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Crucial Mother-Daughter Conversations

Vicki Courtney

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"Sext messages?" Five things parents need to know about teens and cell phones

When you arm tweens and teens with cell phones (loaded with features like unlimited texting, pictures, and video) during a time when they are curious about sex, you create a perfect storm for "sexting." Sexting involves the sending of sexual messages and pictures from cell phone to cell phone. According to a December 2008 study released in USA Today, 40 percent of young men said they've seen naked or semi-naked pictures sent via a cell phone, while half of all teens said they've received highly suggestive text messages.

Since there's a one-in-two chance any teen today is involved in sexting, it's important parents know how to engage their children in a dialogue on this issue/ Is it common? Yes. Is it legally dangerous? Yes, again. So how do parents deal with this? Here are five common questions you, as a parent, may have about sexting:

1. Are my kids receiving inappropriate pictures on their cell phone? Your teens may or may not be receiving inappropriate pictures from their peers on their phone. Try not to sound accusatory, as many are caught off guard when they receive one. Do make sure, however, they understand the possible consequences of saving inappropriate pictures on their phones (as you may imagine, the issue is more common among teen boys). Help them understand how doing so is considered "possession of porn involving an underage minor" even if the picture is from a friend or someone they personally know.

2. What's an inappropriate picture? Many pictures teens wouldn't consider "inappropriate" can still be damaging -- both socially and legally. This would include pictures of themselves or friends that involve mooning, flashing, going to the bathroom, etc. I am also reminded of a few pictures I recently saw on Facebook of a church girl (she posted them herself), who with several friends, jokingly posed in their bikinis with dollar bills hanging out of their swimsuits in an attempt, I suppose, to mock strippers. This is when it's a real plus to have monitoring software installed on your child's computer and to know their login and password information, so you can dialogue with them about what's okay and what's not okay to post on their social networking page.

3. What happens when inappropriate pictures get forwarded? In December 2008, CBS News reported how a 13-year-old cheerleader learned the hard way that sending one inappropriate picture of yourself can haunt you for years to come, especially once that picture gets forwarded around the school and, in this case, to authorities. Make sure your kids understand the possible consequences that can occur from forwarding an inappropriate picture to even one person. Help them connect the dots on how the behavior can constitute "porn distribution" or "porn trafficking."

4. Should I remove the cell phone's photo feature? If you don't feel your child is mature enough to handle the features associated with sending and receiving pictures and messages on cell phones, don't add them. If the features are already available on your child's phone, consider contacting your service provider and having them removed for the time being until you feel he or she can handle the responsibility. Note that this should be a temporary measure as it is only a matter of time before your child will be engaged in this technology. Those without proper training often pose the biggest risk down the road, not only to themselves, but also to others.

5. How often should I talk to my kids about this issue? Remind your child often of the dangers and possible consequences mentioned here. This is not a one-time conversation as tweens and teens have short memory spans. As stories surface in the news, use them as teachable moments with your children.


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