The current edition of Checkup magazine is a special one, focusing on Safety in a Mobile World. Articles include information on sexting, respecting your child’s privacy, the 411 on sexting, earning a phone, friending your child’s friends, a family affair and when your child can date. This edition of the magazine was inspired by the following blog by Sophia Grant, M.D. …

My son recently turned 15; I bought him his first cell phone. I tend to shy away from technology that keeps kids wired, but I think I am finally buckling because I am finding it increasingly more difficult to keep up with his sports, academic and school club activities. Of course I’ll have to figure out which plan is best for us and deal with all the wrangling of adding to a wireless account. As I was pondering which phone to get and what plan to buy, I could not help but think of more safety issues that arise once a phone is gifted to a child.

Unlike most people who would contemplate rollover minutes and data plans, my mind went to sexting. (Don’t judge me, it’s an occupational hazard of being a child abuse pediatrician.) Most people know that sexting is the sending of sexually explicit messages and or pictures via cell phone or instant messenger. It is the equivalent of last millennium’s Polaroid, an instant picture without the darkroom. These days sexting seems to be a rite of passage for most teens. In a recent survey of students from seven high schools in Texas, 57% had been asked to send naked pictures of him/herself and almost a third of them (28%) had done so. These numbers alarm me. Why? Because once something is sent out into the digital world, it can never be retrieved. Unlike days of yore, there is no house to ransack or negative to destroy.

What can be done with those pictures? For starters, they may be shared with others, whether it be used as proof of intimacy, to humiliate or as an extortion tool. The consequences can cause the same result: shame and embarrassment. In the past year, there have been several cases where nude pictures became disseminated after a break-up, only to cause severe humiliation, leading to depression and suicide. In addition, digital images frequently end up on pornography websites. Imagine your surprise when you find out that a picture of your teen self is on a porn site, after you get rejected for a job, while in your 20s or even 30s. And let’s not forget about extortion, the scenario of being forced to submit more images for fear of publicly releasing the first, presumably “innocent” image if you don’t agree to others.

The teen brain is still developing and frequently incapable of making sound decisions. Most young adolescents feel like their first love will last forever and that nothing bad will ever happen. Well, it certainly would be a rude awakening to experience loss of love AND public humiliation at the same time.

We live in a world where “leaked” sex tapes of D list celebrities garner notoriety, a reality show, and money. The internet certainly has laid the foundation of false intimacy. Chatting and webpages and Twitter feeds let people in on the comings and goings of all 900+ of their so-called friends. Oversharing is now the norm. Sexualization of children is as commonplace as a Bratz Doll.  It is not a stretch for children to think that a text of a sexual organ or naked body is just as accepted and normal.

Many people don’t realize that sexting is illegal under federal law. It is categorized as the distribution and possession of child pornography and is a federal offense.  Although most prosecutors would not prosecute this, others are prosecuting both those who take the pictures and also those who possess them.

As parents, our job is to protect our children, yet also to empower them to make the right decisions. This is best done by talking to your teens in a nonjudgmental manner. Rather than telling your child, “Don’t do this….” Start by saying, “Hey, I read about a kid who got in trouble for sending/receiving naked texts—what do you think about that?” Then that can lead into whether or not they had ever been asked to send pictures. With teens, they don’t always make the best decisions “in the moment”. Actually, none of us do. Why not create hypothetical scenarios:  “What would you do if…. you received a sext, heard people talking about one… “ I also reserve the right to check my child’s phone and texts whenever I feel like it. They know. It comes with the wireless package. “Don’t text anything that you don’t want me seeing”. Sometimes that is a bigger deterrent than fear of having an embarrassing picture floating around cyberspace. There are also parental controls that can be placed on phones through your wireless carrier. Apps to help prevent sexting are available as well.

Although the internet is a great resource for accessing information, it can also be used to research YOU. College admissions, scholarship boards, employers, defense attorneys, district attorneys and law enforcement use the web as well. Although sext pictures may not be as readily accessible as your Facebook account, keep in mind that those pictures can follow you around forever. It certainly is better to make wise choices now rather than having to explain your mistakes later.

Sophia R. Grant, M.D., FAAP, is a board certified child abuse pediatrician at Cook Children’s Medical Center.

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