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Have you ever been asked to text or Snapchat a nude pic? Sending sexually explicit photos when you’re a minor comes with some baggage, including possible legal implications. That’s probably one of the reasons most students (over 75 percent) say they’ve never sexted, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.
One of the biggest issues with sexting is this: When we think we’re sending something for one person’s eyes only, it often ends up being seen by many. In fact, more than 30 percent of students say that they’ve sent a private photo or text to someone and later found out it was shared with others, according to the Student Health 101 survey. Students used words like “victim,” “betrayed,” and “distrust” to describe how this made them feel.
“A good friend of mine was a victim of leaked nude photos that she had sent to a guy she liked. At first I was shocked at my friend but then angry [at the person who leaked it]. I found it repulsive to invade someone’s privacy and to expose it to a group of strangers,” says a junior* from Brooklyn, New York.
Digital privacy: Does it exist?
Once they leave our devices, the posts and messages we send out into the digital world can’t be controlled. Even if the person on the other end is someone we trust, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend, relationships can change.
“Unfortunately, sometimes things can go wrong when relationships end. The person we trusted with our photos might [later] act in ways we didn’t expect,” says Dr. Marla Eisenberg, associate professor and director of research in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“I sent a message to someone I thought I could trust, but [they] didn’t end up being my friend after all,” says a sophomore* from Uxbridge, Massachusetts.
Sexting can also leave scars that could hurt our long-term reputation. The internet keeps a copy of everything, so what gets posted there can stay there, long after we wish it would disappear.
“When we’re applying for jobs, we can assume that any potential employer will Google us to see what they can learn. A suggestive picture is probably not the kind of strong first impression anyone wants to make. The bottom line is that once a picture is out there, we can’t get it back,” says Dr. Eisenberg.
Smart is the new sexy
Half of high school students say they’ve been asked to sext, according to a 2012 study. Most students were also annoyed by the request, so if you’re not into sexting, you’re not alone.
In the eyes of the law, sexting is usually defined as the creation (taking the photo), possession, and dissemination (sending or sharing) of sexually explicit photos. When these photos are of minors, many states consider them child pornography.
Twenty states have specific sexting laws. These laws apply to the person who is in possession of the photo and the person who takes the photo, even when it’s a photo you took of yourself. Consequences can range from fines to community service to jail time. That’s a big price tag for a photo.
Take the pressure off
Pause and think about the person who’s asking you to sext. Regardless of whether they are your boyfriend, girlfriend, crush, or friend, if they’re pushing you to send sexts, they’re pressuring you. Pressure has no place in a healthy relationship or friendship. If you’re uncomfortable doing something, it’s OK to say so. The people who care about you will understand.
“The problem with pictures is that it’s easy for us to start thinking of people as objects: just body parts in a photo for our own enjoyment. It’s important to think about how you want to be treated and how you would want others to treat the people you care about,” says Meaghan Tracey, school counselor at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, Maryland.
When sharing is not caring
What to do when a sext pops up in your inbox.
We can’t control what comes through to our message inboxes. Friends or classmates may send photos to you that you know aren’t meant to be shared—so what do you do?
Here are some easy steps you can take:
- Break the forwarding chain and delete the picture. It may seem like no big deal when other people are also circulating the message, but sharing a sext counts as cyberbullying, and that’s a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down.
- Tell the person who sent you the sext that you don’t want to be involved or have pictures like that in your inbox.
- If you see a sext being sent around, say something. Remind the people spreading the image what it would feel like if the picture were of them or of a loved one.
- Find an adult you trust (such as a teacher, parent, or school counselor) and tell them about it in private so they can put a stop to it. If you’d rather not be identified, you can write an anonymous note.
10 smart ways to respond if someone asks you to sext
- Give them a short and sweet, “No, thanks.”
- If “topless” is part of the request, grab something with a top, take it off, and snap a pic (e.g, a “topless” ketchup bottle).
- Show off your courtroom drama skills: “We’re minors, so let’s not reenact a Law and Order episode and be charged with child pornography, k?”
- Tell them you care about them and don’t want them doing something risky. “I especially wouldn’t want someone important to me to get into trouble, so that’s an even bigger motivation to not sext,” says a sophomore*, name and city withheld.
- Send a picture of a grumpy cat.
- “You wanted a pic of my junk?” (Insert picture of a pile of trash.)
- Say: “Let’s not go there. We’d regret it when you approach me for a job 5 years from now. #FuturesWithoutBaggage”
- Use Mom or Dad as an excuse. Tell them you’ve got a nosy parent who still checks your phone. Even if it’s not true, it’s an easy way to shut down the request.
- Don’t respond at all. If they are really bothering you, block their number.
- Send a pic of Naked® juice.
Marla Eisenberg, ScD, MPH, associate professor and director of research in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Holly Moses, PhD, MSHE, CHES, instructor, academic advisor, and internship program coordinator in the Department of Health Education and Behavior at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
James Nau, high school teacher, Chicago Public Schools.
Meaghan Tracey, school counselor, Calvert Hall College High School, Towson, Maryland.
Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2015, January). State sexting laws: A brief review of state sexting laws and policies. Retrieved from https://cyberbullying.us/state-sexting-laws.pdf
Lounsbury, K., Mitchell, K. J., & Finkelhor, D. (2011, April 29). The true prevalence of sexting. Retrieved from https://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/Sexting%20Fact%20Sheet%204_29_11.pdf
Temple, J. R., Paul, J. A., van den Berg, P., Le, V. D., et al. (2012). Teen sexting and its association with sexual behaviors. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 166(9). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3626288/
Thomas, A. G., & Cauffman, E. (2014). Youth sexting as child pornography? Developmental science supports less harsh sanctions for juvenile sexters. New Criminal Law Review: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal, 17(4). Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nclr.2014.17.4.631?origin=JSTOR-pdf