Confession: It’s almost inconceivable to me that a youngster would take a picture of her/his “private parts” and send it to someone. However, about 20 interviews with Minnesota educators, legislators and state officials convinced me that as Caroline Palmer of the Minnesota Department of Health explained: “Sexting is a pretty common way for many Minnesota youth to communicate with each other. It increases through their teen years.” She also described “sextortion” — a crime I’d never heard of.

The Minnesota Department of Education defines sexting as “the sending and receiving of sexually explicit messages or photos electronically.”

Dr. Walter Roberts, formerly a Minnesota State Mankato school counseling professor and expert on bullying, urges families to “regularly talk with youngsters as soon as they start using electronic devices.” Adults should ensure that these conversations include asking youngsters what they are learning and what their favorite websites and activities are.

The conversations should NOT be just warnings. “Otherwise children and youngsters will turn off,” according to Roberts. And he pointed out there is a lot to learn from youngsters about internet resources.

Roberts believes that discussions about sexting can be part of conversations about private parts of a youngster’s body. Other people touching their private parts is not OK; same is true for sharing pictures of private parts.

Although no one I talked to knew of any Minnesota-specific studies, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators shared:

— Pennsylvania research that 54% of survey respondents reported that as minors they had “exchanged sexually explicit text messages.” This study also found the majority of people interviewed didn’t know the legal implications of sexting. Those who did were less likely to do it.

— A Massachusetts study finding about 30% of 18-year-olds are sexting.

— A Michigan report find that nearly half of 18-to-24-year-olds interviewed have sexted.

The two best resources for families that I found are from the Journal of the American Medical Association (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2673714) and a one-page summary from the Minnesota Department of Education (https://education.mn.gov/MDE/dse/safe/034035).

Here’s some of what MDE explains:

“Students who sext may consider the sending and receiving of ‘sexy pictures’ as a form of flirtation, a gift to a boyfriend or girlfriend, something they need to do to keep a boyfriend or girlfriend, a lark or a way of being mean, or having power over someone. The law describes those actions differently. Those actions can be a gross misdemeanor or felony. Sending and receiving sexually explicit pictures of someone under the age of 18 may be illegal. It is a federal crime to produce, distribute and/or (possess) child pornography. A teen caught with sexually explicit pictures of someone under the age of 18 may face time in juvenile detention or registered in the state as a sex offender. …

“Young people may also face social and academic consequences for sexting. Students may be removed from athletic teams or other extracurricular activities and suspended from school. Students who are the subject of sexting may feel humiliated and harassed when their private pictures are sent around the school, the community and beyond.

“Sexting can also jeopardize student’s future opportunities. College admissions officers, employers, military recruiters, future friends or significant others may find a student’s explicit photos during Google searches. Online sexual predators may also use the photos. Once sent or shared, there is no way to remove a photo from the Internet.”

Minnesota Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who authored Minnesota’s “Revenge Porn” legislation, described the familiar experience of “youngsters rolling their eyes when an older person says ‘don’t do this – it’s dumb.’” He suggested that families find and share stories of how sexting can have an impact on how friends and employers view someone. He also recommends helping youngsters understand that sexting can harm their reputation with current friends.

Lesch recommends reminding youngsters that “kids – even friends – can be mean.” In developing “revenge porn” legislation, he encountered many examples of this.

Adrianna Perez of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault says, “Our biggest concern is photos or messages being shared in a way that they were not intended to be.”

Some adults, including me, find it incredible that young people are sexting. But they are, sometimes with the encouragement of their friends.

So we adults need to help youngsters understand that, as Roberts concluded: “Those electronic devices can be wonderful. But they also can help produce huge problems that last a lifetime.” — Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: joe@centerforschoolchange.org.)

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