they don’t have personal cell phones or computers, they can’t use them for sexting. Parents express concern, but fail to take this simplest of preventative measures–take the cell phone away! They will survive.

Thirty years ago 110% of teens went without cellphones. No one had even heard of a cell phone and somehow we all survived adolescence.

2.  If you feel that is too harsh and that children should have some phone freedom, make it a family phone, one that is used by everyone in the family, just like home phones were back in the day.

Remember being a teen in a single phone line house?

The important thing is to make sure it really is a family phone–one mom and dad use on a daily basis. In our house we have two cell phones. One smartphone mom and dad share, and one not-so-smartphone that we both use and so can our 14-year-old.

If you aren’t using the phone your child uses, it sort of defeats the purpose of a family phone. You have to use it to be in the habit of knowing what your kid is doing with it.

Watch out for deleted messages. Kids think grownups are stupid. They will erase messages and think you’ll never notice. Usually it’s nothing spectacular, but if you’re noticing a lot of deleted messages combined with other troublesome behavior and think there might be genuine cause for concern. Cell Phone Spy Elite can retrieve deleted text messages from cell phones.

3. If you insist that your child MUST have a phone, and there are some good reasons why this might be the case, then at the very least don’t let it be a smartphone and limit their time with it.

There is no reason anyone has to have constant internet connectivity, and plenty of reasons why your teen shouldn’t!  The alternative is cheaper anyway. If you do let your child have their own phone, check it every night and never ever let your child have it in their bedroom, especially late at night. Each night take the phone and put it on its charger in YOUR room.

4.  Make sure you’re seeing the whole picture of your teen’s texting.

  • 93% of teens (12-17) go online.
  • 75% of teens (12-17) have cell phones.
  • On average, texting teens (12-17) send and receive 1500 text messages a month.

That’s a whole lot of information for a parent to track! The truth is most of those 1500 messages are going to be boring. You certainly wouldn’t want to and probably shouldn’t go through every one of them, but are you sure what you’ve seen is the whole story–or just the face your teen wants you to see.

Modern media is designed to present any image we want to whomever we want. If your child has been snared into the world of sexting, they undoubtedly have mastered the art of screening what you see using privacy filters and specially designed apps and features like Textfree, Textplus, or Hidden text. Teens use these specially designed apps to hide their texts from parents.

If you are only checking the visible messages on your child’s phone, you may not be seeing everything. You have to check if they have these apps on their device and, if they do, there is no good explanation for having them, so don’t listen to the excuses.

Another very scary app to check for is Snapchat–a sort of “peek-a-boo, now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t” program. The user takes a picture or video and sends it the viewer, allotting a specific time (3-10 seconds) to look at it, then it supposedly disappears, gone forever. Kids use this with a false sense of security, but the receiver can take a screenshot of the image and, once they download it to their system, they can post it anyplace they please.  The Snapchat app will send a notification to the sender that someone downloaded it, but once it’s downloaded it’s out there. Receivers also will use another camera to capture the image without the sender knowing.

Another popular app is Instagram. Most parents know their kids have this and think it’s safe. It’s not, not always. The Instagram world can be raunchy and disturbing, yet parents seldom monitor what is actually being passed around on Instagram. Things to check on Instagram include: the pictures your child posts (of course); the #hashtags they use to post; the conversations taking place on those images; who they follow; and who follows them. Go through their friends’ pages, especially the “friends” you don’t know and, if it’s not someone you’d want them hanging with in real life, don’t let them hang online. As a parent you should have and use the password to their account.

These apps are generally free and your kid likely knows about them.  So should you.

Go through your phones make sure they do not have these apps on them.

Limit how many apps your child’s phone may have on it. Make sure it doesn’t have more apps than you can keep track of.

Go through your child’s phone and check out ANY app with which you are unfamiliar. Yes, that’s a bunch of work, but your kid is worth it. If it’s too much work, then you should consider going back to suggestion #1 .

5. Kids use apps to get around grownups. Guess what? That’s a two way street. Grown ups can use apps to outsmart kids, too.

Use Safe Eyes to track your children’s instant messaging, monitor online social networks, and to limit the time your kids spend online.

Load software from www.websafety.com into your child’s cell phone which will alert you if inappropriate content is being sent.

6. Research shows that teens who use the phone with higher frequency are more likely to engage in sexting.

Let them have it when they go someplace and will need to check in. Let them use it an hour per evening after homework and chores are done. But, for goodness sake, limit how much time your teen is allowed to use the phone. Set a timer and when the time is up physically remove the phone from their possession.

It is a good idea to take away all screens–phone, computer and tv–about an hour before bedtime. Screens contribute to sleep problems. Help your kids form good habits.  Do not let them have a cell phone or computer in their rooms at night. There is no need and many dangers.

7. It’s about more than just the phone, so be sure you’re checking elsewhere too.

About 38% of teens ages send text messages daily, while a quarter send daily messages via social networks. An Associated Press/MTV internet poll revealed that 24% of teens between 14 and 17 had participated in naked sexting by cellphone or on the Internet.

“Sexting” doesn’t just happen on the phone. It happens online in chats, in email, on social networks. You need to know what social media sites your kids use and you must have their password and use it!

On sites like Facebook your child can easily control what content is seem by whom. The only way to see everything your child is posting is to access their actual page.

8. Mom and dad are the key to safety so they must have some control over the devices in their home.

There should only be one family computer in the home. Under no circumstance should children ever have a computer, cellphone, Kindle, or anything with internet capability in their own room. Preferably the family computer should be a laptop that can be put away in your bedroom at night.

Only mom and dad should have the password to get onto the computer and they should log children on and off when need be.

In our home the only internet access is a hotspot usb device that plugs into the laptop when we want it and is removed when we don’t. It stays with mom and dad when we leave the house.

9. Start with the rules when your children are young.

According to Always Connected, the new digital media habits of young children:

  • 25% of children age 3 go online daily; by age 5 it’s half and by 8 over two-thirds use the Internet
  • 31% of children between 8 and 10 have their own cell phone; 20% of kids between the ages of 6 and 11, and 2% of 4- to 5-year-olds own a phone.

Develop good monitoring habits in yourself  as soon as your child begins to learn how to use the internet.

10.  Make sure grandparents and babysitters know and follow the family rules.

Teens will make a beehive for grandma’s computer when they visit. Best yet, tell Grandma and Grandpa “The kids are here to visit you. Please keep them off all the electronic devices.”

Does all this seem a bit overboard? 

Then consider that underage sexting is a federal crime and is a crime in most states as well. It is classified as distribution of child pornography. And, as the adult responsible for an underage child and as the legal owner of the phone or computer used in sexting, you may be liable for child endangerment and civil damages.

It’s your phone. It’s your computer. You pay the bills. You are the one God is going to hold responsible for your parenting choices. You’re the grown up.  Be the grown up!

Read more of our Tech Talk columns.

Copyright 2013 Jen Haganey

Photo Credit : By Summer Skyes 11 (OMG Ikr lol  Uploaded by JohnnyMrNinja) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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