According to a recent study, about one in five teenagers have electronically distributed provocative pictures of themselves that could land them in jail. A joint survey by Cosmogirl.com and The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 19% of teenagers answered "yes" when asked if they had ever "sent a nude or semi-nude picture/video" of themselves to someone via email, cell phone, etc.
And according to CBS legal analyst, attorney Lisa Bloom, "There are local prosecutors who will arrest you, lock you up, and treat you like a child pornographer." And being under-age doesn't protect them. "It is still child pornography," explained Bloom. "You don't have to be 18 to possess or distribute child pornography."
"Sexting" describes the growing trend of sending sexually explicit messages (text, pictures, or video) electronically, mostly via cell phones. The most common reason teenagers give for sending sexy content is to be "fun or flirtatious," what Bloom described to me as "the digital equivalent of what our generation did - mooning and flashing each other." Unfortunately, many don't understand the possible consequences. We live at a time when a moment's poor judgment can go viral. In Pennsylvania, six teens were charged with child pornography after three girls sent pictures of themselves to three male classmates. Similar events have unfolded in Ohio and elsewhere.
And sometimes flirtation is not the motive. In Florida, an 18-year-old male sent naked pictures of his 16-year-old girlfriend to dozens of her friends and family after an argument; he was arrested, charged with child pornography, sentenced to five years probation, and required to register as a sex offender.
Last year, the ex-boyfriend of an 18-year-old girl in Ohio forwarded nude pictures of her to hundreds of her high school classmates. She was humiliated and ended up hanging herself.
As the father of 13 and 17-year-old sons, I find myself wondering about the increasing blurring of private and public. Some kids have the misconception that electronic communication is always private. Others don't care; they've grown up in a voyeuristic world and think it's no big deal if others know intimate details of their lives. In fact, that may even be a goal. You can become famous if you're willing to let the cameras roll. Contestants of the reality show Big Brother allow viewers to watch them online 24-7 - everywhere except (for now) the bathrooms.
The answer is not to blame kids, thinking "Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?" Children (and I was no exception) have always been impulsive and had poor judgment. That's where parents come in. My job is to keep my eyes open, communicate with my sons (that means listen as well as talk), and - in a nonthreatening and loving way - try to set them straight when they aren't thinking right. When I discussed sexting with Bill Alpert, Chief Program Office of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, he told me, "I don't think that parents need to overreact. They just need to realize this is going on."
Alpert said decades of social science research have shown that parents underestimate their own importance in their children's lives. He noted that when asked about the key influences on their kids, parents usually say "number one is friends, number two is media, and they are number three; but teenagers themselves - in every single survey we've done over the past 10 years - have put parents number one."
So it's the same old lesson learned by the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, who never did need that diploma to be smart. We parents have the power to help our children safely navigate a world that is increasingly treacherous. We just need to use it.
For this week's CBS Doc Dot Com, I discuss sexting with psychologist Susan Lipkins, Ph.D. You can find her advice about sexting by clicking here.