It is a calm evening at home, what does your family look like? Are you making dinner? Is your husband chillingin front of the news? Where are your kids?
Your tween might be on Facebook writing “S’up?” to a series of friends while your other teenager might be receiving texts from a boy she likes at school asking her to send an intimate picture of herself.
This is the way the texts read:
B: Hey babe, what u doin?
B: Love u
G: Luv u 2
B: How much?
G: u got some
B: No a special one
B: cause I luv u
B: Share w me
G: Like this?
She reaches down, lifts up her shirt, and in three seconds, there it goes, a private photo of herself. To the boy she wants to impress. The guy she wants to “be” with. That’s how fast it happens.
According to Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wanna Bees,“Every day, tweens and teens are sexting—using cell phones to take, send and forward photographs and videos of themselves seminaked, totally naked or in sexually suggestive poses.” A 2009 survey by AK Tweens indicated that thirty percent of girls 9 to 15 said they’ve sent explicit messages or photos of themselves. As Rosalind stated in a recent segment on Dr. Lynne Weighs In, it’s hard for your teen to walk down the hallways at school and not see a sext of a teenager. Even if your tween or teen in not sexting themselves, they know what sexting is, who is doing it and what it looks like.
Who is Sexting and Why?
Girls and guys both sext but for different reasons. Guys may do it for shock value, maybe even on a dare. Girls do it for acceptance and love. They falsely believe that a sext will secure them a special place in a boy’s heart. While he promises it’s just for him, to impress the guys he may send that photo around. The resulting humiliation is palpable.
Moms ask themselves, “What girl in her right mind would take a naked picture of herself with a cell phone?” While personal motivation varies, Scottsdale therapist Diana Vigil, an expert in teenage behavior tells us, “Some teenage girls are vulnerable to exploitation because they feel insecure and unloved.”
According to Charles Sophy, MD, Medical Director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), 33% of teens have received a sexual photo via text. Dr. Sophy tells us: “Teens will always find a way to chatter and gossip about every innocuous detail of their hormone-infused lives, and with cell phone use, texting is a critical mode of communication for them. Whereas, the vast majority of these texts may be harmless, there is a new element of risk with sexting because teens are not thinking about the consequences. They can instantaneously transmit a message to someone whether they are sitting next to them, or thousands of miles away. Unfortunately, our advances in technological society don't allow a text to be retrieved once it is sent.”
The Teen Brain Can Be Impulsive
To go along with the 71% of kids 12 to 17 that own cell phones, is their impulsive nature, immaturity and inability to foresee the consequences of their actions. When you and I were young our obsessions were expressed by calling a guy and hanging up. If you were really daring you’d drive by his home. Not these days. The stakes are much higher. Now teens who perceive they are in committed relationships text sexual fantasies, photos and more to one another. But how can you erase the previous texts and FB entries when you leave one relationship and enter another? At the moment teens are sexting, they can only see this relationship in this moment. Then comes the break-up. The texts and photos get shared outside the initial relationship.
The humiliation and shame of being called-out with a sext are far reaching and on occasion can include suicide. According to Wiseman, “In one especially tragic case, Jessica Logan, a senior at Sycamore High School in Cincinnati, was so overwhelmed by public harassment after her ex-boyfriend forwarded a nude picture of her that she hung herself.”
Instead of just responding with horror and fear what can parents do?
Talk Openly with Your Children:
It may seem difficult and perhaps even give you a knot in your stomach, but this complicated digital era calls for you to be accessible and calm with your child. You are your child’s best educator. You may be able to avoid texting and Facebook until your kids are teens, but those of us who have tweens feel the pressure right now.
Practice your communication and listening skills with your children without being judgmental or angry. Your anger comes from fear and loss of control. Be in control by staying aware and present with your kids. A reminder, be your most mature self, these teens face enough traumas without you losing it and railing on them.
Talk about Expectations:
Help your children understand that with the freedom and independence that comes with cell phones, texting and online media comes huge responsibilities. They need to talk, tweet, FB and text politely. If they are going to be negative, ranting or inappropriate with their media you will need to shut it down until they are ready to use “Best Practices” that include a high level of social manners and ethics. (Hey, where are you in all this? Are you acting like the teen or the adult?)
Be a Source of Calm:
Your children are going to make mistakes. Any adult who uses social media, phones and texts, knows that we all make mistakes. These need to be an opportunity to learn and grow not turn into a time of humiliation and punishment.
@SuzannaNarducci Co-Founder of tweenparent.com offers these valuable insights about when our children make mistakes. “Parenting is about helping our kids learn how to be independent. Giving them the opportunity to make small mistakes and trouble shoot afterwards helps children develop the skills they need to deal with big life events and the challenges they'll face when they leave home for college."
If your teen makes a “big mistake” and sexts (sometimes for the entire school to see) stay calm and avoid humiliating your teen even more. They might have been having fun while sexting but now they are “out.” They are likely to feel embarrassed by their behavior, if not of their own accord, due to prevalent social norms. So, be calm, stay a voice of reason and keep your teen’s future sexuality intact with limits for now. Remember that your teen is going to grow into an adult with a right to a healthy sex life that wasn’t thwarted by some teenage indiscretion.
Protect your Kids with SafeWare:
Former Secretary of Education, Dr. William Bennett shared with me recently that cyberbullying, sexting, and online predators are all reasons parents need to monitor their children’s safety with technology such as MouseMail, a system that screens messages before they get to your kids.
Have an Open Air Policy:
Given the safety concerns that cell phones, texting and social media bring to you and your family, I suggest that your children allow you to see their Facebook pages, read their texts and have posts and texts come to your own phone. Your role is not to micromanage them, it is to help them if situations develop that are too big for them to handle. They can have privacy in your home when they are not using media.
Impulsive acts or moments of poor judgment can impact a teen for a lifetime. You need to be able to see trouble if it develops and respond to your tweens and teens by helping them. In the back seat of your car you may hear the kids talking about a girl being “bullied” by a boy she refused to date and she is scared to tell her parents. This is your opportunity to tune in and help. Believe me the kids at the school know what is going on, as a parent you need to as well.
Digital media is changing not only the landscape of parenting, but also the rules.
Learning how to be tuned in and smart about media and your kids creates new responsibilities for you as a parent. Refraining from being shaming and angry; leaning toward the side of being available and calm with your teens is now a requirement of parenting. It may be hard, it may be scary but it is reality.