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School's In Session: Talk To Your Children About Sexting and Other Risks

School is about to start, and with it, the frenzy of texting and social media on every imaginable device. Here's what I believe: we might not be able to control everything our children do, but we can and must arm them with the knowledge to bring their most conscious selves forward.
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As the mother of twin teenagers--a girl and a boy--I am especially mindful of the risks my children inhabit simply by being adolescents in a world that is both hyper-connected and hyper-litigious. Life was simpler when I was a teenager back in the early 80s (read: smart phones and the Internet didn't exist). Which is not to say that minors didn't get into trouble with drinking and drugs.

It's just that the stakes are more complicated today, and much higher. We need only look at the Zach Anderson case to recognize the thin veil that separates a seemingly innocent act from one that casts criminal guilt for decades. School is about to start, and with it, the frenzy of texting and social media on every imaginable device. Here's what I believe: we might not be able to control everything our children do, but we can and must arm them with the knowledge to bring their most conscious selves forward.

So I reached out to my old college friend Alan Lerner, LCSW, who most recently served as the director for Bergen County NJ's Juvenile Family Crisis Intervention Unit, and prior to that provided intensive in-home family therapy to families with at-risk adolescents. Alan has a private practice in Northern New Jersey and also conducts training on human trafficking, suicide prevention, and parenting.

Sharp: Zach Anderson is 19. My twins are 14, about to enter eighth grade. Is it wise to share this story with them?

Lerner: Yes. Have them read the story, ask them about their thoughts on what happened and what they learned from the article. You can ask them what they would do differently. This gives you an opportunity to explore options that they didn't think of.

Sharp: What are your thoughts about Zach Anderson's case and all that it implies? What other scenarios have you encountered that offer teachable moments?

Lerner: The Zach Anderson story brings up caveats in two important areas: electronic media and interpersonal relationships. Something all children cannot be warned enough about is the ease with which someone can falsify information in any Internet-related medium. The second concern is how one navigates a new relationship, regardless of whether the person was met via social media or direct face-to-face contact. Teens need to take the time to get to know someone before diving into a romantic and sexual relationship.

In the Anderson situation, both parties took tremendous risks, adding fire to concerns over young people meeting each other through electronic media, in their case, a dating app called "Hot or Not." More often we hear about the consequences experienced by the young female in these situations, such as becoming a victim of sexual assault, or even worse, human trafficking.

I'm aware of a young teenage girl who was alone on a bus halfway across the country on her way to southern California to meet someone she met on the Internet. Fortunately, law enforcement recovered her and returned her home. In the Anderson case, a 19-year-old adult was seemingly seeking an age-appropriate relationship, not attempting to lure a minor (the girl in question turned out to be 14). This is what's drawing the uproar and calls for modifying how Megan's Law is classified.

Sharp: What's the most common mistake kids make today?

Lerner: Sexting. This is the age of the "selfie," and there's a tremendous problem with young people photographing themselves and sharing the images or video via texting and social media. Interpersonal consequences result in humiliation and bullying. What teens need to know is that anyone under the age of 18 can be found guilty of creating, exhibiting, or distributing child pornography regardless if they post images of themselves or their peers. There are long-term consequences of another kind, too, something kids don't grasp: images can last forever in the digital universe. Who's to say a potential employer won't unearth racy images? If an image is posted on the Internet, it's safe to assume it can be found.

All parents and youth have a responsibility to educate themselves on their state's laws. There is no federal jurisdiction.

Sharp: At what age should parents begin to speak to their children about these risks?

Lerner: At the minimum, before you give your child a smart phone, I recommend a full conversation on all the risks associated with having a device that can literally access the entire world, and through which the entire world can potentially access your child. A great idea is to write a contract with a list of rules and expectations for your child's smart phone usage. The list should include rules around whom they can interact with and restrictions on sharing information including images and videos. Both parents and children need to sign the contract and discussions ought to trigger conversations that delve deeper into risky behavior.

Ideally, conversations should take place long before children have their own smart phone. If they are using the family computer, tablet, or video gaming devices, they're already exposed to the two-way access of the electronic world. Kids must be given clear direction about not sharing any personal information or making contact with strangers, and parents and guardians must regularly monitor their children's use and what websites or apps they use. I'm a proponent of requiring that all Internet-connected devices be housed in common areas for easier monitoring. Parents should also educate themselves on apps that restrict access like PhoneSheriff .

Sharp: What tips can you offer parents in how best to have this conversation with their children?

Lerner: Parents should be clear and direct when talking to their children about the risks of electronic media and dating. They want to straddle the line between being alarmists and minimizing the risks. Kids tend to see themselves as living in two worlds--a real life world and an Internet/social media world. This split worldview gives them a false sense of safety, leading them to do and say things that they wouldn't in face-to-face situations, which puts them at risk. Children need to be told repeatedly that these worlds are one and the same.

I would even recommend "scripts" on what to say if someone tries to solicit nude photos from your child. Examples are "that's not my thing," or "I found out any nude photo is considered child pornography and I could end up on Megan's Law."

Sharp: What else can parents do to foster healthy but safe independence?

Lerner: It's important to let your children know that they can come to you with anything that surfaces regarding relationships or social media. Many young people feel ashamed about sharing embarrassing incidents, especially if a parent previously warned them of the risks. Parents need to remember that adolescence by definition includes risk-taking and that neurologically, adolescents are at risk for poor decision-making. Teenagers are human and will make mistakes. So parents should do their best not to shame their children if they do something inappropriate. It's better to try and proactively teach appropriate choices.

For more information, reach out to Alan Lerner directly at alanlernerlcsw@gmail.com.