That phone in your child’s pocket offers some real advantages, like making it easier for you to keep in touch throughout the day. But the risks attached to the types of communication phones enable are real, too. Some concerns are practical, like kids and teens who use their phones late into the night thus missing out on needed sleep. But, other pitfalls like “sexting” raise the dangers of teen texting to a whole new level.
According to a USC study published in the July 2014 issue of the journal Pediatrics, middle school students who reported receiving a sext—a sexually explicit text message or photo—were six times more likely than their peers to report being sexually active. It seems that great volumes of texting—whether overtly sexual or not—increase the likelihood of negative behaviors: kids who sent more than 100 texts per day were more likely to report being sexually active, as well.
So what should parents do? It starts with being alert and creating some boundaries around your child’s electronic communications, whether it’s through regular text messaging or one of the many popular apps that allow text-like instant communication. Here are the dangers of teen texting you should know about.
1. Sexting is more common than you think.
The USC study, performed in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey sampled 1,300 Los Angeles middle-schoolers. The respondents, whose average age was 12.3 years, anonymously answered questions related to their texting habits and experiences. Roughly 20 percent of kids reported having received a sext and 5 percent reported sending one. Sexting behavior seems to peak in the mid-teens. A University of Utah study which focused on teens aged 14-18 found that around 40 percent had received sexually explicit pictures and messages and around 20 percent had sent them.
2. Certain messaging apps make poor choices tempting.
Because there are people out there more interested in making a buck than in creating a safer world for your kids, the number of messaging apps which purport to provide some cover for these behaviors are on the rise. Take Snapchat for instance: messages sent through this app delete themselves after just a few seconds (Can you think of a legitimate use for something like this? We can’t…), so tweens and teens sometimes think it’s a “safer” place to send a risqué photo. The problem? The recipient can simply snap a screenshot of the photo before it disappears—then it’s theirs to do with as they wish. In the University of Utah study, 25 percent of the teens who had received a sext said they had forwarded them to someone else.
You should also become savvy about the number of “secret” apps which are available, allowing the user to store secret photos and communications under an icon that looks like a calculator or some other innocent app. Secret web browsers are another way around parental monitoring of web browsing histories. Place restrictions on your child’s ability to install new apps so that you can approve their choices.
3. Unmonitored and unrestrained phone use puts your child at risk.
We all roll our eyes and joke about the crazy numbers of text messages a tween girl can generate in a single day—they have thumbs like lightning! But unrestrained phone use can lead to problems. As previously mentioned, the USC study found that the more a kid texts, the more likely she is to participate in sexting and other sexual behaviors. And let’s face it: kids who spend hours per day glued to their phones are missing out on life! We understand that digital communication is the norm for the world we live in, but we strongly believe in the safety and accountability that consistent monitoring offers. The right parental software can help you guard content and set boundaries around the level and hours of usage. Whether you use third-party software or take advantage of parental controls available through your cellular carrier, do something, and do it today.
4. The emotional cost of a ruined reputation is high.
There are heartbreaking stories all around us of teens who sent an explicit photo to a romantic interest, only to have them forwarded and shared with half the town. The trauma of that type of humiliation is staggering—pushing some victims to depression and even suicide. What’s more, once explicit photos are posted online, it’s nearly impossible to expunge them in a way that guarantees they’ll never resurface. In the moment, young people don’t realize that by hitting “send,” they may be destroying their own reputations and doing something they’ll always regret.
Even if your child isn’t the type to take a risk like sexting, you need to be aware of the social and emotional pitfalls associated with the social media and texting world of tweens and teens. Kids become emboldened online and via text to say and do mean things they would never say in person. Follow your child’s digital life to make sure they are treating others with respect and that they are being treated well, also.
And one more thing: your child will probably push back against this type of oversight by saying it’s intrusive, demonstrates a lack of trust, or that your monitoring software is killing their device speed. But, when they were toddlers and didn’t want to take a nap—but you knew they needed a nap—their protests didn’t dissuade you from doing what was best for them. It’s tough, but good parenting usually is. Keep doing that which is in their best interest, whether they’re mature enough to understand it or not. They’ll thank you one day.
How do you keep your kids safe on their phones and other devices?
Dana Hall McCain writes about marriage, parenting, faith and wellness. She is a mom of two, and has been married to a wonderful guy for over 18 years.