What's the New First Base?
By Joy Holden
Do you remember your first kiss? You can probably close your eyes and see your surroundings, recall the butterflies, and you are right back there. Since the 1950s, that kiss could have been described as “first base,” the start that leads to the next steps in a physical relationship. That kiss often decided if there would be a second kiss or any further physical actions. Today, in our age of social media and electronic interaction, that decision is being made by another action, one that involves a smartphone camera and a text.
That action is sexting, which involves sending sexual or nude images or graphic sexual language. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics by Dr. Jeff Temple, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, sexting has become that initial contact that leads to sexual activity. Sexting precedes initial sexual intercourse, and those teens that sent a naked picture of themselves were more likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse by the next year. While this finding is alarming, and may have parents scrambling for their child’s phone, it can actually be an invitation for the parent to talk to the child, understand their motivation, and communicate the dangerous consequences involved.
Why Do They Push Send?
Rhonda Norwood, PhD and LCSW of Goodwood Counseling, specifies that curiosity and lack of judgment is completely normal for teenagers. In fact, “the combination of the two can be a perfect storm when it comes to sexting. Teenagers are unable to see the future and understand the possible consequences of their actions. They are impulsive.”
More and more teenagers are using sexting as their first step into sexual curiosity for many reasons. They feel like it is a prerequisite for dating, and the idea of a dating relationship is very important to many. In this “Snapchat” culture, trading images has been “normalized as the first step” to show interest in someone, Dr. Norwood shares.
Dr. Norwood also says the correlation between sending a nude image and subsequent sexual intercourse within a year makes “perfect sense.” She explains, “The danger of social media and smartphones is that they lower inhibitions. The individual feels like the anonymity and distance between her and the other person makes it easier and safer. Sexting slowly desensitizes the teen to the whole sexual experience. They send the image and get good feedback, which leads to even more unhealthy encouragement.” The illusion of safety is the trap that many fall prey to behind the black mirror that they feel protects them.
Keep Calm and Talk About It
Just reading about this topic alone may cause your skin to crawl and heat rise to your face, so to imagine finding a sexual image on your child’s phone is nearly paralyzing. If that event occurs, how should you respond? The initial response may be either rage or shocked disappointment. Dr. Norwood cautions, “Take a deep breath and try to understand why this happened. Talk to your child during a calm moment and ask questions for understanding. You need to be able to really listen to what your child is saying.” Open communication is key for you in this situation.
One powerful tactic of prevention is to encourage the teen to ask themselves, “Is this something I would want my grandmother or teacher to see?” before pressing send. “If the answer is no,” Dr. Norwood says, “then no one should see it.” This reminder helps the individual understand the possible visibility and the inappropriate nature of the image.
Although this behavior is scary to a parent, it is typical for 20-25 percent of teenagers. Parents should be concerned about the safety, but not necessarily the developmental behavior. When should you ask for help from a counselor or therapist? Dr. Norwood advises, “If any other red flags arise like comments that indicate poor self-esteem, desperation, or bullying, then the parent should reach out for assistance because there could be a deeper issue.”
It’s Not Safe
Although the personal fable of invincibility continues to fool kids into thinking “It won’t happen to me,” parents must convey the dangers of sexting. Dr. Norwood emphasizes, “Education must happen about the dangers and the permanence of these images. They will not get the picture back. It can be used for bullying, revenge porn, or result in possible child pornography charges.”
Sgt. Chris Webb of the Baton Rouge Police Department agrees, “Kids don’t understand that an image can be seen by one person and in minutes can be viewed by a person in another country.” The rapid exchange of images can lead to unimagined results. The young person has no control once he or she presses send. The image can fall into predatory or vengeful hands.
Sgt. Webb and his peers are also very concerned because they do not foresee a decline in the behavior. “We have seen an increase in the number of cases because of the amount of kids becoming involved in social media and electronic devices are younger and younger.”
Though technology does not seem to be slowing down, Sgt. Webb believes parents have “an opportunity to step in front of the trend and slow it down. It is incumbent on the parents to be mindful of what their children are sending and receiving. You can’t just hope for the best and stick your head in the sand. You have to be actively involved.”
Although this topic is certainly uncomfortable, you must be willing to engage in the discussion to walk through this with your teenager and support them to make the best decisions. Ignorance or denial will only place your child in a more dangerous situation. ■
Sexting and the Law
Criminal law RS 14:81.1.1 — “sexting”; Prohibited acts and Penalties
A.(1) No person under the age of seventeen years shall knowingly and voluntarily use a computer or telecommunication device to transmit an indecent visual depiction of himself to another person.
(2) No person under the age of seventeen years shall knowingly possess or transmit an indecent visual depiction that was transmitted by another under the age of seventeen years. “Indecent visual depiction” means any photograph, videotape, film, or other reproduction of a person under the age of seventeen years engaging in sexually explicit conduct, and includes data stored on any computer, telecommunication device, or other electronic storage media. “Transmit” means to give, distribute, transfer, transmute, circulate, or disseminate by use of a computer or telecommunication device.
Penalties range from monetary fines to imprisonment, and they increase in severity if multiple offenses occur. According to Curtis Nelson, the Chief of the Juvenile Section of the District Attorney’s Office, “Transmitting nudity and sexual acts are considered delinquent and can result in involvement with law enforcement and the juvenile court system. The law also requires the child involved to be referred to FINS: Family In Need of Services for family counseling. Juveniles also need to remember that passing around the images or videos can result in criminal implications.”