It seems obvious to us as parents: Like emails and anything you post to Facebook, text messages can go public in an instant. But while we're thinking of private information like social security numbers and credit card codes, some teenagers (and even tweens) are sending, receiving, and forwarding something far more personal: nude and semi-nude pictures of themselves.
It's called sexting, and it's become such a problem that the school board in Houston, Texas, has taken steps to ban it. Though, frankly, the fact that kids need the rules spelled out on this boggles my mind. It's like we have to add another line to the litany of Don'ts that we recite to our children: Don't drink and drive. Don't do drugs. Don't have unprotected sex. (In fact, don't have sex at all, if possible, OK? Thanks.) Don't be rude. Don't be disrespectful. Oh, and don't take any nude photos of yourself and then send them to your friends in a text message, mmmm kay?
It's easy -- even comfortable -- to think, "Oh, my child would NEVER do that." But according to a recent study by The National Campaign on sex and technology, 21 percent of teenage girls and 18 percent of teenage boys in the United States have sent text messages, posted images, or shared online video clips showing themselves nude or semi-nude.
In fact, it's so prevalent that kids are running into trouble with existing laws. Nude photos of a minor are considered child pornography -- even if the minor child took the photos herself, even if it was consensual, and even if the photos were received, or shared, by another minor. Vermont is considering making sexually explicit text messages shared between teenagers legal -- yes, legal -- in order to avoid having teenagers classified as sex offenders for sending a nude or semi-nude photo of themselves to another teen.
No matter what you say to your teens, ultimately they have to make their own decisions -- and for all they look like adults, they're kids, so their decisions aren't always going to be good ones. Aside from giving your child a cell phone that doesn't have camera capabilities -- and that's more difficult that you'd think, nowadays -- what can parents do to prevent kids from sexting on the sly?
Check your bill. When is your child most active on his or her cell phone? Take a close look at your bill and, if the charges are being racked up during school hours, consider a family ban on cell phone use during those times. This also means that you shouldn't be texting them during class; if there's an emergency or you need to speak to them right away, try to reach them during lunch instead.
Check the school's cell phone policies. Talk to teachers and administrators, and be willing to work with them to reduce all texting during school hours. Can students carry cell phones, but be required to keep them turned off during the school day? Would the school be willing to designate certain times -- like lunch -- as available for talking or texting?
Check your child's phone. I'll be honest with you: The thought of doing this makes me squirm. But, frankly, your child's well being is more important than her right to privacy, especially if you're dealing with a 13- or 14-year-old (yes, kids that young are sexting, too). Is she deleting her text messages right away? To which numbers does he most often send or forward text messages? How can you monitor their cell phone activity?
Check with your cell phone company. Can they limit texting during certain hours, or certain days? Can you ban or block certain numbers from your child's phone? Can you adjust the data plan to allow text messages but not images?
Lest anyone think that sexting is just another silly prank, something along the lines of passing notes at school, or a case of kids being hormonal kids and wearing a too-tiny bikini at the beach, think again. Just last year, 18-year-old Jessica Logan committed suicide after her boyfriend circulated nude pictures of her that she had sent to him via text message.
Of course sexting should be banned in schools. I hope other cities follow Houston's lead. (Boston: I'm talking to you.)
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.