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Written by:  Carolyn Jabs
Date: June 1, 2011

Parents used to know exactly what photos their kids took when on vacation if only because the camera was family property and parents had to pay to have the photos developed. Now that most cell phones have cameras, children can take — and distribute — photos without consulting their parents. As a result, young people may have embarrassing and potentially risky photos posted on social networking sites and stored in others' cellphones. During the summer, when some kids are bored and less-supervised, the odds of making mischief with a camera increase. The thought that some of a child's vacation photos might be provocative or even nude is understandably distressing to parents. Teens, however, aren't as appalled as they ought to be. One in four teens has participated in sexting, and even more have seen or forwarded the photos.

Technology that will allow parents to preview photos before children send them is likely to be available by the end of the year. For this summer, parents will need to talk — often — about what kinds of photos kids are allowed to take and share. Here's what you need to know:

*   Start young. Middle school students seem to be at especially high risk for sexting, perhaps because they are just discovering their own sexual feelings and they crave the attention of the opposite sex. Girls, in particular, may consider using an intimate photo as a way of showing a boyfriend how much they care. In one of the most thorough studies of sexting to date, researchers from the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire pointed out that a large proportion of the pictures involved in sexting are taken and sent voluntarily by children as young as 9.

*    Talk about it. Young people are growing up in a highly sexualized culture. Pornographic images are less shocking because they are so readily available online. Most young people have seen or at least heard about sexual photos of their peers, so they often start with a "no-big-deal" attitude. Parents need to talk about this topic often to convince them otherwise. Lectures are pointless. Instead, take advantage of news reports about sexting to start open-ended conversations.

*    Predict consequences. Adolescents are not developmentally ready to think carefully about how today's impulse may lead to future problems. They need adults to help them anticipate potential difficulties created by sexual photos. Talk your child through various scenarios. If a relationship breaks up, how will the partners feel about sexy pictures they've sent to each other? How will they feel if the photo gets forwarded to one person or a thousand people or ten thousand people? What if a pedophile gets hold of the picture and puts it on a website? What if the school principal, church pastor, younger siblings or older relatives see the photo? Making these consequences vivid makes it less likely that a teen will impulsively send a compromising photo.

*    Explain legal issues. Sending naked photos of someone younger than 18 fits the legal description for distribution of child pornography. Police and prosecutors vary in how stringently they enforce the law. As a result, many teens don't understand the legal risk they incur if they press "send" or "forward" on a racy picture. Be sure your child knows that some young people have been prosecuted and labeled as sex offenders, a designation that can have lifelong consequences.

*   Talk about tagging. Tagging is a Facebook feature that allows people to identify people in photos that they post. Although this can be a harmless way for young people to share photos, it takes control about what images can be seen online out of your child's hands. In particular, tagged photos can show up in the public photo strip at the top of your child's profile page. Even if you aren't your child's "friend" on Facebook, you should regularly search his or her name to see what photos appear.

If tagged photos of your child are inappropriate, visit "Account settings" in the upper right of the Facebook page. Click on "Privacy," a section that contains many useful tools for controlling who sees what on Facebook. To control tagged photos, choose "Customize settings," then "Photos and videos you're tagged in." Choose "Customize" again and then click "Make this visible to." Choose "Only me" from the drop-down menu.

Even if your child would never send a sexually explicit photo, he or she may receive one from peers. Encouraging kids to report such messages puts them in a conflicted position. No teen wants to be responsible for getting a friend in trouble. You can, however, make it clear that your child can do something positive simply by deleting the photo. Sharing sexually explicit photos may actually make your child an accessory to a crime. Pressing "delete" is a small kindness to the young person foolish enough to distribute homemade pornography.

It's natural for parents to think their own child couldn't possibly be involved in anything as unsavory as sexting. The truth is, even "nice" kids make dumb decisions, so parents need to be proactive. Talking to children now makes it less likely they will share summer vacation photos that will haunt them when they go back to school in the fall.

Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.


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