Editorial: Sexting among students isn't 'harmless fun'

It’s important for parents to keep the safety of their children foremost in mind when having discussions about sexting — sending sexually explicit pictures electronically — and Internet use and abuse. And discuss they must.

The focus should not necessarily be on the morality of what is being photographed and distributed (although that’s a separate discussion many parents may want to have), but the legality of it.

In the eyes of the law, naked pictures of high school kids equal child pornography. Possessing child porn is a crime; distributing it (even sending a single picture to a single person) is distribution of pornography, an even more serious crime.

The issue has come to the forefront in the region during the past few weeks due to incidents with Weston High School students, which have led to administrators there becoming involved to try to remedy the situation.

Thought to be ‘harmless fun’

Kids often think sending pictures is harmless fun, especially if they use an application like Snapchat, which claims to display the “snapshot” sent only to selected friends for a brief time (up to 30 seconds), and then it “disappears” without being saved to the device on which it was viewed.

However, kids need to know there are work-arounds to this app, and it is possible to save a screenshot of the picture or to take a picture with another device, like a phone or a tablet.

They also need to know how easily and how quickly anything sent electronically can multiply. Remember the old shampoo commercial: “They told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on...”? Multiply that by a bagillion and we have the wonderful world of the Internet.

Blackmail, bully, shame and torment

And that’s where safety comes in. Once a picture is “out there,” the potential for it to cause harm is gigantic. Those who participate can start to suffer from feelings that can lead to a host of serious mental health issues; pictures can be used to blackmail, to bully, to shame, to torment, to tease.

They can also be used to prosecute and convict. That’s why this is a safety issue for the children involved.

It’s a different world

It’s a different world than when parents of today’s teens were teens: To sext or not to sext was never a decision today’s parents had to make. And it is a decision. We are not going to banish the technology that makes it possible (be assured, it will only get easier).

Instead, we have to learn to raise children who have the confidence and the knowledge to make decisions about using that technology that are in their own best interest — and decisions that are in the best interests of the people around them.

Because it’s not only the person who sends an inappropriate picture who is making a bad decision and who can be negatively affected; the more harmful decision is when the receiver doesn’t respect others enough to keep that picture private, to let it “disappear” as intended.

Stress respect and compassion

The most important thing parents can talk about with their children — and yes, talk to those who are younger than high school age, too — is the necessity for respect and compassion, for kindness and empathy above all else. With those things will come decisions that result in less harm to all.

Given peer pressure and the changes taking place in the adolescent brain, these are not easy lessons to impart, but they are crucial to the well-being of our 21st Century children. If the message is continually reinforced by the adults in their lives, it will be received.