Adults list sexting among their top concerns about children’s health

Although studies indicate that low numbers of teens report sharing sexual images, young people may benefit from conversations about healthy digital communication.

The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital recently released findings from their annual National Poll on Children’s Health. While adults rated childhood obesity, bullying and drug abuse as their top three concerns for the second year in a row, concerns about sexting made a large jump from the previous year – rising to the sixth-ranked “big problem” in 2015 from number 13 in 2014. 

There are likely many factors that contribute to the anxiety that adults feel about this issue. Young people spend a lot of time with others online, and technology lets users share images easily, quickly and broadly. In addition, there have been situations that have received a lot of media coverage related to the potential criminal aspects of minors sharing sexual images. These and other situations have also prompted concerns about ways that sexting can affect the health and well-being of those young people whose images have been shared and re-shared with others.

Adults’ concerns may also be fueled by statistics about the prevalence rates of sexting among young people, although these rates have varied widely depending on how different studies have been designed. National studies have shown relatively low rates of sexting behaviors among young people. For example, a 2012 study in the Pediatrics journal involved 1,560 youth ages 10 to 17 and defined sexting as involving sexually explicit images (for example, naked breasts or genitals). The results showed that only one percent of youth reported they had appeared in or created these kinds of shared images. A 2014 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health involved feedback from over 5,900 teens (ages 13-18) about their involvement with sexting, which was defined as “sending or showing someone sexual pictures of yourself where you were nude or nearly nude.” Seven percent of youth in that study reported sexting, including one percent sharing the images in person, five percent via text message and two percent online (some reported using more than one mode).

One of the most important things that adults can do related to these issues is to challenge our own fears and assumptions about what might be happening within the lives of the young people we care about. We can also engage in ongoing conversations with youth about their relationships with peers, and provide guidance that can help them become informed and thoughtful as they navigate these relationships. Consider the following as you talk with kids about healthy and unhealthy online behaviors:

  • Help young people understand that whenever any images are shared electronically – regardless of the content or the spirit behind them – there’s never a guarantee that the images will remain private or that they’ll be deleted by those who receive them. In conversations with young children, explain that the images they encounter on a computer or smartphone should never contain pictures or videos of kids or adults without their clothes on or who are touching each other in inappropriate ways. When talking with older youth, ask how they would define sexting and what kinds of outcomes might occur when people share images of a sexual nature.
  • Many adults are concerned about links between sexting among young people and laws related to child pornography. United States federal law defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving someone under 18 years of age, and there have been situations where minors have been arrested for sharing sexual images of themselves or of other young people. A 2012 study in the Pediatrics journal indicated that most young people who were investigated by law enforcement were not arrested and that most of the youth who produced or transmitted images were not treated as sexual offenders. Many law enforcement officials and legislators are grappling with how to respond to youth sexting cases, since many of the examples they’ve encountered have involved romantic or attention-seeking situations with no intent to harm.
  • Keep in mind that there may be cases when young people are pressured by others to share images of themselves. Encourage youth to listen to their inner wisdom when asked to share something that makes them uncomfortable, and be clear (especially with younger children) that you are available if they encounter situations where your help is needed. Help young people develop and practice responses they can use in these kinds of situations, and be willing to talk with them about what’s involved in healthy and unhealthy dating relationships.
  • Deepen your own understanding about the difference between sexuality and sexualization. Fostering a healthy sexuality is an important aspect of young people’s development. This is different from sexualization, which involves limiting a person’s value to their sexual appeal or behavior at the exclusion of their other characteristics – such as intelligence, abilities, values, interests and passions. Talk with kids about the steady stream of media messages that sexualize girls and women in particular. Encourage them to challenge these kinds of messages and to base their relationships (both friendships and romantic) on qualities that reflect the wholeness of who they are. 

As you explore these issues with the young people in your life, don’t stop with one conversation – find ways to keep the dialogue going throughout their development. While your thoughtful and caring presence may be important to any young person, it may be especially significant for those who experience additional challenges and risks on their journey. You may be interested in the variety of resources that Michigan State University Extension provides related to the positive development of children and adolescents. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and which focuses on issues including bullying, online safety, and social and emotional health.

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