Pose with your friends for your iPhone-loving date, who instantly uploads it via Facebook mobile, and you have a memory to enjoy forever — or a permanently ruined reputation.
Even adults can live to regret something that lands online or is forwarded inappropriately. But "sexting" (sending or receiving of sexually explicit or sexually suggestive images or video via a cell phone) is largely a youth phenomenon.
Whether through sexting or other unwisely used online/interactive communications, adolescents are taking, sending, and receiving nude pictures and sexual content. But the short-term thrills, often done under social pressure or after a few drinks, are outlived by the potentially damaging consequences.
How common is it? Parents are likely to be shocked:
A 2009 poll found that 1 in 5 teens — guys and girls — sent sexually suggestive pictures via text; and many have received such images, which often originally were sent to someone else. These numbers are even higher when including written sexual content (39% of all teens).
A 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimated that 22% of teenage girls said they had sent or posed for nude or semi-nude photos.
Another poll found that 44% of high school boys had seen at least one naked picture of a female classmate.
Whether these statistics turn out to be accurate or overblown, inappropriate sharing of personal photos does seem to be common — and for parents, understandably worrisome.
Why do they do it? Many young women cite "pressure from guys" as the reason they send or pose for sexually suggestive pictures or texts, and guys sometimes blame "pressure from friends." But for some, it's almost become normal behavior, a way of flirting, or "not a big deal." And they get some reinforcement for that when lewd celebrity pictures and videos go mainstream and the consequences are greater fame and reality TV shows, not ruined careers or humiliation.
So besides educating themselves about what their kids are transmitting, parents need to get kids — whose decision-making skills, judgment, and ideas about privacy are still being formed — to understand that even if their intentions are playful or harmless, if messages or pictures become public, the results can be anything but.
What This Means to You
One of the prime responsibilities of parents is to teach their kids how to take responsibility for their own safety and their own actions. Some instant technologies with long-lasting consequences make that tougher — typical childhood and teen experimentation that went unrecorded in the past now can be captured forever. Sexting is a good example of that.
It can be hard for teens to grasp the permanent consequences of their ever-changing tech interactions. Just as they might not consider how smoking now can cause long-term health problems down the road, they can be reluctant to curb their "share everything" tendencies now for the sake of their reputations later.
So it's crucial for parents to talk to their kids about how the seemingly fleeting nature of racy pictures, videos, emails, and text messages doesn't match the reality of their permanence in cyberspace. One ill-considered pic sent to a crush's phone easily can be forwarded to the recipient's friends, posted online, or printed and distributed. Even intense peer pressure to take or send nude pictures will pale in comparison with the public humiliation that follows when the images land on Facebook or the cell phones of hundreds of other kids and even adults.
So how can you get through to your kids? The answer is to have open conversations about personal responsibility, personal boundaries, and how to resist peer pressure. Conversations like this should occur throughout kids' lives — not just when problems emerge.
Explain to your kids, early and often, that once an image or message is sent, it is no longer in their control and cannot be taken back. It can, and likely will, spread beyond their control.
And don't overlook the potential for legal consequences. Regional laws haven't necessarily kept up with technology, with most intended for dealing with child pornographers, not high schoolers with smartphones. In Texas, for instance, some offenses call for 2 to 10 years in prison or fines up to $10,000. So, in theory, a teen could face felony charges for texting explicit photos or even have to register as a sex offender.
More likely, though, is the fallout that follows when a parent, teacher, friend, or loved one receives a forwarded text with compromising content. Your kids should understand that messages or pictures sent via the Internet or cell phones are never truly private or anonymous.
Beyond that, questionable behavior gone viral can haunt a college applicant or prospective employee years later. More and more colleges and employers check online profiles looking for indications of a candidate's suitability — or giant red flags about bad judgment and immaturity.
In the meantime, parents can make it clear that there will be consequences if their kids are caught sexting, such as confiscation of cell phones and netbooks or close monitoring of their use.