She sits in my office crying. She expresses her feelings of betrayal and anger toward her “supposed” boyfriend (her words). I am struck by her intense focus on her feelings about her boyfriend, a stark contrast to her mother’s concerns as relayed when she called to set up the “emergency” session. I have worked through similar situations with teens in the past. I am quite sure that in time the gravity of how far reaching and damaging the photos have become will strike her in the near future. Right now all she can focus on is the deception and betrayal. Her mother, of course, is focused on the shame and embarrassment that she assumes her teen is experiencing. “She has been bullied,” her mother reported. And so she has, this savvy, bright eyed teen, has naively become the victim of cyberbullying. The situation put in motion by a provocative picture she e-mailed to her boyfriend under the false belief that their relationship was private and sacred and that he was someone whom she truly trusted.
This girl is not unintelligent or socially immature. In fact, quite the opposite, she is popular and attractive, gregarious, and involved. She is the type of girl many teens aspire to be. Then how could this happen and why?
How it happens is a far easier question to answer than why. It happens when unassuming teens send provocative pictures or messages to each other. Many argue that it is a modern way of flirting or liken it to a technologically advanced form of “phone sex.” The difference is that unlike a phone call to a single individual, individual texts and IM’s can be relayed to hundreds with the tap of a key.
As parents we are sure that you are most interested in prevention. Toward this end we offer these suggestions:
1.) Talk with your teen about the perils of sexting. Perhaps start by having her read the story above.
2.) Define “appropriate” content. You may be surprised to realize that your teen sees nothing wrong with sending a picture of her in that string bikini or texting her boyfriend what she would like to “do to him.” We know, not your teen , huh? At least ask.
3.) Work with your teen to create a system to monitor her social media including texts, web pages etc. Your opinion matters. The knowledge that you will be checking this may be enough to prevent the sending of inappropriate content.
4.) Consistency counts. If your teen breaks the rules you have established with him regarding this issue follow through on the consequences. This sends him the message that this is a serious issue.
5.) If you discover that your teen is the offender (i.e. disseminating inappropriate content to others ) discuss the issue with him and enforce consequences. Appeal to his perspective taking skills. Teens don’t often realize how serious and devastating the consequences of a “little joke” like this can be for the victim. Recent media is unfortunately fraught with stories about teens who were unable to deal with the fall out from such situations. The result has been an alarming increase in attempted and completed suicides by cyberbullied teens.
The teen years are full of friendships, fun, and new adventures. While we certainly don’t want to send our teens the message that they can’t trust anyone; we can educate them in ways which ensure that they will not have to face these hard truths and difficult dilemmas.