Sexts and the Internet

A recent sexting incident in Weston could have happened anywhere. Indeed, there may even be students in Wilton who have been affected.

According to The Bulletin’s sister paper, The Weston Forum, Weston police are investigating a situation in which nude photos of Weston High School students were taken voluntarily and then sent electronically to other students. It appears “scores” of students have engaged in the activity known as sexting.

This is a ripe opportunity for parents to discuss sexting and Internet use and abuse. This advice is repeated often, but it bears repeating again. While parents may want to focus on the morality of this incident, it is vital to also focus on safety and legal issues.

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.

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 screen shot 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. 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.

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 must raise our children to have the confidence and knowledge to make decisions that are in their own best interest and 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. 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.