The statistics can be scary. According to a recent national study, 11 percent of young girls between the ages of 13 and 16 have texted or posted suggestive photos of themselves. The study found that 1 out of 5 teenagers have posted online or sent by text nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves.
It's called "sexting," a mash-up of the words "sex" and "texting," and it's defined as the sending of sexually explicit messages or images through the use of cell phones and texting. It's a growing activity among teens and young adults that can have serious consequences.
The American Counseling Association is reaching out to parents to encourage them to be more aware of what their children may be doing online or through their cell phones, especially in relation to actions like sexting.
"The problems that are created by something like sexting, an activity teens often see as just fun and harmless, can be serious and long lasting," noted Dr. David Kaplan, Chief Professional Officer for the American Counseling Association. He pointed out that once a message is sent, the sender loses all control of it in most cases. That is particularly a problem for suggestive images. That topless camera phone image sent to a boyfriend may just go viral next week when the relationship suddenly ends and the ex-boyfriend decides to share the image with his friends, who share it with their friends, and on and on. And while some new tech apps promise that such images disappear within seconds of being viewed, the reality is that there are work-arounds and screen capture techniques that can defeat such supposed safeguards.
"The psychological harm that a teen can encounter when everyone in his or her school suddenly has possession of what was thought to be a private photo can be serious," Dr. Kaplan observed. He reports that many school counselors and counselors in private practice who specialize in working with families and teens have begun to be much more proactive in counseling teens and young adults about these issues, and in helping them overcome the trauma that can occur from suddenly having their sexting made public.
Dr. Kaplan noted that sexting is actually against federal law, an area that the government regulates because cell phones use public airwaves. But it's only when there's a serious incident that has gone public that authorities step in. In a number of states and localities sexting can then lead to criminal charges for both the sender and receiver of these messages and images. At the recent American Counseling Association national conference held in Cincinnati, Ohio, one of the featured presentations for the more than 3,100 counselors in attendance focused on how counselors can help adolescents recover from the disasters that sexting, cyber-bullying and the misuse of technology can bring about.
But with cell phones now in the hands of more than 75% of American children between the ages of 12 and 17, it's important for parents to be actively involved in how the technology is being used by their children. Dr. Kaplan suggests that there are several things parents can and should do before a serious problem occurs.
At the top of the list is simply discussing with children the consequences, and the legal issues, that can be involved with texting. "Most teens don't think far enough ahead," says Dr. Kaplan, "to realize that the photo they send now could stay on the Internet for years, affecting future activities such as that college search or that job application." Children should also know that sexting has led to a number of prosecutions across the country, and has even been a cause for several teen suicides by the victims of sexting.
Dr. Kaplan suggests setting limits regarding phone usage. Perhaps there's a cutoff time each night when cell phone usage stops. Some parents create a written contract with their kids setting expectations and guidelines for phone and texting usage. He maintains that it's important for children to understand that the parents are the ones who own the phone, which means seeing your children's text messages and contact lists is not just appropriate, but expected on a regular basis. And that, when violations occur, cell phones are taken away, at least for a time, as a real and meaningful punishment.
Sexual interest and exploration is a normal part of human development during the teenage years. It happened for us when we were teens and it scared our parents. Now, if you're a parent, it probably is scaring you, especially in today's technological age. But when you talk openly to your kids, when you explain the dangers, and, most importantly, when you let them know that you're paying attention because you love them and care about them, you lessen the chances that what they're doing is going to be wrong and carry heavy consequences.
The American Counseling Association is the nation's largest organization of counseling professionals with more than 53,000 members in 50 states and 80 other countries.