When teenagers ask for cell phones, they usually want the coolest, trendiest cell phone on the market. These days, that phone will have photo and video capabilities. Put that together with the unlimited text messaging plan that your teen is sure to beg for and here comes possible trouble. Silly photos and embarrassing videos aside, cameras and texting have given young people a new and potentially dangerous way to explore their sexuality: sexting.
What is sexting?
Sexting is the exchange of sexually suggestive messages or images between minors via cell phone. For example, a girl might take a nude picture of herself and send it to her boyfriend. Her boyfriend may forward the picture to one or two friends, who then decide to forward the picture to others. In this way, the girl’s picture could travel all over the Web, amassing countless viewers in a very short period of time. Please note that sexting does not include situations in which young people are coerced or blackmailed into sending sexually explicit images of themselves to adults. These adults are predators and the incident should be reported to law enforcement immediately.
Understanding teens and sexting
The majority of teens are actually not sexting: according to a study from the Pew American Life & Internet Project, only 4% of cell-owning teens (12-17) say they have sent nude or partially nude images. Teens that are sexting often do so within the context of a relationship. A teen may send a sexual image to someone to indicate his or her interest in starting a romantic relationship. Or teens already in romantic relationships may sext each other as a prelude to or as part of a sexual relationship. Teens may also use sexting as a way of exploring their sexuality.
Some teens have been coerced into sexting when a boyfriend or girlfriend makes it a requirement for continuing their relationship. Others have been blackmailed into sharing nude photos by threats to expose previously taken nude pictures. When discussing sexting with your children, talk to them about the importance of bringing any such threats to you rather than trying to handle them on their own so that you may get law enforcement involved immediately.
When teens sext, they may not think about the consequences of their images becoming public. If an image surfaces at school, its creator and anyone caught distributing or possessing it may face removal from athletic teams or student groups and suspension. If a sexting incident involves harassment, coercion, or images passed around without the creator’s permission, law enforcement may become involved. Teens are unlikely to be charged with a serious crime for sexting, but they may be ordered to attend educational programs or complete community service. In addition to these consequences, the image’s creator may face additional emotional and psychological stressors, such as bullying and harassment by peers and judgment by friends and family. Some teens have moved schools or started attending homeschool to try to get a fresh start; unfortunately, sexting images can easily follow teens, victimizing them again. Sexting photos may even resurface years later during online searches by college admissions officers, employers, friends, and significant others. The images may also find their way into the hands of online sexual predators and be passed around for years after the teen has become an adult.
 Lenhart, Amanda. Teens and Sexting. Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2009.