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What you need to know about: Sexting

Written by: Kelsey Brandon, Violence Prevention Educator at HAVEN

At HAVEN, we have heard from colleagues at other crisis centers that they have been noticing an increase in calls about teens being pressured into sending explicit texts, pictures, and videos, otherwise known as sexting. The HAVEN educators would like to give you some facts, statistics, and tools to help you open up the door to have a conversation with your teen about sexting.

Let’s start with the facts–we know sexting is something teens in our communities are engaging in. Studies show that about 9% of 7th graders report having sent or received sexually explicit texts or pictures, and by 11th grade that number jumps up to 20%. Many teens have access to nearly unlimited means of communication, and a significant percentage of adolescents report that they engage with social media constantly throughout the day. Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay and is an integral part of many teens’ social landscapes. Understanding the technology kids are using and how they are using it is essential to parents and caregivers being able to have important conversation with the teens in their lives about safety, boundaries, and consent.

One thing that teens and parents may not know is that sexting can come with some serious social, emotional, and legal consequences. Let’s start with sexting and the law: it is important thing to know is that for people under the age of 18, asking for explicit pictures and sending explicit pictures is against the law–even if the pictures is of yourself! In New Hampshire there are no laws that specifically address teen sexting, so the law defaults to treating any explicit images of minors as child pornography. In certain situations, teens may be charged as adults, which can lead to significant consequences in the criminal justice system, including having to register as a sex offender. One of the biggest reasons we want to give parents the tools to have conversations with their teens about sexting is so that teens can understand that sexting can come with some serious consequences, and understanding those consequences can go a long way towards helping kids not get in trouble for something that is totally preventable.

Beyond the legal issues involved, sexting can also come with heavy social implications. One analysis of eighteen studies on teen sexting indicated 12% of the adolescents participating had been in a situation where the explicit pictures or videos they had willingly sent to another teen had been forwarded to third parties without the sender’s consent; this means that the person who had received the sext had shown it to friends, teammates, etc. Teens, just like adults, want to believe that they can trust their partners and that they can expect privacy. It might be hard for a teen to understand that someone the liked or were dating could violate their boundaries in that way, but there are lots of ways for a picture to be seen by accident, or for someone’s phone to get lost or stolen, etc. Helping teens understand that there is no guarantee that a photo shared with a crush or partner will stay between them and that person can be a first step in helping them understand the social consequences of sexting.

We also know that not every teen that participates in sexting actually wants to. Studies show that about half of teen sexting is unwanted by one person involved, and that teen girls are twice as likely to be pressured, threatened, or coerced into sending explicit pictures of themselves as boys. In the study mentioned above, girls who were asked for explicit pictures often reported similar strategies used by the requestor: promises of affection or attention, or threats of

spreading rumors about the girl if she did not comply. The pressure some of these girls felt was immense and understandably difficult to deal with, and even for adults who grew up before the advent of social media, it is easy to understand how some teens could be susceptible to such pressure, threats, or manipulation. At HAVEN, we’ve been teaching teens all over the Seacoast that if someone is forced to do something they don’t want to do, that is never their fault, and that’s a great message to reinforce at home! If a teen is made to send pictures they don’t want to send, or receives a picture they didn’t ask for and don’t want, that isn’t their fault and we want them to feel safe reaching out to a trusted adult–and that adult could be you!

Although we recommend that teens don’t exchange explicit pictures in the first place, it’s important to let your kids know that if they are forced or pressured into sexting, that is not their fault, and if they do engage in sexting and the person they’re talking to does something with those pictures without their consent–for example, sharing the pictures with friends or teammates–that is also not their fault. In fact, in New Hampshire if a minor sends someone an explicit picture of themselves and the person they sent it to shares that picture with anyone, that can be considered dissemination of child pornography and it is absolutely not the victim’s fault.

Being a teenager today is hard! With the advent of smartphone technology and new social media platforms being released every year, teens today face unique challenges that generations before them didn’t. Starting conversations with teens about sexting, consent, and peer pressure can be uncomfortable, but research shows that many teens want to have open and honest discussions with their parents about sex and dating; they just might need you to help them start those conversations.

It is important for parents to know that often, sexting does not come to the attention of adults until after a major incident has taken place. Initiating conversations about online safety before an issue arises is crucial–you can even use having watched this video as a way to bring it up! It is important to express to teens that you understand that there is a ton of pressure on a lot of kids to sext, but that they always have the right to say no, and they always have the right to talk to an adult if they receive a text or picture that makes them uncomfortable. Parents can also explain to teens that once they send a picture, they lose control of it, and it could end up being seen by people they wouldn’t want it to be seen by. It is also important to help teens understand not just that they have the right to say no to a request for an explicit picture, but that they do not have the right to ask for such pictures. It is just as important to discuss why is it not appropriate or healthy to pressure someone else as it is to talk about not giving in to pressure. If your teen has a question about sexting you don’t know the answer to, that’s okay! There are tons of resources online that you can check out together, such as Common Sense Media’s handbook, or you can even call HAVEN!

At HAVEN, making sure teens feel safe and comfortable talking to adults in their lives that they trust is our goal. Although it might be a difficult conversation to start, opening the door for teens in your life to talk to you about sexting can make a huge difference. If you have any questions or need support, our 24 hour confidential helpline is always available at (603) 994-7233.

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