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Sexting: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Your Kids Safe

  • Jim Liebelt HomeWord
  • 2009 4 Apr
  • COMMENTS
Sexting: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Your Kids Safe

What is Sexting?

Very simply, sexting is a play on the term “texting” and is applied to the action of sending semi-nude or nude photos to others on a cell phone, or posting these types of pictures online.

Why do Kids Sext?

The dynamics at play when teens sext are varied. Many factors in any combination such as a need for attention, the desire to be recognized, peer-pressure, flirtation, new teen dating rituals, proof of commitment in a relationship, raging hormones, following the example of noted teen celebrities, adolescent risk-taking, and immaturity can be involved in a teen’s decision to sext.

Know the Danger of Digital Photos in Cyberspace.

Many kids don’t have the maturity to intuitively know or think through the consequences of distributing digital photos electronically. This is a key area that parents can have influence with their kids, by educating them of the dangers associated with sexting.

One of the reasons I love digital photography so much is that the photos are so easy to distribute. When I’m out on the road, I can snap a quick photo and send it immediately to family and friends back home. Nifty! We can take photos on our cell phones, and immediately send them to others. We can upload photos to our computers, post them to websites and deliver them via email. It’s just so easy – and if you are like me – you love the ease of distribution too. But, this ease is exactly what has opened the door to a dark side.

Once a digital photo makes it out into Cyberspace, there’s no way to guarantee that another person (particularly those with a little tech-savvy) can’t get their hands on the photo, not to mention distribute it. And, once released into Cyberspace it’s possible that for better or for worse, it’s out there forever!

Now if we’re talking about a photo of my recently seeded lawn that I emailed to my brother, well that’s no big deal. If someone in Cyberspace really wants it, they can have it! Yet, what about the picture of your daughter that a friend took on her cell phone at that sleepover last weekend when they were being silly (in their underwear) at 2:00 a.m.? And, let’s assume that the friend quickly sent it to some other peers in her phone’s address book with no malicious intent, but just to be funny? That’s sexting! In this scenario, the dangers of easy distribution quickly becomes simple to define.

Understand the Consequences of Sexting.

Certainly not all kids who have sent a sext or have received one will experience consequences. But, the truth is that sexting can have devastating consequences. For the teen whose inappropriate photo was passed along to friends, peers, teachers, and strangers, the damage can be devastating. It can even be a matter of life and death. An example is the story of Jesse Logan. Jesse, a high school student in Cincinnati, suffered vicious bullying and harassment by peers after the boyfriend she had broken up with, sexted a nude photo of her to other girls at the high school where she attended. In July, 2008, Jesse hanged herself in her bedroom closet, her cell phone laying on the middle of the floor.

On the other side of the spectrum, teens who distribute sexts to others are in danger of finding themselves in serious trouble with the law.

Phillip Alpert, a Florida teen, turned to sexting when his former girlfriend insulted him. In turn, he sent nude photos she had taken of herself and had sent to him when they were dating to 70 people. Alpert was arrested, charged, convicted, and given probation for distributing child pornography. He is now a registered sex offender, a moniker he will carry with him until he is at least 43 years of age. Weekly, he has to meet with a group of other sex offenders, largely rapists and child molesters.

Child pornography and child protection laws (such as Megan's Law) were created to protect children from sexual abuse in the days before sexting. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors are now stepping up to stem the tide of sexting, but are applying these laws to sexting teens in ways that were never imagined when the laws were drafted.  

A debate has emerged over whether these laws should be applied to cases of sexting. The debate is necessary, and perhaps in time, new laws will be enacted that apply directly to sexting that include appropriate punishments instead of felony charges and stigmas of teens becoming registered sexual offenders. Until then, teens caught sexting are at significant risk of being charged with serious crimes once reserved for sexual predators. Under these laws, receiving an uninvited sexual photo isn’t a crime. But, failing to delete the photo from a cell phone might well be considered to be one.  

Maintain Perspective.

Not all kids are sexting. A survey released towards the end of 2008 by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy indicated that only 20% of teens have been involved in sexting. Meanwhile, the media has ramped up coverage of sexting to the verge of hysteria. One can find some news item about it everyday. If you weren’t aware that only 1 in 5 kids have sexted, you might likely conclude that every kid with a cell phone has somehow been involved. What’s needed is a healthy dose of parental perspective that 4 in 5 kids have not been involved. Is sexting something worth addressing with your teens? Certainly. Should parents panic? Absolutely not.

Talk About Sexting with Your Kids.

Media coverage makes it easy these days to bring sexting up in conversation with your kids. Use a news item as a springboard to engage your kids in discussion. Share with your kids the dangers associated with sexting. Don’t assume that one discussion with your kids will be all they’ll need to help keep them safe. Revisit the discussion from time to time.

Include Spiritual Aspects in Your Discussions.

Use discussions about sexting to reinforce God-honoring principles of sexuality, healthy self-esteem, and respect for self and others.

Set Clear Expectations and Consequences for Sexting.  

Even after discussing the issues with you kids, there’s no way to guarantee that your daughter or son won’t ever send, receive or keep a sext. Consistent discipline is the pathway to helping your kids navigate the rough seas of adolescence into responsible adulthood. So, set sexting expectations and consequences. Expectations might include:

• No taking photos on your cell phone of anyone who is semi-nude, nude, or engaged in other inappropriate behavior.

• No sending or forwarding of a sext is allowed.

• If you receive a sext, tell mom, dad, a teacher, or other trusted adult about it.

• If you receive a sext, delete it.

• No harassing or bullying of other kids who have been involved in sexting is allowed.

Consider Purchasing Your Child a Cell Phone Without a Camera, or the Ability to Receive Digital Photos.

There are still new cell phones on the market today that can serve a teen’s need for phone and texting, but don’t include digital cameras. You know your child well enough to answer the question, “Does my child really need a phone with a camera?” Purchasing a phone without a camera eliminates the risk of your child taking an inappropriate picture or video and may also eliminate the risk of receiving and viewing inappropriate pictures as well.

Don’t Hesitate to Follow Up.

If you become aware of stories (or actually see photos) that indicate inappropriate photos or videos being circulated among students, don’t assume that another adult knows and is handling the issue. Contact your school officials as soon as possible.

As Close As You Can Come to Safety.

If you are proactive enough to enter into discussions with your child about sexting, and are willing to set specific and clear expectations about sexting behaviors, then the likelihood of keeping your son or daughter safe from the consequences of involvement in sexting goes way up. In a technological culture without a lot of guarantees, this might come as close to safety as you can reasonably hope.

Published April 13, 2009.


Jim Liebelt is a 20+ year youth ministry veteran and is the Senior Editor of Publications for HomeWord, including oversight of the "Good Advice Parent Newsletter," Today’s HomeWord daily devotional, and HomeWord’s Culture Brief. Jim is also a presenter for HomeWord's parent seminar, "Building Healthy Morals and Values." Jim joined the HomeWord staff in 1998, and has served over the years in various pastoral ministries, as a youth ministry and parenting seminar speaker, an adjunct youth ministry instructor at Gordon College, a national presenter for Group Magazine Live, and has served on the council of the New England Network of Youth Ministries.