Newswise — Mary Muscari, associate professor in the Decker School of Nursing at Binghamton University and author of "Let Kids be Kids: Rescuing Childhood," offers tips for parents on the latest cell phone craze among teens.
Warning! Cell phones still pose dangers to your teen's health. First it was "DWT " driving while texting," now it is "sexting." Sexting, the sending of sexually charged messages or images via cell phone, has become headline news, and it can result in young lives being lost to suicide or shattered by the collateral consequences of felony convictions.
Who's doing it? According to a survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com, 20% of teens (22% of girls and 18% of boys) electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves.
Why are they doing it? Â· Children and teens are blitzed with sexual messages on a regular basis in print and on screen, as well as in toys and clothing. Â· The word 'sexting' may be new, but the behavior isn't. People have been memorializing and sharing naked images for quite some time, most recently via instant cameras, copy machines and web cams. Boomers may also want to think back to the days of Woodstock, free love, and streaking. Â· Teens view technology differently than adults. Â· Teens often cannot see the long-term consequences of their behavior.
What's the problem? Although some behaviors may age-appropriate, they may not be socially acceptable, and, as in the case of sexting, may be illegal. The naked photo that took seconds to send can last an eternity in cyberspace, causing chaos if recognized by family, friends, school administrators, college admission personnel, scholarship groups, or law enforcement. Guilt and shame can result in emotional issues, such as depression and suicidal ideation. Scholarships can be forfeited. Colleges may refuse admission. Sex offenders may use the photos to blackmail the sender into victimization. And the legal system may charge any or all involved teens with possession and/or distribution of child pornography.
What can a parent do? Â· Get tech savvy. You can't play the game without knowing the rules. Â· Monitor your children in cyberspace, just as you would anywhere else. Know the who, what, when, where and why of their telecommunications activity. The easiest way to do this is to keep tech toys out of their bedroom. Keep the computer in an area where it can be monitored, and have the kids turn in their cell phones and other hand-held devices before bedtime to prevent nightly text-fests and potential sexting. Â· Know what your kids are posting online. If it is posted for everyone to see, you're included in the 'everyone'. Make sure they are not posting anything unsafe, including their contact information. Â· Talk to them about relationships and the importance of their reputation. This is a good time to test out the values that you instill in them. Â· Discuss their online and cell activity. Make sure they know that their cell and online activities are not truly private or anonymous. Â· Set rules for tech use, including cell phones, and make sure to include " and enforce " consequences for breaking those rules.
What's the big picture? We need better laws. While it is difficult for the law to keep up with technology, we need laws that differentiate sexting, cyberbullying, harassment and sexual offending. But this is easier said than done since we need to assure that we not create loopholes for sexual predators. Child pornography laws should protect children, not only from predators, but from themselves.
About Mary Muscari:"¨Mary Muscari is an associate professor in the Decker School of Nursing at Binghamton University. An expert in child health, mental health, and forensics, Muscari has more than 30 years of experience working with children and teens. She has written or coauthored more than 100 publications, including Not My Kid: 21 Steps to Raising a Nonviolent Child, Not My Kid 2: Protecting Your Children from the 21 Threats of the 21st Century, and Let Kids be Kids: Rescuing Childhood.