Teens and Social Media: 5-Point Sexting Talk



Would you believe 1 in 5 teens, aged 12 to 17, has shared a partially or totally naked picture of themselves via text or on the Internet? Would you believe another 1 in 3 have seen a “sext” with an explicit photo of someone they know? Well, believe it.

What is “sexting”?

Sexting involves sending sexually explicit material, including naked or partially naked photos, via cell phone, email or social media. It’s become a widespread, social phenomenon that can have dire consequences for both the person in the photo and for the person receiving the photo.

“A lot of kids share sexts because they think it’s funny,” said Detective Alex Petty of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department in Indiana. “Others do it because they are trying to impress a boyfriend or girlfriend, or even because they find themselves in an online trap.”

“A lot of kids share sexts because they think it’s funny.” ~Detective Alex Petty

Thousands upon thousands of teens have experienced similar sexting scenarios… one such scenario goes a little something like this…

    • Girl likes boy.
    • Girl and boy text, IM or chat back and forth.
    • Boy asks girl to take a picture of herself in her bra and promises not to share.
    • Girl obliges.
    • Boy asks girl to now take off her bra and send a picture of her breasts.
    • Girl really likes boy, but doesn’t feel right about doing that.
    • Boy is persistent and promises not to send the photo to anyone… not a soul. “I love you,” he says. OR… boy threatens to share picture of girl in her bra IF she doesn’t send him a photo of her breasts.
    • Trusting the boy, girl sends boy a topless photo.
    • Boy may keep it to himself for a while, but can’t resist sending it to his best friend.
    • Best friend shares with other guys in school.
    • The photo spreads around the school, then between schools; within hours, hundreds of kids have seen the girl’s topless picture.

“Teens don’t consider the consequences before hitting ‘send’,” Detective Petty shared. “Humiliation, shame, blackmail, bullying, school discipline and even police involvement are very real outcomes of sexting.”

“Teens don’t consider the consequences before hitting ‘send’.” ~Detective Alex Petty

Sadly, suicide is another potential consequence, such as in the case of Canadian teen Amanda Todd. Here in the U.S., suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people aged 10 to 24. An even greater number of youths attempt suicide, with nearly 157,000 youths receiving emergency medical care for self-inflicted injuries. In a nationwide survey kids grades 9–12 , 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey. (Source: Centers for Disease Control)

Sexting… a criminal act?

If sexting involves the images of someone under the age of 18, sharing partially or totally nude photos is considered to be distribution of child pornography and is a CRIME. Most kids, though, don’t look at it that way and underestimate the severity of sexting.

“We want to protect kids before things get out of hand,” said Detective Petty. “Depending on the situation and the ages of kids involved, our goal isn’t to just file a bunch of charges; we want to work with kids and their parents to get in front of sexting situations and do our best to protect all involved.”

5-Point Sexting Talk

Detective Petty offered 5 key points to make when discussing the dangers of sexting with teens:

1) Define a healthy relationship. Frame for your teens what a healthy, mutually respectful, age-appropriate relationship should look like. This isn’t a one-and-done conversation. Reinforce the nature of healthy relationships and their importance with your kids so it becomes part of their belief system.

2) NEVER forward a sext: bottom line… texting, tweeting, emailing, instant messaging or sending in any manor a naked image of a minor constitutes distribution of child pornography. Again, many local law enforcement agencies will want to work with parents and kids who find themselves in a situation where a teen forwarded a sext. However, not proactively working to stop the sexting string can have steep penalties. Juvenile offenders may face lighter sentences, but federal statute specifies that first time offenders convicted of “transporting child pornography in interstate or foreign commerce” can face fines and a statutory minimum of 5 to 20 years in prison. Sentences are harsher if the images portrayed are violent, sadistic, or masochistic in nature, or if the person distributing the images is a repeat offender. (Source: U.S. Department of Justice )

3) Talk about how quickly images spread online. The term, “going viral” means just that… like a viral illness, sexting images can spread like a disease. There have been plenty of examples lately about how quickly images ‘go viral’. It can… and does… happen. Case in point: in 2013, a 5th grade teacher wanted to demonstrate this very phenomenon… and she did in a short period of time with millions of people viewing her one post.  In sexting cases, it doesn’t take an image spreading worldwide for it to have damaging effects on its victims. Any circle of influence communication, be it Facebook friends, Twitter followers or Kik connections, can lead to the victim reeling from humiliation, shame and a desperate feeling that there is no way out.

4) Discuss the consequences. Don’t candy coat this… teens need to understand the very serious ramifications of sexting. Point out examples, such as the Amanda Todd case, where sexting spirals out of control and led to someone taking her own life. Amanda’s case wasn’t a one-off incident.

5) Report it! “Helping us get in front of these cases early on makes all the difference in the world,” Detective Petty encouraged. “Again, we’re here to help kids stay safe. Contact law enforcement as soon as you or your teen is made aware of sexually explicit images being shared at school, among sports teams or in any other circle.” Not reporting only allows the viral situation to spread, causing greater damage for all involved down the road. If a teen receives such an image, they should…

    • Save the image.
    • Show it to a parent or teacher.
    • The parent or teacher should immediately contact local law enforcement.

Having this conversation with your kids, starting when they first begin using the Internet on their own, can help keep them safe and even help them protect other kids.


Committed to preserving public safety and the protection of children, I thank Hamilton County Sheriff Mark Bowen, along with Detective Alex Petty, for allowing me to share the valuable information from their “Teens & Social Media” community presentation held in Noblesville, IN on March 10, 2014.  About the presentation, Sheriff Bowen said, “Every time you hear about these cases where young folks get in over their heads with social media, whether it’s sexting or some other inappropriate activity that comes back to haunt them… and they end up taking their life as a result because of their fears, humiliation or retaliation from their peers… it’s obviously very sad and concerning. We want to make sure folks are aware that it CAN get to that point where kids get in over their heads and don’t know what to do… and, unfortunately, think the only way out is to take their own life. That’s the last thing in the world we would want.”

About Alex

Detective Alex Petty is a veteran investigator in crimes against children. A former Hanover College football player and now law enforcement officer for 23 years, Alex has been with the Hamilton Co. Sheriff’s Department since 1996 where he started in Sheriff’s court security, moved to the patrol division and was then promoted to detective in 2006. Alex holds several professional designations including that of certified drug recognition expert and instructor, crisis negotiator, and instructor for Child First/Finding Words child forensic interview training in Indiana.  A loving husband and proud father of four fabulous kids aged 17 to 10, Alex coaches football and basketball in his spare time. Ever since he was a little boy, Alex wanted to be an investigator. “I come from a single parent home, so I know what it’s like for the single mom and dad,” he shared. “Kids are forced to adapt to ever-changing societal influences; some good, some bad. I want parents to know that if they communicate with their kids, take charge and do their part to show kids a healthy way to live, they really can strengthen family relationships.” Have a question for Alex? Contact him at (317) 733-1282 or [email protected]

About Ginger

Working to improve the world one child at a time, Ginger has made it her life mission to raise awareness of the world-wide epidemic of child abuse. An impassioned child advocate, trainer, speaker and child forensic interviewer, Ginger regularly blogs about child protection issues and has released a report for parents and other caring adults, “10 Scary Apps.” Ginger can be contacted via her website “Ginger Kadlec: 4UrKids™” at gingerkadlec.com or find her on Facebook at facebook.com/gingergkadlec.

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