May I say how glad I am that there were no smartphones when I was a teenager. A cell phone? Sure, that would have been great, but a smartphone with a camera? I shudder at the thought. Fortunately for my generation, most of our bad decisions are just foggy memories or yellowing photos forgotten in a shoe box.
Not so for this generation. Cell phones are in the hands, backpacks or pockets of 78 percent of American teens. And not just any old cell phones. At least 47 percent are smartphones, which translates to having the Internet in all its unfiltered glory in those hands, backpacks and pockets. Teens are free to search and send anything – literally anything – they choose, including sexually explicit texts and images.
So, what do you do if you discover your child has been involved in sexting? First of all, if you suspect your teen is using his/her phone for sexting, do something. You are the parent and it is your responsibility to protect your child whether they are the one sending the inappropriate content or receiving it from friends. You do your best to monitor your home computer, the movies they see, and the games they play. Why is their phone exempt from the same level of scrutiny? Respect for privacy is important, but safety is a much greater priority.
Start with a conversation. Don’t lecture or accuse, but be honest about the risks and responsibilities. Agree to setting boundaries, with the understanding that you’ll be checking in from time to time. And don’t be afraid to follow up. Fear that mom or dad will find out isn’t the best reason for making a decision, but it’s saved more than one child from making poor decisions.
Second, if your suspicions are true and your child has been sexting, don’t panic. You were once a teenager and made mistakes. Teens make impulsive choices all the time, this one just has more potential for serious trouble.
Use this as a teachable moment. When your children were little, you disciplined to change behavior, not just punish, and the same rules apply here. You want to help them not to make the same mistake again. Accountability is crucial. They may not be able to undo what they’ve already done, but they can take responsibility for their actions.
It’s important that impulse-driven teens learn consequences. If the situation warrants, consider taking away the smartphone. If you’re uncomfortable with your teen being less accessible, give them a phone without internet access or texting capability. It may feel like a life threatening loss to them, but it’s a lesson not soon forgotten.
If you know sexting is a problem and you’ve exhausted other options, software is available that allows you to monitor your child’s cell phone activity remotely. All incoming and outgoing calls, texts, email and web browsing activities are tracked.
Next, if the content is shared, act quickly. If it’s been shared via social media, contact the site and report it. If the images have been shared at school, contact the principal and other authorities, so they are fully aware of the situation and can act in accordance with school policies. Be aware of the laws in your state. Sharing sexually explicit images of underage individuals is a serious crime. If the image has gone viral, contact local law enforcement so they too can act.
If your child is the victim, track everything. Take screen shots of messages on social media, chat rooms, or via text. You will want a virtual paper trail of the harassment so you have evidence for the authorities.
Also, if your child is the victim, encourage your child not to respond to the abuse. It rarely helps and often leads to further harassment. Don’t reply to emails or texts. Block those who are engaging in the bullying and take down your child’s social media profiles. Stay offline. Later, at a time when you and your child feel safe, you can start over with a fresh profile with stringent privacy settings.
Finally, if it’s all too much and you or your child feels overwhelmed, get help. The constant abuse and bullying may result in anxiety and depression, leaving scars that last a lifetime.
Parenting is a whole new game than when our parents were raising us. Who knew the 70’s and 80’s would seem like the 50’s did for our parents? Each generation faces challenges unheard of for the generation before. If our kids are going to be ready for the challenges of raising our grandkids, it’s up to us to start planting those seeds of common sense and restraint now.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, Ontario. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.