Back in the days of passing paper notes and talking on corded telephones, a classmate of mine brought a nude photo of a young woman from an adult magazine to school. Once seen by a few peers, the incident quickly mushroomed into full-blown, graphic stories shared during lunch. The news spread around school as fast as things could spread back then, via whispers in class and taps on shoulders in hallways. However, gossip about the incident vanished quickly once the photo was confiscated.

Parents of teenagers today are concerned about "sexting" - a disturbing trend defined as the sending of sexually explicit messages or photos primarily via cell phones. Technology allows texts and photos to be disseminated at lightning speed. Once a photo is in cyberspace, there is no control over what can happen to it-there's no shredder to destroy the evidence.

Muddling through Statistics

Studies show diverse results. Some have reported that approximately 20 percent of teenagers have sent or received sexually explicit photos. A 2011 study conducted jointly by the Associated Press and MTV found that sexting is far more prevalent among young adults (19 percent) as compared to teens (7 percent). Other studies show much lower percentages.

David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, reports that many of the studies have higher percentages because they survey teens who are at or beyond the age of consent. "There is a lot of alarmist rhetoric about the sexting problem. Our research, a national sample of teens under the age of 18, shows that about 1 percent of teenagers have been involved in sexting. Parents need to understand that the statistics have to do primarily with older teens."

Studies also show that most teens send these photos to their significant others, and parents have long grappled with the problem of teens risking their reputations to attract the attention of another teen. "Parents have for generations tried to warn their adolescents about the risks in getting involved in sexual relationships," says Finkelhor.

Low self-esteem and peer pressure are catalysts. "So much peer pressure exists amongst this age group. When we combine a teenager's poor impulse control, curiosity about sex and their close ties to their high-tech phones, sexting becomes the 'it' trend in boy-girl communication," explains Ida Zarrabizadeh, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy master's program at Touro University Worldwide.

Dangers and Consequences

According to the July 2010 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, "An 18-year-old high school graduate committed suicide after a nude photo she had transmitted via her cell phone to her boyfriend was also sent to hundreds of teenagers in her school." Students who saw the photo allegedly harassed her.

Not only can nude photos be used to harass an adolescent, but some incidents might also be considered illegal.

Finkelhor says, "It's unusual that kids are being arrested for child pornography. Where there were arrests, something malicious was going on." Finkelhor has found that most of the incidents handled by police were considered aggravated cases-an adult was involved or a minor engaged in malicious or abusive behavior.

Teens need to be warned about the risks. Parents should talk to their teens about "real life," tragic examples of sexting gone wrong so teens are acutely aware of the negative consequences.

It Happened… Now What?

You've seen it. Now take a deep breath.

Zarrabizadeh says, "It's easy for parents to become overly emotional. Parents can go through a number of emotions from anger, to disappointment, to sadness." Therefore, parents should process these emotions with their own support system (a spouse or trusted friend).

Take action immediately if you've found that your teen has been harassed or exploited. "If an adult has been involved or there is criminal activity, such as blackmail or selling and distributing photos, parents should get in touch with police," Finkelhor advises. If content has been posted on a website, Finkelhor says parents should contact the website manager and say that the photos have been posted without permission. No matter the situation, Finkelhor urges parents to approach their teen in a calm manner.

Zarrabizadeh believes that having an open, nonthreatening relationship will promote mutual trust. "Remember to avoid exerting control. Instead, emphasize how important [your child's] safety is to you." If there is trust, your teen will go to you if she is in trouble.


Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist and author of the newly released book, LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS: Expert Advice and Support for the Conscientious Parent Just Like You (Unlimited Publishing LLC): For information visit myrnahaskell.com.