By: Bethany Pombar, Prevention Specialist, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

The world is changing; there is no doubt about it. The first photos were sent via a phone in 1997; by 2006 over half of the cell phones sold in the world had picture capabilities. By the time the first iphone was released in 2007, we were primed for easy photo sharing. Today’s youth expect everything to be photographed and shared. It is their way of exploring the world and connecting to each other. An entire marketplace of “apps” has grown to support picture sharing: Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Wink, Flickr, Rando, the list grows every day.

Along with this ease of access has come a growing concern over sexting (underage people sharing provocative pictures of themselves or others.) This has created a new frontier for adults trying to educate and protect youth from embarrassment or exploitation. For many adults, addressing all the technology feels like too much to keep up with. Take heart though!  We don’t need to know all the latest everything. What we need is to be opening up ongoing conversations with youth about these issues, helping them practice thinking critically about their actions, providing guidance around safety concerns and non-judgmental support when needed.

There are many reasons a teen might take or share a sext, including:

  • To show off
  • To entice someone in hopes of stating a new relationship
  • To experiment with their sexuality and interest in sexual activity
  • Because they might be pressured, forced or coerced into doing it by someone they are interested in or a friend

It’s important that we don’t shame them for their choices if they didn’t mean harm to anyone. Growing up is a complicated time for figuring out what to do with our bodies and how to fit in. Our goal shouldn’t be to scold or control, but to engage youth in making safe choices.

What do we say?

Too often, conversations about sexting have focused largely on telling girls not do it and using scary examples of the harm they may come too. PSAs depict a girl being tricked by someone pretending to be someone they aren’t via a social network connection, building trust and then pressuring for a picture which they then use to exploit the victim.

Sometimes this is what happens and people should be aware of it, but the more common reality is that sexting is happening among teens who know each other, and we cannot put the responsibility for not sexting only on girls. Let’s open conversations with ALL of our youth. Ask youth about:

  • Their perceptions of sexting in their school. Is it happening? What does it look like?
  • Pressure they may feel to send, receive or share pictures. Talk to them about things they can say or do to resist this pressure and the consequences of sharing sexts.*
  • Thinking before hitting send—would they want you to see that photo?  If not, it probably isn’t okay to send it.
  • Responsibility around NOT sharing pictures they receive with anyone else. It’s never okay to forward or show someone a sext from someone else.
  • Where they can go for help.

* In Vermont, it is illegal to possess, send or share sexually explicit images of someone under the age of 18- including yourself- or to someone under 18.

For more information, check out our new brochure, “talking to your teen about sexting”, available for free download on our website.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 Network Newsletter