The teen culture surrounding sexual expression and expectations has changed drastically since the 90’s. With almost unlimited access to technology comes big, powerful, and instant change. Those of us who grew up as teens in the 90’s (or earlier) learned to navigate relationships through hand written letters, folded nicely and passed along friends. Now the messages come through phones or tablets. At first glance this doesn’t seem all that different. Both create needed distance to risk vulnerability, both use emoji’s (hearts, wink faces, smiles), and both lack the maturity to initiate relationship face to face. Unfortunately, there are two MAJOR differences between then and now.
1. Instant results with impulsive minds
Instead of reading a note written on paper and tucking it away to write back later, cell phone messages can be instant. You read the message and can reply without much thought. The time between writing (or snapping) a response on cell phones is gone. This is very unfortunate for tweens and teens as their brains need time to process decisions and troubleshoot. Between the ages of 13 and 17 years our brains are particularly vulnerable to impulsivity. This makes it even more important for children of this age to take time, write, review and rewrite responses.
2.Online privacy does not exist
While hand written notes weren’t exactly private they generally stayed within your circle of friends. Media messaging is not private and is not time limited. Once you send a message it is no longer your property. It feels private but is not. Once the message is sent it is now public, can go viral and can stay on the internet forever.
The Perfect Storm
Teens do not have the capacity nor the brain development to be able to assess a situation, wonder what the consequences are in the future and make a decision out of this information. Instead their brain will priorities exploring boundaries, relationship rules and try to find a place in the world. This creates a heightened need for deep and powerful yearnings such as belonging, freedom, and connection.
As you can see, this combination of impulsivity, yearnings and lack of privacy creates the perfect storm.
This perfect storm becomes a hurricane when sexual exploration goes online. Especially when a teen is willing to send, receive and distribute images and videos with explicit sexual content. It is important to note that sending, receiving and forwarding such images and videos falls under ‘possession and distribution of child pornography’ under the Canadian Criminal Code.
Yes. Possession and distribution of child pornography. This is illegal. This is serious. While it makes perfect sense as to how a teen can get caught in this perfect storm the results of teen sexting are not to be ignored. Teen sexting can result in a criminal record, anxiety, depression, isolation, expulsion or much worse. In extreme cases suicide ideation and jail time.
What do I do?
Parents need to be initiation conversations with their teens about appropriate cyber etiquette. Etiquette always includes boundaries. This is now essential to healthy parenting. No longer is it ok to stop at the sex talk. Parents should be adding in appropriate sexual exploration boundaries, pornography use (see previous articles) and sexting.
If your teen comes to you with an image someone sent them do not view the image. The image is child pornography and it is illegal to view. Instead:
- Advise your child to send a message letting the sexter know that they do not appreciate the image/video/sext request and if this continues they will have to report them
- If the images/videos/requests continue let your child know they need to report it to an adult (yourself, school counsellor, principle, the police non-emergency line or Community Police Office (CPO) in your area).
Inform your teen:
Sending nude or semi-nude photos of yourself to anyone is illegal
Receiving nude or semi-nude photos of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal
Forwarding or keeping nude or semi-nude photos of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal
Let them know what might happen if they are charged and have a criminal record:
- Inability to cross the boarder
- Difficulty getting a job (criminal record check)
- Difficulty getting into some colleges or universities
- In extreme cases: Inability to go to parks or be in public areas where children reside and/or jail time (in Queensland state, more than 450 child pornography charges were laid against 10- to 17-year-olds)
Finally, as mentioned in my previous article, there is president in the courts pointing to the responsibility of the parent to be monitoring devices and teaching children appropriate boundaries and behavior on and off line. You are responsible for what your child is doing online. When speaking to families about this, parents often state that it is not their device so they have no right to enforce monitoring. That is not how the court sees it. It does not matter if the device was a gift, your child paid for it themselves, or a co-parent gave it to them, the legal guardian(s) are expected to take the safety of their children seriously, and this now includes adressing teen sexting.
If you feel stuck and have questions I encourage you to reach out. This can be a very difficult conversation to have with your kids. Find a local counsellor (http://bc-counsellors.org/counsellors/) or contact your local police through the non-emergency line or walk into your community police office and ask an officer.
I have full faith in you. You can do this!!
Alisha Stobbe; RCC
Marriage & Family Counsellor
See previous Articles: