Erik Fisher, PhD: "My kid may be doing what?!" Yes, Mom and Dad, the phenomenon of "sexting" is taking off (no pun intended). If you don't know what "sexting" is, I'll tell you: It involves people -- mostly teens -- taking nude pictures of themselves and sending them to others via cell phone or PDA. Sexting has resulted in some teens being charged with violations of child pornography laws -- laws that can carry some serious penalties, the most serious being having to register as a sex offender for 10 years. Keeping this in mind, what would happen if the offending material was found on your personal computer? (Eek!) If you're wondering why this is happening -- and what you can do to keep yourself and your kids safe -- read on.
Many of today's kids have grown up in the age of reality shows, so many of them will do almost anything for attention and to try to "fit in." We've had "Survivor," "Fear Factor," "Big Brother," "The Real World," "Jackass" and the like gracing our TV and computer screens for almost a decade now, and shows like these can influence the way kids and teens view society and themselves. Aren't they just doing what they've been taught?
There is a desensitization to privacy, intimacy and self-respect that occurs, which is in part a symptom of the media phenomena and our culture. When I can turn on the TV or the computer and see "Jackass"-type behaviors anywhere I look, it creates the idea that doing the extreme can get me attention -- and where there is attention, there may be acceptance and, possibly, love and a sense of belonging. And when I want to fit in and/or stand out, taking a dare or doing the extreme will help me achieve that end. Sexting is a way to feel powerful, and in some ways I think it can inappropriately be viewed as personal PR in a competitive market for attention (and even potential fame).
We seem to live in an extreme time, and what people used to feel was a "dare never to be taken" has now become run-of-the-mill. Many kids have not exactly lost their self-respect; rather, they maybe never learned how to find it. Searching for approval, acceptance, instant gratification and love (or what they think is love, anyway) is likely their goal.
The Buck Stops with You!
I do hold society's attitudes, the media and the Internet partly responsible for the sexting thing, but parents as a whole need to take the time to both talk to their kids and listen to them, and be in a place to guide and teach. It's vital to get the heartbeat of your children's attitudes and emotions, so you can help them understand where their power, self-respect, honor and dignity really come from (i.e., inside themselves). You are their most important role model. In some ways, it makes me wonder: Is sexting just a variation of the streaking and "free love" of the '70s? Are we all just looking outside of ourselves to find identity, worth and value?
That said, what can you do to decrease the chances of your child engaging in this dangerous activity? Here are a few ideas:
1) Be proactive. Plan years ahead, and keep communication open. If you encourage and foster nonjudgmental, reflective communication when your kids are young, it will encourage them to develop these qualities as they grow.
2) Be honest with your appraisal of your kids. Many parents live in denial of their kids' behaviors until it is too late, because they either don't want to think they've failed as parents or don't want to see their kids as having problems.
3) Talk to your kids about these types of activities and ask them their feelings about it. Ask them if they know any peers who may have engaged in sexting, and how they view them. If they don't want to give names, respect that.
4) If your child has had a tendency to hide behaviors from you, request random searches of his or her phone and computer data. While they may have an issue with this, if they have nothing to hide, they should understand that you are doing it to protect them and you.
5) Understand that while your child may be in denial, sexting is a behavior that communicates deeper issues and a lack of confidence and self-respect. Arrogance IS a protective emotion. Be careful not to shame or humiliate them. Help them to realize the dangers and deeper issues.
6) Be willing to get help from a professional. Many times, you are too close to your kids to help them look at these issues and resolve them.
Erik Fisher, PhD, a.k.a. Dr. E, is a licensed psychologist and author who has been featured on NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at www.ErikFisher.com to learn more about his books "The Art of Empowered Parenting" and "The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict," or to check out his blog.