The number of adolescents and teenagers sending explicit photos of themselves through smartphones and online platforms, otherwise known as “sexting,” has risen steadily over the past decade. The increase in technology available to this generation has normalized the transmission of sexually charged texts, Facebook messages, Instagram posts and Snapchat photos. When combined with cyberbullying, sexting among adolescents and teens is a recipe for mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
While consensual sexting certainly occurs among this generation, many adolescents and teens are bullied by their partners into taking and sending nude photos or explicitly sexual messages. Even when sent of a teenager’s own volition, these images are rarely only seen by the person for whom they were intended. A teenage girl might share a naked photo of her boyfriend with her friends without thinking twice. After a messy breakup, a high school boy might post a nude photo his girlfriend, sent during happier times, on the Internet as a form of “revenge porn.” The young people who took these photos of themselves and sent them to a person they trusted never imagined that these personal images would be shared with others. This betrayal might be a key catalyst in the growing number of teenagers struggling with trust issues, shame and self-loathing. These issues are at the top of a slippery slope to depression and anxiety often leading individuals to use self-harm as a coping mechanism.
The impact of sexting and cyberbullying
According to the Health and Social Care Information Center, there were 15,668 females ages 15 to 19 admitted to emergency rooms in the U.S. in 2014 for burning, cutting or otherwise harming themselves. This is approximately double the amount of admissions ten years prior, in 2004. Cyberbullying and sexting together have directly increased these rates, though the full impact is unknown since this is a relatively new issue and psychological issues developed in childhood often do not manifest themselves until adulthood. In addition, the Office of National Statistics found that one in five teenagers ages 16 to 24 exhibit symptoms of stress, anxiety and/or depression.
Sexting among minors also has legal ramifications, as current child pornography laws make the sending of explicit photos to minors unlawful, even if the person sending the photo is also a minor. If prosecuted (for instance, by the other party’s angry parent), the individual will face jail time and will have to register as a sex offender. If that individual has engaged in text messages or emails with sexual content, those are seized as evidence that will be used in court. Once a person has been registered as a sex offender, the crime cannot be expunged from his or her criminal record and will follow that individual for life.
Other children and teenagers develop online relationships with sexual predators. They might believe they are messaging someone their own age or be aware they are messaging someone older, but they have been seduced by this predator regardless. These individuals are skilled at making vulnerable children feel dependent on them for approval and love. Once the predator has earned the child’s trust, he or she proceeds to bully and coerce the youth into sending explicit photographs. The mere existence of a minor’s naked photographs opens the door for online predators to sexualize and victimize him or her. As technology has made it easy for teenagers to send these photos to each other, it has also made it easy for pedophiles and sex offenders to hack social media accounts and pretend to be someone else to obtain photos or otherwise take advantage of vulnerable youth.
In a 2014 study conducted by La Trobe University’s Research Center in Sex, Health and Society, in Australia, it was reported that nearly three-quarters of teenagers ages 15 to 18 have sent sexual messages. Half of the teens in the study reported sending naked or semi-naked photographs or videos of themselves to others. Eighty-four percent of the 2,100 students involved in the study reported having received sexual messages by phone or email. The researchers at La Trobe University state that sexting is the “new form of courtship,” and do not anticipate the trend dissipating anytime soon.
Combating new teen trends
There are efforts parents can make to monitor computer and cell phone usage among their children, but prevention is the most effective way to keep teenagers from engaging in these risky behaviors. It is important to educate teenagers on the risks of sexting, and to do so without judgment. While parents would likely prefer their teenagers not engage in sexual activity at all, it is important to educate teenagers on healthy sex practices and ways to express themselves that will not leave them exposed to predators or cyberbullies. It is also helpful to teach children and teenagers strategies for coping with cyberbullying if and when it does occur.
If you find that your teenager is struggling with mental health issues as a result of sexting and/or cyberbullying, help is available. Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego is a facility that specializes in the treatment of adolescents and teenagers struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and dual diagnosis. Call 866-615-7266 to speak with a professional today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer