Youth sexting: Parents should keep an eye on it

The ink was barely dry from my December article about child sexual abuse when I received my January 2012 edition of the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The first two articles address a distressing yet increasingly important topic for parents of preteens and adolescents. The topic is youth sexting.

I suppose every generation has its own, new challenges. It seems that many of the challenges facing parents today are related to technology and the Internet. Many parents may be overwhelmed by the risks associated with technologies about which they themselves feel poorly acquainted. Yet, in many respects, parenting in the Internet age is little different from parenting in previous generations. The same principles of involvement, limit-setting, communication and love can help parents guide their children through the challenges of the 21st century.

According to study authors from the University of New Hampshire, sexting is defined as the transmission of sexual images via cellphone, the Internet and other electronic media. So what is the scope of this problem?

According to newly reported data about prevalence of youth Internet behaviors published this month, 2 percent of youth ages 10 to 17 appeared in or created nude or nearly nude pictures or videos while the percentage was 1 percent when restricted to images of a sexually explicit nature.

Meanwhile, 7.1 percent of youth surveyed indicated they had actually received nude or nearly nude images of others while 5.9 percent reported receiving sexually explicit images. Taken all together, 9.6 percent of youth who use the Internet reported appearing in, creating or receiving sexually suggestive images, though not all such images meet legal criteria for child pornography.

Study authors point out that the data actually are lower than previous, flawed studies reporting rates more than double these recent results. They note that such data should not be met with alarm, but with a healthy recognition that the receipt and possession of potentially illegal images among young people, is sufficiently common to warrant education among youth of the potential consequences of these actions.

In a companion article, authors in Pediatrics noted that while more than 3,400 arrests were made in 2008-09 in cases of child-produced sexual images, more than two-thirds of these cases involved an aggravated circumstance, such as involvement of an adult. In cases without adults, arrests were not typical. In most instances, images were distributed by cellphone only and did not reach the Internet.

So how should parents approach the issue of sexting among their children? First, it is important to recognize that the Internet and electronic media permit more visible expression of experimental behaviors previously known among preteens and adolescents. Effective parenting begins with opening the lines of communication, including topics of sexuality in an age and developmentally appropriate way. Youth should understand that such topics are not taboo in the household, thus encouraging dialogue about sexuality-related issues across the developmental spectrum.

As specifically pertains to sexting, youth should be instructed the creation and/or possession of sexually explicit images of minors is illegal and that such images should be deleted.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.

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