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For generations, natural curiosity and a desire to explore all facets of the world around them have led young people to experiment. Parental values are tested and peer-pressure comes to a boil, just as adolescence reaches its peak. A desire to find out who they are and how they fit in to the world can lead to behaviors that adults define as “risky.”
A sense of invincibility means that regardless of factual information, teenagers will engage in underage drinking, driving recklessly, experimentation with drugs, and more recently, sexting.
Sexting, as defined at www.criminaldefenselawyer.com, is “an amalgam of ‘sex’ and ‘texting’ [that] occurs when people send nude or sexually explicit photographs of themselves or others, by using cellphones, Internet instant messaging, or similar information sharing technology.”
When that information is shared via technology, the crime of possessing or transmitting child pornography, a class A misdemeanor, is committed. The 2010 Connecticut sexting law (Public Act No. 10-191) applies to sexting or other electronic transmission or possession of child pornography by persons 13 to 15 years old (for transmission) or 13 to 17 years old (for possession). If convicted, there is no requirement to register as a sex offender, but it is punishable by up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $ 2,000, or both. Young people are aware of the potential to be arrested and charged with crimes related to sexting, but peer pressure and a belief that bad things happen to other people overcomes what adults see as common sense.
Among the applications used to “sext” is Kik, a texting service that allows the user to bypass the wireless short message service (SMS). It avoids texting charges, a plus for those who pay for texts, and does not show up on parents’ phone bills, allowing sexting chats and pictures to be shared in confidence.
With Snapchat, photos self-destruct in less than ten seconds. However, it is possible for the receiver to capture and save a screenshot of the photo. This is where opportunities for unintended sharing occur.
Vine is another application used to record very brief, looping videos and share them.
The Tinder application is known as a “hook-up” app, and with a minimum age of just 13 years, young users can find themselves connecting to older individuals. Users post pictures of themselves, and “flag” photos of others that they like. If the flag is reciprocated, both are notified and can connect to each other. Because the software uses GPS, the users’ locations are known.
Sexting can seem like advanced flirting to the average teenager, but when texts, videos, and photographs are spread across the Internet, they can take on a more sinister face. Physical harm can come when predators come into possession of child pornography and know where and how to connect to the sender and/or receiver. Mental harm comes from the use of sexting to intimidate or bully another person, or when a trust is violated and photographs and videos intended as a boyfriend/girlfriend share become widely distributed. Friendships are lost over misunderstandings of who gets to see sexts sent and received. At a time in life when others’ opinions matter greatly, young people may experience distress over personal sexts being seen by others in their peer groups, or worse yet, going viral for the world to see.
McAfee, a software security company, now a subsidiary of Intel, published a report in 2013 on the disconnect between parents and teenagers regarding online behavior. Among the disconnects outlined, two out of three teens stated that their parents do not know what they do online, and would change some of that behavior if they thought their parents would find out. While nearly half of parents polled said they had installed parental controls (usually for children between the ages of 13 and 15), the study found that teens knew how to override controls.
Parents claim to have had conversations about appropriate online behavior expected from teens, but many teens reported being oblivious to those conversations. Parents’ trust is often violated, as teenagers opt to engage in posting personal and intimate information online.
Technology overwhelms many adults who feel unable to keep pace with a teen’s ability to understand new technology. That lack of knowledge and frustration prevents adults from actually knowing what is going on in their children’s online lives — including sexting.
Sexting is not necessarily a sign that values are crumbling, or of worse issues underlying incidences of sexting, though. The “why” of young people sexting is an age-old question that could be applied to many behaviors.
“It’s always a different issue, depending on the generation,” said Jessica Ward, an assistant clinical director at Newtown Youth & Family Services. Just because a child is engaged in sexting, it is not indicative of other misbehavior. Sexting, she said, is no different than what adolescents have been doing for years. “Think back. Adolescents have always been experimenting with sex. [Mobile technology] is just a vehicle, but there’s no delay [in sharing information],” she said.
It is that immediacy of sharing that poses a new hazard to teens, “Adolescents are not thinking of repercussions. The adolescent brain isn’t thinking beyond the moment, because the impulse control isn’t fully developed,” said Ms Ward. Many teenagers view sexting as just another way of making connections.
It is now widely accepted that the human brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex of the brain that monitors risks and rewards, does not mature until approximately age 25.
When the brain is stimulated by sexual images, there is a strong positive response that begs for repetition of the behavior, especially for young people, she pointed out. Technology now allows for immediate gratification, and that is where the hazard lies. Sexually explicit photos intended for one other teen can quickly be passed on beyond the intended recipient.
Adults may be dismayed when they realize teenagers in their lives are taking part in sexting, but should look at it on a case-by-case basis. Premeditation and selling of images should be of concern, but in many instances the issue of sexting can be used as a teaching moment, suggested Ms Ward.
Depersonalized And Objectified
The exploration of sexuality is natural, agreed Dr John Woodall, a Newtown psychiatrist. “Kids are trying to figure out where they fit. It’s a cultural issue amplified now by social media and increasing peer pressure in the adolescent age group. You don’t want to stifle natural curiosity,” Dr Woodall cautioned.
What concerns Dr Woodall about the uptick in sexting among teenagers is the lack of “true human intimacy that is involved.” Sexting is depersonalized and objectified, he said, in many instances.
Casual sex acts and nude pictures shared through sexting may indicate a need to deepen a sense of connection to others. It can be seen as a way to draw closer, and avoid a sense of isolation, Dr Woodall said, regardless of the risk involved.
It is the role of adults in young people’s lives to see that issues of respect and healthy intimacy are modeled, and to open up avenues of communication. “The legal stuff is important to know, but what is more important,” he said, “is to convey a sense of nurturing intimacy and to be respectful of their own humanity. It’s not always an easy conversation to have.”
Mobile technology is an entirely new world for parents and children, Ms Ward said. New means of addressing a child’s poor judgment may be needed. “Paying attention to and watching out for all kids” is vital, she said, and if a child should receive unsolicited sexts, the home environment should be one in which a child feels comfortable going to a parent for help. “Our job is to connect to kids as much as we can,” she said.
The Connecticut State Police advises in Topics In Public Safety, at www.ct.gov, “If someone sends you a naked or sexually explicit photo of an individual under the age of 16, you may want to report it before deleting. If you forward it to others, you would be distributing child pornography, which a felony in Connecticut. If you have concerns about someone distributing child pornography, you can anonymously text a tip to TIP711 plus your message to CRIMES (274637) or call 1-800-842-0200.”
If home is not a safe place to share concerns about sexts being received, young people may find that a teacher or other adult in their life can offer assistance. The problem with teacher and guidance counselors at school, though, Ms Ward said, is that those conversations are not confidential. A professional counselor, or a substance abuse counselor may offer a “safe” option for a student concerned about sexting.
What helps move a teen forward in life is an important conversation to have, when sexting becomes an issue, Dr Woodall said. It is not a futile conversation, but rather one that is vital to parents help teens understand benefits and consequences of actions. “It’s an opportunity for positive growth,” he said.
A conversation parents must have, the minute a child gets a phone, is one on the ground rules regarding privacy — that of their own and that of others. A core respect for dignity, he said, must be instilled.
Parents are up against a powerful surge of hormones and peer pressure during the teenage years, and up against social media that plays into those challenges. By staying on top of new technology, becoming educated, and opening lines of communication with teens on awkward subjects parents can thoughtfully address this new generation of experimentation — and prepare for the future.