Parents of high school students as well as teachers have cause to be concerned after a study of more than 23,000 students in high schools in Boston’s metro-west region found that 13 percent of high school students in this area admitted to receiving sext messages, while one in ten admitted to forwarding, sending, or posting sexually suggestive, explicit, or nude videos or photos of people they know on cell phones or online. The results of this study were presented at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
According to the 2010 survey of 24 of Boston’s high schools, teens involved in texting were more likely to report that they were psychologically distressed, depressed, or even suicidal, since sexting can be bullying or coercive. Which might explain why twice as many of those responding to the survey who had texted in the past year reported symptoms of depression, as opposed to teens who did not.
Another frightening finding, according to researchers at the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts, was that 13 percent of teens involved in sexting also reported a suicide attempt during that period of sexting, compared to 3 percent of teens who did not sext.
Shari Kessel Schneider, the lead researcher in this study explained that this statistic doesn’t mean that sexting causes depression or increases the risk of suicide. “It’s a cross-sectional study — it shows an association but not a causal relationship,” she said. But she also added, “It’s important to know there’s a link between sexting and psychological distress. It’s something to be considered if you know of a youth who is involved in sexting.”
Researchers also found that 10 percent of high school boys and 11 percent of high school girls reported sending one of these images in the past year, and 6 percent of males and 4 percent of females admitted to sending an image of themselves. Additionally, students who described themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, other, or not sure were more likely to be involved in sexting.
Studies which have looked at sexting on a national basis have raised the question for parents as to how they can prevent their children from either posting or posing for these sexual images.
Marian Merritt, an Internet safety advocate for Norton, which is part of Symantec Inc., said, “I encourage parents to treat a kid’s cell phone as a computer: thinking of securing, protecting and limiting it. Set family rules. Age 12 is standard. If that phone is a smartphone, password protect it,” she said. “It could prevent your child getting victimized” by someone else who picks it up and uses it.
She also encourages parents to monitor their children’s use: “Check your online statement, to see if your child is sending a lot of photo messages.” She recommends taking back the control of technology by setting time limits regarding how long children can be on the wireless router or limiting their access and privacy. “Charge the phone in the kitchen, some central location, so it’s not on their pillow, buzzing late at night with text messages,” Merritt suggested.
And that old adage about talking to your children certainly applies here. “Don’t wait until they’re 16, that’s exactly the wrong way to do stuff. Start much earlier. Especially with boys, know how incredibly common it will be for them to receive a [sext] message. Ask them, ‘What would you do?’ What’s the right thing to do to protect the girl? Delete it?’ Try to make sure he shows empathy for the girl.”
Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, has a different approach, for which he has taken some flak. He recommends to teens to delete a sext message when they receive it. He says instead, “You should delete it and not tell anybody. If it’s doesn’t get disseminated and distributed, it’s ended.”
He explains his rationale for this advice by saying that when teens tell adults, they are “throwing that person under a bus,” because once people in authority are made aware of sexting, they are legally required to report that activity.
In February, Patchin posted this comment, “Adults, it seems, are forced to respond to sexting in extreme ways — ways that have long-term, irreversible consequences. Until we can develop reasonable responses that do not potentially foreclose on the futures of all involved, we are wise to advise that students do not contact adults, unless the situation is appearing to get out of control. And I think teens know when it is out of control.”
At the same time, Patchin does not discount the potentially serious consequences of texting, citing examples of cases of young girls committing suicide where sexting was a factor.
Schneider’s group plans to do further studies to determine how sexting relates to teens’ gender orientation. But, for now, she emphasizes that the findings of this study should “draw attention to the link between sexting and mental health, which should be addressed by anti-bullying and health-promotion initiatives.”
We are reminded, however, to view the data and conclusions drawn from it as preliminary until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.