In the not-so-distant past of 2010, Florida lawmakers were working on legislation to criminalize teen sexting. At the time, the legislators applauded themselves for their restraint — after all, first-time offenders would simply be forced to perform community service and pay a small fine. Only those pesky repeat offenders could end up in jail.
Fast-forward a decade, and the social landscape has dramatically shifted. For starters, cell phones have far greater capabilities than they used to, and the average kid gets his or her first phone at age 10. Modern times demand modern solutions — that's why one researcher with Florida Atlantic University (FAU) argues it's important to teach teens "safe sexting."
That's right: According to Sameer Hinduja, an FAU professor and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center, telling teens not to sext each other is unrealistic. Instead, he says, parents and educators should teach practices that will best shield minors from possible repercussions.
"Ideally, in a perfect world, we don't want them engaging in these sorts of behaviors. Then we got to a point where we cannot just continue to pooh-pooh these issues," he tells New Times. "But we can equip them to resist any sort of harm."
Hinduja and Justin Patchin, his codirector at the Cyberbullying Research Center, are the authors of a new report published in the Journal of Adolescent Health . Backed by their own research, the two argue that teens who choose to send sexts should be taught to do so in a way that promotes consent, confidentiality, and personal safety.
Last April, the researchers conducted a national sample of nearly 5,000 minors aged 12 to 17 and found that 14 percent had sent a sexually explicit photo, while 23 percent had received one. Those figures were a slight increase over a previous sample taken in 2016.
Though Hinduja says teen sexting is far from an epidemic, he believes messages from parents and other authorities about the criminal implications are unhelpful.
"Laws and penalties and punishments don't really seem to deter youth when it comes to activity online," he says.
Instead, Hinduja compares the idea of preaching safe sexting to that of sex education.
"The reality is that having sex underage is also illegal," he says. "Even though it's still technically illegal, we still have sex education."
So what exactly is safe sexting? The researchers identified ten takeaways for teens who choose to send explicit photos or videos. First, teens should be certain they're sending images to someone who wants to receive them. For those on the receiving end, those photos should never be shared with another party. In fact, Hinduja and Patchin say, it's best to delete sexually explicit photos.
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"Having images stored on your device increases the likelihood that someone — a parent, the police, a hacker — will find them," their article states.
In terms of personal safety, teens are advised to turn off location trackers and avoid capturing their faces or other personal identifiers in photos and videos.
Overall, Hinduja says, parents just can't stop their children from sexting, so broaching the topic of safety measures is the next best thing.
"I would advise parents and adults when they bring up these issues not to be fear-mongering and all panicked, regardless of what they read in the media, because your kids will shut down and not talk to you," he says. "Your kids will surprise you about what they already know, so you might as well engage them."