SALT LAKE CITY — Parents who think talking in general terms about sexting will prevent it are wrong.
As a trail of broken hearts, tarnished reputations and even some teen suicides show, consequences can be harsh, so the conversations must be painfully blunt, experts say.
Studies suggest as many as one in three teens — and 28 percent of adults surveyed — have sexted, defined as sending someone a risque message or photo, usually by cell phone or e-mail. Teens, especially, have the mistaken notion that everyone is doing it and only a fuzzy grasp of potential consequences.
They also don't understand that, unleashed in cyberspace, it may "live forever and can be transmitted well beyond the person they intended to share it with, so if something historically might have been slightly embarrassing, it now has potential to become disastrous to reputation or feelings of privacy," said Dr. Scott Whittle, a psychiatrist and medical director of Primary Children's residential and day treatment programs. "What was once simple flirtation can now live forever on the memory cards of peers."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that 25 percent of the children identified as victims of online pornography originally sent the images themselves.
"Virtually everyone is going to regret those photos at some time," said Linda Criddle of Safe Internet Alliance and Ilookbothways.com.
Children are being tempted or even actively pressured to sext. A parent who believes a child would never do that has "likely forgotten what it is like to ache for social acceptance the way a young teenager can," Whittle said.
He and Criddle emphasized the pressure kids feel to fit in and how that need can result in inappropriate action.
It is highly likely a sexted photo will be shared, if only to prove the person who boasts of having it really does, Criddle said.
Teens also convince themselves their relationships are time-proof and the "love" of today won't be the one they dump — or get dumped by — in a few weeks.
The only truth, Criddle said, is once you've sent the image, it can be disseminated in unintended ways: A former friend sends it to others, who may share it, too; a phone is lost or hacked; someone thinks it's "funny"; a policeman looking for contact information at a crash scene discovers it.
Search "sexting" online and news stories tell of "private" pictures gone astray and sometimes viral, to be seen by strangers, relatives, teachers, clergy, neighbors, sexual predators, potential bosses and bullies alike.
A man posing as a girl on Facebook enticed teen boys to send sexual self-portraits he later used to blackmail them. Both senders and recipients of sexts have been charged with child pornography — some must now register as sex offenders. Stories speak of lost opportunities, from jobs to scholarships to sports, school leadership and more.
"A tragic number of kids take their lives," said Criddle, who suspects an undercount as some parents don't know what led to the death, and others won't discuss it. Others have stepped forward, like those of Jessica Logan, 18, of Ohio, and Hope Witsell, 13, of Florida, who killed themselves over the bullying and embarrassment that followed sexting.
"When our children face shame and embarrassment and aren't able to find relief, they may consider drastic measures that place them at risk," Whittle said. "This is a reaction we are seeing from bullying and the social taunting that comes from sexting that is shared beyond its intended audience."
Parents must tell their teens that sexting puts them at risk of humiliation and also of sexual exploitation, Criddle said.
If a child has already sexted, it's not the time to have the "how could you?" conversation," she said.
"You have to try to collect the images or messages back, and hope it hasn't gone viral," Criddle said.
The teen can sit with the recipient and ask them to delete it, assuming it hasn't been sent anywhere.
"Try to get them back before the relationship goes bad," she said.
If there's been any kind of threat, get help.
"Telling the parent is a horrible step; it might be the one thing a child is trying to avoid," Criddle said. "So often, parents get mixed up in this and blame the victim. No matter how embarrassing or stupid it seems, that is a separate discussion. The point is, they need your help. And parents have to create an environment where one can come to them and tackle the problem."
Whittle said parents must become comfortable with monitoring and limiting what children do.
"They are not yet capable of understanding the potential consequences of their actions," he said. "Limits placed on a child's access to harm is definitely a parent's responsibility."
Criddle also said parents must teach children not to ask friends to endanger themselves by sexting.
"Putting a friend in a compromising position is wrong," she said.
Potential problems from sexting for teens include:
Removal from sports teams, extracurricular activities
Difficulty getting scholarships, jobs
Source: Safe Internet Alliance
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