“Sexting”: A New Challenge for Educators and Families

By Ernie Allen, President and CEO, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

Sexting Video 
Related Video: Preventing Sexting in Your District
Featuring Laurie Nathan, manager of outreach for the NetSmartz Workshop, an educational program of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Watch now.
Two years ago the word “sexting” did not exist in the English language. Today, it is a term being discussed and debated by parents, students, educators, law enforcement leaders and policymakers across America.

“Sexting” refers to youth sending sexually explicit messages or sexually explicit photos of themselves or others to their peers. Teens are using cell phones, computers, web cams, digital cameras, and even video game systems to take and distribute sexually explicit photographs of themselves or others.

A 2009 survey conducted by Cox Communications found that 19 percent of teens surveyed have sent, received or forwarded sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photos through text message or e-mail. Of those who had engaged in “sexting,” 60 percent sent the photos to a boyfriend or girlfriend, and 11 percent sent the photos to someone they did not know.

“Sexting” is a complex issue representing a wide range of severity. A blanket policy of charging all youth with juvenile or criminal violations will not remedy the problem. Sometimes, youth engage in risky behavior. However, powerful technologies combined with easy transmission of digital photos, coupled with the incomplete brain development and maturity among teens can lead to poor judgment and serious consequences. Youth engaging in “sexting” are becoming the victims of enticement, blackmail, harassment and exploitation both by adults and other youth.

Law enforcement must use discretion in determining which cases are serious enough to justify formal investigation and prosecution. The primary challenge for prosecutors is to determine at what point on a scale of severity accountability should be assigned. A permanent record, juvenile or criminal, for any sex-related charge can have serious lifetime consequences for both the youth and parent, so considerable thought should be given before any filing of juvenile or criminal charges.

Key factors must be considered:

  • Do the photos violate state or federal law?
  • Were the photos produced voluntarily, or was there duress or enticement?
  • Was there any malicious intent involved in the distribution of the photos?
  • How old are the youth depicted in the images, as well as those involved in the distribution?
  • Do the photos depict only the self-producer, or were there other youth or adults depicted in prohibited activity?
  • What is the range of harm done to the youth depicted in the photos, the recipients of the photos, and to the community?
  • Are there alternative, non-criminal sanctions available that would discourage “sexting” in the future and inform the youth involved about the negative legal, social and emotional consequences of their actions?

NCMEC believes that the primary response to “sexting” must be positive, empowering educational messages directed to parents and teens. Parents must become more involved in their children’s lives, more aware of what they are doing, and set limits. Teens must become better informed about the implications and repercussions of their acts.

Two years ago, NCMEC and the Ad Council launched a public service campaign, “Think Before You Post.” To learn more, visit www.missingkids.com. The campaign alerts teens to the risks of “sexting” and other online communications. Once the images are out there, you cannot get them back. They can affect a teen’s future, impact his or her ability to be admitted to college, be hired for jobs, and much more.

What can parents and educators do?

  1. First, undertake serious, comprehensive Internet safety education for youth.
  2. Second, learn more about the latest technologies. NCMEC provides free advice and information at www.netsmartz411.org.
  3. Third, parents should set rules and limits, and then monitor what their children are doing. If the teen is not willing to follow these rules, consider removing the picture-messaging and texting capabilities of the phone through contacting the provider or purchasing a cell phone that does not have camera capabilities. New software programs are becoming available to help parents monitor their child’s cell phone use.
  4. Fourth, if parents find a sexually explicit image of their child has been posted on a website, contact the website owner to ask that the image be taken down. Most websites have a means of contacting the operator to “report abuse.”
  5. Finally, the sexual exploitation of children is a serious problem. If you see it, know about it or suspect it, report it to NCMEC at www.cybertipline.com.

For more information about “sexting” and other issues related to keeping America’s children safe, please visit www.missingkids.com.