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Teens and sexting: 7 things parents should know

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Girl on mobile phone
A girl holds a mobile phone as she walks in Vienna on May 8, 2012.
ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images

Hanna Rosin's latest article for The Atlantic digs into the growing phenomenon of "sexting" - sending explicit text messages and pictures - among young teens. 

Rosin joined The Daily Circuit along with Jeff Temple, a psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, to look at how kids view privacy and how technology changed sexuality for the youngest generation.

Teens and sexting: 7 things parents should know

1. Teens don't see sexting as a risky behavior.

"Teenage years are a time of sexual exploration and teens live on their cell phones," Rosin said. "It's really pretty basic. They communicate with each other late at night when they're done with their homework and done doing all sorts of other things. So of course it's intimate, and of course it's experimental in some way, but it's not some outlier kind of behavior. It's just part of the background of teenage life."

2. Kids see a disconnect between what they are doing and warnings about child pornography laws.

"The difference is child pornography laws," Rosin said. "The difference is the fact that in this culture, in most cultures, the existence of a naked picture of a minor is a dangerous thing. It's not a difference in their minds."

Temple said the scare-tactics used with teens to prevent sexting don't work. 

 "We tell them that it's going to end up in the wrong hands, it's going to be shared throughout the world," he said. "For the most part, that doesn't happen and so I think when we tell them that they know that doesn't happen so we lose all credibility when we talk to them like that."

An excerpt from Rosin's piece:

Since 2009, state legislatures have tried to help guide law enforcement by passing laws specifically addressing sexting. At least 20 states have passed such laws, most of which establish a series of relatively light penalties. In Florida, for example, a minor who is guilty of transmitting or distributing a nude photograph or video must pay a fine, complete community service, or attend a class on sexting. A second offense is a misdemeanor and a third is a felony. Where they've been passed, the new laws have helpfully taken ordinary teen sexting out of the realm of child pornography and provided prosecutors with a gentler alternative. But they have also created deeper cultural confusion, by codifying into law the idea that any kind of sexting between minors is a crime. For the most part, the laws do not concern themselves with whether a sext was voluntarily shared between two people who had been dating for a year or was sent under pressure: a sext is a sext. So as it stands now, in most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it's a matter for the police.

3. Parents should be most concerned about highly-pressured sexters. 

If parents find out their children are sending or receiving sexts, it's important to talk about the origins of these text messages, Temple said. The majority of sexting occurs between teenagers and their boyfriend or girlfriend.

But parents should be more concerned if their daughter or son is sexting with someone for other reasons. Rosin said "highly-pressured sexters" are usually girls and are being approached by boys they aren't in a relationship with and send sexual images of themselves because of peer pressure. Girls might also send explicit photos to boys they like in hopes of being in a relationship with them. 

From Rosin's piece:

This is how one of them described his game to me: "A lot of girls, they stubborn, so you gotta work on them. You say, 'I'm trying to get serious with you.' You call them beautiful. You say, 'You know I love you.' You think about it at night, and then you wake up in the morning and you got a picture in your phone."

"You wake up a happy man," his friend said.

"Yeah, a new man."

"Yeah, I'm the man."

How do you feel about the girl after she sends it?, I asked.

"Super thots."

"You can't love those thots!"

"That's right, you can't love those hos."

"Girls in Louisa are easy."

4. This isn't new.

A caller from Eagan said this conversation is too late. 

"I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s and back then we had AOL Instant Messenger," he said. "This is the exact same thing, just on a different platform."

Rosin said the problem today is the ease at which teens can take and share photos with cell phones. 

5. Parents should be teaching children about healthy sexual relationships and respect.

Another caller in St. Paul said focusing on sexting gets away from a better conversation about how to talk to your children about sexuality.

"We don't really talk about how to teach our sons or daughters to have respectful, loving, sexual relationships with each other as teens and young adults," he said. "We seem to somehow think that if we make it all bad they won't engage in the same sort of experimenting we did 30 years ago."

Rosin said we need to focus on teaching kids to respect one another and privacy. 

"Using these pictures in a way that they weren't intended is something that I think we as a society should emphasize very strongly is wrong," she said. "If somebody sends you a picture you may not use it in a way that it wasn't intended. You can't send it out and you certainly can't post it in a public place. Part of the point I wanted to make with this story is we really should penalize that and not be so confused and focused on should they be sending the photos or not."

6. When it comes to law enforcement involvement, Rosin and Temple say the person who posts the photos publicly should be prosecuted. 

7. Parents need to start talking about sex with their children earlier than they think.

A mother in Morris called in and explained what she tells her 8-year-old son about sex and sexuality: