Parents who don't think their teens are sexting may be in for a rude awakening.
Nearly 30 percent of teens say they've sent nude photos of themselves via text or E-mail, according to a study published earlier this month in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Another 57 percent report being asked to send naked pictures, according to the study, which surveyed close to 1,000 Houston-area high school students, ages 14 to 19.
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Should those teens oblige, both the sender and the receiver could face serious consequences. Those private photos could resurface online or even land the teens on a sex offender list.
"Under most existing laws, if our findings were extrapolated nationally, several million teens could be prosecuted for child pornography," the researchers wrote.
Photos posted online and sex offender labels are two things that never go away, and parents need to make sure their teens understand that, says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a New York-based clinical psychologist who works with adolescents and their families.
"Once you're labeled as a sex offender, you're labeled for life," she says. "Kids aren't aware of this. It's that illusion of invulnerability."
So what can parents do to keep their teens from sexting?
First, talk to your child. Make sure your teen understands the seriousness of exchanging nude photos, and spell out what is and is not appropriate to send via text and E-mail, Powell-Lunder says.
"You might be surprised to realize that your teen sees nothing wrong with sending a picture of [herself] in that string bikini or texting her boyfriend what she would like to 'do to him,'" she says.
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Once you've established boundaries for appropriate versus inappropriate, work with your child to establish consequences if they send inappropriate messages, and let them know you will randomly monitor their texts and E-mails, she adds.
Just knowing you may look through their phone or E-mail account could be enough to prevent your teen from sending racy messages, Powell-Lunder says. If it isn't, and your child does break the rules, how to handle the situation will likely depend on how the parents found out, she adds.
Parents who are alerted to sexts because the images were circulated around the school or put online still need to follow through with the punishment they decided on with their teen, she adds.
"Is it consequence enough that these nude pictures have been flashed all over the Internet? No," Powell-Lunder says.
In addition to the consequences, parents need to work with their teen to come up with an action plan for handing the situation by determining how widespread the problem is and who has possession of the photos.
If the student is facing child pornography or other charges, parents need to talk with lawyers, counselors, and psychologists to explore all of their legal options, Powell-Lunder suggests.
Above all, parents need to overcome any feelings of anger or disappointment and be there for their teen and family, she says.
"You have to put your own emotions aside as a parent and really step up," she says. "And develop your own support network, too, because there is nothing more devastating than watching your own child suffer."
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