Auburn, Alabama — Parents and adolescents are often unaware of the dangers of sexting. “Sexting,” the act of sending or receiving sexual content through cellular devices, is one of the largest consequences of unhindered access to sexualized media. The epidemic of using cell phones to send explicit messages is rampant among adolescents across the country.
Dr. Barbara Baker, executive director of Women’s Leadership Institute at Auburn University, said sexualization in society has always occurred. Today’s technology, however, reveals it and promotes it. Baker said that because of widespread media usage, children are exposed at younger ages and sexuality is portrayed as a source of power.
“As soon as they can swipe right or left, they can see it all,” Baker said. “We have no safeguards in our society. It stuns me how there is soft porn on TV today.”
There are many consequences from the inability of children to fully process the sexual information they constantly face. In Florida, a 13-year-old girl hanged herself after a nude image she sent to the boy she liked was spread around her school, according to a report by CNN.
Sexting and other sexual behaviors at adolescent ages are the result of children “playing adult,” according to Dr. Barry Burkhart, psychology professor at Auburn University. Burkhart is currently co-director of a treatment program for juvenile sex offenders.
“Children are always rehearsing adulthood, and they often rehearse adulthood in ways that are not good for them, such as smoking or sexting,” Burkhart said. “There is a natural sexual curiosity, particularly for boys, that results in confusion when they aren’t taught what to do with it.”
The societal definitions of sexuality for boys and girls differ drastically. According to Burkhart, young boys often adopt an identity of hypermasculinity to imitate the men they see in media. The identity results in lack of emotional connection, toughness and inability to have healthy relationships with female peers. The behavior often leads to sexual harassment and activities such as sexting.
Adolescent girls are often told that their identity lies in their sexuality. Sexting and other behaviors that objectify bodies can be extremely damaging mentally and physically. The hypersexualization of young women is linked to eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem, according to a report by American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (www.apa.org) 2008.
“When children are in adolescent relationships, they sometimes feel pressure to send images or texts they normally wouldn’t,” said Dr. Katrina Akande, Alabama Extension specialist in family and child development. “They do so out of fear that the person they like is going to leave them.”
Sexting can result in physical consequences as well as mental and emotional. Fifteen-year-old peers exchanging nude images are typically unaware that they are committing criminal activity. In the state of Georgia, anyone creating sexual text, imagery or content may be charged with Sexual Exploitation of Children and can receive five to 20 years in prison, according to Georgia law. In Alabama, teenagers caught with images of a minor may be prosecuted under the state’s child pornography laws.
“We’ve had young boys sent to us, incarcerated, from sexting,” Burkhart said. “They were put in juvenile jail because they texted pictures, and they happened to be underage.”
Burkhart claims many consequences of sexting are the result of children being exquisitely vulnerable to shame, especially the shaming that comes from parents and peers about inappropriate sexual behavior. Many children, however, face contradictory messages from authoritative figures who shame sexual behavior versus the media that celebrates sexual behavior.
How to Prevent Sexting
There are many ways to educate children on the dangers of sexting and to prevent the action. The constant stream of social media flooding phones, tablets and computers makes it difficult to shield a child. However, parental and adult guidance, appropriate education and limited technology use can help prevent the consequences that come from sexting.
The APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls recommends that parents spend time educating their children about inappropriate sexualization. Parents can teach girls that their value does not lie in their sexuality or exploitation of their bodies. Adolescent boys can be taught how to have healthy non-sexual relationships with girls as friends, sisters and romantic partners.
“Children are learning machines and they either learn from peers or learn what we want them to,” Burkhart said. “Kids need age-appropriate education at every level to give them the knowledge they desire and structure they seek.”
Covenant Eyes Internet Accountability and Filtering is one of many applications that can block inappropriate content. Almost all electronic devices also have parental control applications.
“Parents should do random cell phone checks of their children’s phones to look at messages and pictures,” Akande added. “Often parents don’t know what their children are sending out to their peers. Knowing that their parents will look at their cell phones at any moment could also serve as a deterrent.”