The latest cell phone use: Sexting


By Chris Wagner



As if keeping tabs on teenage sexual behavior hasn’t become difficult enough, teenage sexual trends have now gone mobile. Recent news stories from across the country are reporting on a new trend known as “sexting.


By using the text messaging service on their cell phones, teens engage in sexting by sending flirtatious messages back and forth. Innocent adolescent flirting via cell phones may be harmless enough, however, over time the text messages may become more sexually explicit in nature, even referring to or requesting specific sexual acts and behaviors. Though sexting is still an early phenomenon and little to no research has been conducted yet, it can be assumed that at least some of these cell phone communications lead to actual physical sexual encounters. The most popular entry on the online Urban Dictionary defines sexting as “the act of text messaging someone in the hopes of having a sexual encounter with them later; initially casual, transitioning into highly suggestive and even sexually explicit.”


The aspect of this trend that experts are currently most concerned about moves well beyond simple text messaging. Utilizing the digital cameras on their phones and MMS (multimedia messaging service) technology, teens take sexually charged photos of themselves and send them to other individuals’ phones. Detective Brian Marvin, a member of the FBI Cyber Crime Task Force, says, “I’ve seen everything from your basic striptease to sexual acts being performed.” With many cameras now having the capability of recording short videos, both photos and videos are being sent. Sending nude photos and video via cell phones has become so commonplace with teens that students in the Portland area, for example, have labeled it as a major problem.


Officials not only agree that sexting is a major problem, but they offer further warning. Parents and teens must know that taking, sending, forwarding or having inappropriate photos can lead to criminal charges, especially if they include minors.


Reportedly, the majority of revealing images are being sent from females to males. However, males participate as well, snapping shots of their genitals and sending them to girls. For girls, the recipient is often a boyfriend. Other times photos are sent to a group of male friends, others yet are sent to ex-boyfriends to make them jealous. “Sexts” range from shots of bare breasts or genitals all the way to videos of masturbation or other sexual acts being performed. Girls who send racy images to their boyfriends may be doing so because they feel more comfortable sending photos than actually being nude in person. The perceived risk and emotional attachment seems lessened. Perhaps it is a way for girls to keep sex-crazed boyfriends at bay, or to keep their male counterpart interested, without actually committing physical sexual acts.


Whether sent to an individual boyfriend or a group of males, it is clear that the main reason girls sext is to get noticed. Not only are girls battling each other for the attention and affection of boys, but they’re also competing against an onslaught of celebrities, often scantily clad, seen in the media. Laurie Ouellete, a communication studies professor and reality TV expert at the University of Minnesota, says of girls, “The price is that you have to define yourself in the same kind of terms that celebrities are defined.” Within the last year, racy photos of celebrities Vanessa Anne Hudgens (High School Musical) and Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana), have surfaced. In both cases it was believed the photos were taken and distributed using cell phones.


Impressionable young girls see their media role models behaving in such a way that creates a lot of hype and buzz among their male peers, and suddenly sending nude photos of oneself becomes acceptable behavior in their efforts to vie for male attention. Joe Kelly, president of the Web site Dads and Daughters, told Kevin Giles of the Star Tribune that “young people, especially children, are starting to think that it’s normal to show flesh in social settings, particularly through technology.”


Anecdotal evidence from news reports suggests this form of attention grabbing sexting—as opposed to ones sent with the intent of a real physical hookup—are more common among teens. It does appear, however, that many young adults are engaging in sexting with the hope of having a sexual encounter.


The digital nature of this new trend opens itself up to another nasty side effect. The celebs mentioned above aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to having pictures leaked and posted on the Internet for all to see. Many photos that are sent end up on public Web sites or printed out and passed around at school. Photos can also be mass distributed in a matter of minutes using the forward function of a cell phone’s MMS capabilities.


Boys who receive pictures or videos may choose to share them with their friends as a way to brag. Sharing exaggerated stories in the locker room is no longer enough. Visuals must accompany these stories in order to validate them. One teen—in an article on—says, “It’s like a digital trophy, proving that you did something or you got someone to show you something personal of theirs and you can parade it around and make sure everyone knows.” Digital photos also can be saved and used to slander someone after a relationship goes sour. Students in Wisconsin were charged with a defamation of character misdemeanor after distributing nude photos of a female classmate earlier this year.


Innocent bystanders are also being affected by sexting. Some teens have reported receiving unsolicited nude photos, oftentimes of someone they don’t even know. Unfortunately, teens in unhealthy relationships are also prone to abuse. According to a Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) survey titled “Tech Abuse in Teen Relationships Study,” of those in relationships, one in five teens have been asked to engage in an unwanted sexual activity by cell phone or over the Internet.


There are several key factors that make this a difficult trend for parents to keep tabs on. First of all, a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey indicates that over 60 percent of teens own a cell phone. No longer do a small minority of teens have access to this technology. Given the device’s mobile nature, there are no geographical boundaries to “sextual” behavior. Teens can send text messages at home, in school, while driving, at a friend’s house or anywhere they choose. Reporter Lesley Tanner of CBS3 Springfield says “one of the appeals of sexting is the ability to hide the behavior from parents.”


Not only are teen sexting trends not limited by space, but they’re not limited by time either. Many teens, especially those in relationships, text message into the late hours of the night and early morning. The TRU survey also states that “nearly one out of four teens in a relationship communicated with their partner via cell phone hourly between midnight and 5:00 a.m.”


Another thing making it difficult for parents is what has been titled the “Text Generation Gap.” When it comes to text messaging, many parents are left in the dark because they simply do not know very much about this technology, nor do they understand the new language teens have developed to communicate through text. Not understanding the different spellings and the use of textonyms (acronyms used in text messaging) make it difficult for parents to monitor normal text messaging, let alone distinguish explicit sexts from appropriate texts. Just like online, the cell phone is one more arena that students are using to define themselves apart from their parents’ guidance and influence.


Existing cultural components will not make combating this trend any easier. Similar behavior among celebrities has already been mentioned. Marketers and television show creators are also making sexting seem as though it is normal and appropriate adolescent behavior. To advertise the most recent season of the teen hit “Gossip Girl” posters were created with popular teenaged characters in erotic poses with the acronym “OMFG”—which stands for “Oh my f***ing god”—displayed across the bottom of the poster. Sexually charged images are combined with the commonly used vernacular of today’s mobile teens to send powerful and behavior-shaping messages.


The fact that sending nude photos is an obvious form of pornography does not even phase today’s teens. The Web site reports that the age group that views Internet porn most frequently is between 12 and 17. In addition, a study of teens in New Zealand found that “only 13 percent of 12- to 13-year-olds were bothered or upset by online nudity or pornography.” Unfortunately, pornography has become such a pervasive and normal part of life that teens do not even blink an eye at participating in such behavior.


What parents can do to help teens steer clear of this growing new trend is to talk about it. Ask your child if they know about sexting, whether they know people participating in it, or whether or not they’ve sent or received sext messages themselves. Let your teen know what they should do if they receive unsolicited sexts. Discuss what types of mobile communication are appropriate and what are inappropriate. Set parameters for when, how often and for what purposes a cell phone can be used.


Do you allow your teen to take a cell phone to school? If so, set limits for its use during this time. Perhaps only calls to mom or dad are appropriate. With so many students texting and sexting through the night, it may be appropriate to take away cell phones during these hours. If necessary, check your teen’s cell phone and look through the text messaging history. Be aware that many phones can be set to delete texts or picture messages as soon as they are sent. Browse through the monthly cell phone bill to discover more about when and how often your teen is texting. If you find the parameters you have set have been broken, take away cell phone privileges. It’s important for teens to know the proper way to manage new and emerging technologies.


Parental knowledge of this behavior can also lead to valuable discussions about the proper view of sexuality and pornography. Our bodies are given to us by God and as such are sacred. When we view pornographic images, we are not giving proper dignity, worth and respect to those seen in the images. Any kind of sexual behavior outside of the God-established realm of marriage is sinful. Stress that viewing nude photos and videos, as well as taking them of oneself or others, is also a distortion of God’s sexual plan. Viewing pornography as a teen, or at any age, can establish an unhealthy, sinful and extremely powerful habit.


Parents should keep in mind that the impulsive nature of teenagers means they are often snapping nude photos of themselves without much thought. Encourage your teens to think about their actions and the possible consequences they may have. Remind them to consider what God’s Word has to say about certain behaviors, such as sexting. Make them aware that possessing explicit photos of minors can lead to criminal charges. Also help them realize how easy it is for these photos to spread into the wrong hands. Embarrassment and shame always come after the fact, once it is too late. Unfortunately, with digital technology and the Internet, deleting all the images is an impossible task. Let them know that not only could their peers and classmates see the images, but future employers and college admissions counselors as well, who are now using the Internet to do background searches. A quick and rash decision to send a nude photo can have negative long-lasting effects. Hopefully, knowing the possible consequences ahead of time will deter teens from sexting.


If you’re unfamiliar with text messaging, a great way to spend time with your son or daughter would be to have them sit down and show you the basics of text messaging. At first, they may be suspect of you wanting to enter into what they see as their realm, but it can also open up the lines of communication between you and your child. It will give you another way to stay in touch with them when they’re outside the walls of your home. You can also model what the proper use of text-messaging looks like. However, don’t fall into the trap of relying too heavily on text messaging. Face-to-face communication is still the most effective way to build relationships with teens.


Knowing the facts about sexting and discussing this trend with your teen is only the beginning. Having a strong, open relationship with your teen and modeling a life of integrated faith, as well as a biblical view of sexuality, will be the greatest preventive steps you can take as a parent to keep your teen free from the dangers of sexting.




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©2008, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding