by Lori Cunningham

Cellphones can be a powerful and an effective tool in communicating to others.  Teens know this better than anyone else.  For many teens, cellphones are their “lifeline” to their social life.  In fact, according to a national survey from CTIA and Harris Interactive,

Nearly half (47%) of US teens say their social life would end or be worsened without their cell phone, and nearly six in 10 (57%) credit their mobile device with improving their life.

The study goes on to reveal that according to teens, cellphones are the most telling thing about their social status or popularity – even more so than watches, jewelry, or shoes!

Teens surveyed stated that they spend as much time texting as they do talking each month.  Teens prefer texting over talking because:

it’s faster

they can multitask

avoid verbal conversation

it’s fun

Texting provides teens with a quick way to get an answer or to communicate a message and often times the message is returned in a timely manner. But with today’s teens, there’s more being sent than just a message or question. Sexting is rapidly becoming popular and commonplace.

Sexting occurs when a person sends a text message to another that contains a message of a sexual nature or a sexually suggestive, nude, or partially nude picture or video.  Sexting is gaining popularity amongst adults and teens.  LG Mobile Phones conducted a survey in 2009 asking teens and their parents a number of questions about their cellphones.  LG found:

What Teens are Sexting

According to a study  on teens the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy conducted in 2008:

20% of teens admitted to sending naked or near naked pictures of themselves in text messages

39% of teens admitted to sending sexually suggestive messages to someone (notice 39% in 2008, but 43% in 2009 – this alarming trend is growing)

33% of teen boys and 25% of teen girls said they have had nude/semi-nude pics —originally meant to be private—shared with them

Why Teens Sext

When asked why teens are sending sexting messages, the top reasons were:

to be “fun or Flirtatious”

to give a “sexy  present” to their boyfriend/girlfriend

as a “joke”

to “feel sexy”

they felt pressured

When asked further about using their cellphones,

22% of teens felt that technology helps them to be more forward and aggressive

38% believe that exchanging sexual content makes dating or hooking up with others more likely

29% feel that exchanging sexual messages are “expected” to date or hook up

Sexting as the Norm?

You can see from these statistics that our teens are feeling tremendous pressure to “fit” in.  New social norms are being created in how teens communicate, flirt, and date each other.  Passing notes to each other has never been so personal; and yet have such a great possibility of the message becoming widespread in such a short period.

“That so many young people say technology is encouraging an even more casual, hook-up culture is reason for concern, given the high rates of teen and unplanned pregnancy in the United States,” said Marisa Nightingale, Senior Advisor to the Entertainment Media Program at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “Parents should understand that their own notions of what’s public, what’s private, and what’s appropriate, may differ greatly from how teens and young adults define these concepts.” Susan Schulz, Special Projects Editor, Hearst Magazines. (1.)

Sexting is becoming so prevalent that “1 in 4 teens feel that many people sext and there’s nothing wrong with it.”  (LG Survey).  It’s safe to assume that if this question is asked of teens in a few years, the number of teens feeling this way will be even higher.  What at first seems so shocking minimizes over time as teens receive more sexting messages.

Dangers of Sexting

Sexting can lead to many unanticipated situations:

embarrassment – as the picture/message is sent across town

stalkers- wanting to see more of what they saw in your forwarded sext message

isolation – from others who thought your sext was inappropriate

desperation- as you continue to send sext messages to get someone’s attention

depression- if the person receiving your sext message does not respond

date rape – you finally begin dating someone and they thought you wanted more

job loss – pictures and messages don’t disappear – they are always lurking;  Employers are looking for mature responsible workers

college admission decline – colleges are checking applicants online to decrease number of disruptive students

cellphone loss- your parents will likely take your cellphone away if they find out about your sexting

unsolicited pictures sent  back from others who “received” your sext

charges pressed- from others who found your sext offensive

jail time – pictures of under-aged children (under the age of 18) are considered child pornography and are illegal

What might start as a private message or joke between two teens can rapidly spread like wildfire across schools, towns, counties, states, even countries.  If a teacher or school administrator sees the sexually explicit picture in a sext, they are required by law to report it to the authorities.  Likewise, as a parent, if you observe anything potential illegal, you have a responsibility to report it to the police.  As adults, we know and feel the pressure of doing the right thing.  Teens need to be taught and warned about the repercussions of their actions and be reminded that nothing is “private” when sent electronically.

“Pictures traded with a click of a button can change a teen’s life forever.”   (Gigi Stone, ABC News)

Important Texting Acronyms to Know

Teens utilize acronyms to:

1.) make it easier and faster to send a text

2.) hide incriminating words from parents or others who might read it

Here are a few acronyms to give you an idea:

MOS Mom over Shoulder

MOS Mom over shoulder

TDTM Talk dirty to me

GYPO Get Your Pants Off

The list of acronyms is exhaustive.  Fortunately, there are a number of resources readily available on the Internet to help parents decipher text acronyms:

LG’s DEXTR – LG’s website contains a database of acronyms and allows you to add new ones

Top 50 Internet Acronyms Parents Need to Know

Top 50 More Acronyms Parents Need to Know 25 More Sexting Acronyms Parents Should Know

Guidelines When Giving Your Teen a Cellphone

One action you can take to safety steer your teen through their tempestuous teen years is to regularly check your teens’ text messages.  Be sure to review all sent and received messages.  It’s important to note that teens can and will delete messages at times – as they most likely know that you are reviewing their phone periodically.   Nonetheless it’s important for them to see that you are checking their phones so they can be more aware of how they are using their phone.

When you give your child his/her first cellphone it is best to alert him/her upfront that the cellphone:

Is the parents’ property – your teen is just ‘borrowing it”

Will be spot checked by the parents

could be used as “evidence” to ensure message offenders do not repeat inappropriate  behavior

cannot be “locked” without giving the passcode to the parents first

Some parents believe that checking their teen’s cellphone is an invasion of privacy or is not needed because their teen is a good kid.  I disagree.  Looking at the statistics in this article, it is more than likely that our children will receive sexting messages.  Even “good” kids can be led astray from peer pressure.  Based on the dangers discussed, there’s too much at risk to NOT check your teen’s phone.

It’s imperative that parents talk to their teens about the risks and consequences of their actions.   Decisions to send or forward a sext message today can haunt your teen many years in the future.  Teach your teen to treat others with respect and integrity while in person, on the phone, or through text messages – the medium should not matter.  Doing so will keep your teen out of trouble and possible humiliation.