The Growing Problem of Sexting and Cyberbullying Among Children
Sexting and cyberbullying are widespread, 21st century social problems linked to the development of smartphones, computers and the Internet. Across the United States, parents, public health officials, school districts and researchers have begun to explore the damaging impact that these practices have on our nation’s teenagers and younger children.
They have also begun to explore the most effective ways of safeguarding the significant numbers of young people harmed by their sexting and cyberbullying peers. Prevention is key as bullied teens often seek comfort in drugs and alcohol.
Sexting Basics 101
Sexting[i] is the general term for any sexually oriented media sent from one person to another through a smartphone or an Internet connection. This media can take the form of text messages, suggestive or explicit videos, or suggestive or explicit still photos. Some people actively participate in sexting and send media to friends, acquaintances or strangers. Other people receive messages, videos and/or photos, but do not send them.
There are a number of reasons why a teen or preteen might engage in sexting. Common examples of these reasons include:
- A desire to flirt with someone or show sexual interest
- A desire to seem “cool” and fit in with modern social norms
- A desire to imitate the behaviors of famous people who seem to sext without suffering any negative consequences
- A desire to pressure another person into sexual activity
- A desire to blackmail, bully, threaten or humiliate another person
The Nemours Foundation notes that it’s difficult to determine just how many young people take part in sexting. For example, studies indicate that anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of all teen boys and girls have sent a suggestive or explicit still image to someone else. Estimates of the number of young people receiving such images range from a low of 12.5 percent to a high of roughly 33 percent.
Cyberbullying Basics 101
Cyberbullying[ii] is the accepted term for using computers or other modern technology to engage in any form of bullying behavior. This type of behavior includes things such as:
- Harassing another person
- Threatening another person
- Humiliating or embarrassing someone
- Marking another person as a target for violent actions or acts of reprisal
- Exposing personal information that was meant to stay private
When used for any of these purposes, sexting also qualifies as a form of cyberbullying.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notes that cyberbullying occurs much less often than in-person verbal/social bullying or physical bullying. Despite this fact, millions of young people throughout the country are affected. In fact, some studies show that as many as 25 percent of all American teens have experienced at least one instance of cyberbullying.
In addition, as many as 17 percent of all teens have acted as cyberbullies. Certain social groups have a disproportionate level of exposure to the phenomenon. For instance, HHS reports that cyberbullying affects over half of all adolescents who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning (LGBTQ).[iii]
Legal Responses to Sexting and Cyberbullying
At least 20 states across America have enacted laws against sexting.[iv] All of these laws cover texts, images and videos sent by young people under the age of 18. In addition, the vast majority of current state laws also apply to people under the age of 18 who receive sexually oriented media. Depending on the state in question, the legal consequences of sexting range from informal reprimands and diversion programs to misdemeanor and felony convictions.
The Cyberbullying Research Center reports that 48 out of the 50 U.S. states, as well as Washington D.C., have laws on the books that cover cyberbullying and/or online harassment.[v] Out of these 48 states, 44 make it a criminal offense to bully someone through modern technology. In addition, 45 states and the District of Columbia mandate school-based sanctions for young people who engage in cyberbullying.
The steps that schools must take in response to sexting and cyberbullying vary from state to state. Some states mandate zero-tolerance policies that require schools to suspend or expel students who engage in these activities. However, other states have recently moved away from such severe consequences.
For example, in 2015, legislators in Illinois made it much harder for school districts to suspend or expel students for any on-campus violations,[vi] including cyberbullying and sexting. One of the primary reasons for this move was a disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions in situations involving students of color.
There are workable alternatives to expulsions and suspension for students who participate in sexting or cyberbullying. One potential option is mandatory enrollment in an online class designed to highlight the damaging consequences of these behaviors. Formal diversion programs may serve as a suitable alternative for young people who commit the most serious types of offenses.
Promoting Education and Awareness
During adolescence, the human brain is still years away from developing its full capacity for logical thinking, self-control and sound decision-making. School districts can help offset this lack of critical thinking skills by creating classes, programs or seminars designed to make students aware of the dangers of sexting and cyberbullying. In addition, school districts can help limit these activities by training teachers to recognize telltale signs and respond appropriately.
Parents can also play a crucial preventive role by:
- Staying aware of their children’s general level of involvement in social media
- Installing computer, smartphone and tablet software designed to monitor their children’s online activities
- Monitoring their children’s peer groups for signs of sexting or cyberbullying involvement
Exposure to cyberbullying and sexting can lead to serious changes in young people’s attitudes and behaviors. In a significant number of cases, these changes can lead to early participation in drug and alcohol consumption. Preventing drug abuse starts at home, this means that parents must also be on the lookout for indicators of substance use.[vii]
In-school presentations intended to prevent early involvement in drug and alcohol use often underscore the connection between sexting exposure, cyberbullying exposure and substance abuse. A prime example of such a presentation is The Cop and the Convict [viii] Created by Tim Ryan, National Outreach Director for Transformations Treatment Center and Chicago-area police detective Rich Wistocki.
This program uses first hand examples to illustrate the legal and personal pitfalls of drinking and taking drugs during adolescence and how it can be prevented through technology monitoring. Wistocki is also the creator of the State of Illinois Sexting Law. He discusses the importance of prevention and staying ever vigilant, “There is no such thing as privacy with children. Parents need to talk with their children and find out what apps they’ve downloaded on their phones and who they’re talking to.”
[i] The Nemours Foundation – KidsHealth: Sexting – What Parents Need to Know http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/2011-sexting.html#
[ii] The Nemours Foundation – KidsHealth: Cyberbullying http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/cyberbullying.html?WT.ac=p-ra#
[iii] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Facts About Bullying https://www.stopbullying.gov/media/facts/index.html#ftn17
[vi] Education Week: New Illinois Law to Prompt Changes in Discipline Policies https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/09/new-illinois-law-to-prompt-changes-in.html
[vii] Transformations Treatment Center. Preventing Drug Abuse Starts at Home with Parents. https://www.transformationstreatment.center/resources/help-family-friends/substance-abuse-parenting/
[viii] Chicago Tribune: Cop and Convict Join Forces for Naperville Anti-Drug Program http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/naperville-sun/news/ct-nvs-naperville-cop-and-convict-drug-talk-st-1117-20171117-story.html