Parent Alert: Teens and Porn | Reader's Digest

Parent Alert: Teens and Porn

Porn has gone interactive--and your kids are at risk. From 'sexting' to video chats, how to fight back.

By Judith Newman from Reader's Digest | May 2009

My seven-year-old, Henry, can’t spell. Yet there’s one word he can spell perfectly. That word is boob. I discovered this last week when I gave him my iPhone to noodle around with. He told me he was playing on Disney’s Club Penguin, but when I turned on the phone later, the page that popped up was a porn site. When I confronted him, he looked at me very seriously and said, “Well, Mom, I’m extremely interested in the human body.”

Porn Has Gone InteractivePhoto-Illustration By Kevin Irby

This makes me laugh because he is seven. What’s not at all funny is what this incident says about the future. If the ability to spell one palindrome at his age can get him to one of the most explicit sites imaginable, how blasé will he be about porn by the time he’s a teenager? And how much of a leap is it to imagine my son getting into the latest teenage craze, so-called sexting—nude photos taken by teens and posted or sent to others over the Internet or cell phone? How long before he turns to me—as a friend’s 15-year-old did to her mother recently—and says, “Mom, it’s no big deal”?

Sexting is, in fact, a very big deal. Not because sexual curiosity and boundary pushing aren’t normal parts of growing up; they are. The thing is, on the Internet, nothing ever truly vanishes. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that a teen’s knuckleheaded homemade Girls Gone Wild moment sent to her boyfriend stays on his computer or cell phone forever, as precious to him as any 19th-century billet-doux. Then again, it is possible those photos will be sent to everyone she knows (and doesn’t know), will turn up as her first Google hit when she’s looking for a job, or, just maybe, will land her in jail.

Just a Click Away
Kids as young as 11 and 12 have been discovered taking compromising photos of themselves and sending those shimmering pixels over their phones and computers. More than a few incidents have made the nightly news. In February, for example, a 15-year-old girl from central Pennsylvania faced charges for possessing, distributing, and creating child pornography after she sent topless photos of herself to a man on MySpace; the man, 27, was also charged. Last year, an 18-year-old Orlando, Florida, teen began serving five years’ probation and had to register as a sex offender after forwarding naked photos of his then-16-year-old ex-girlfriend to her friends, teachers, and relatives. And six middle school boys in Massachusetts were questioned by police after they passed around a picture of a half-naked 13-year-old classmate on their cells.

Surely this is just one of those salacious, overblown “trend” stories, right? There can’t be that many teenagers sending and receiving inappropriate photos of themselves.

Think again.

Last fall, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy teamed with Cosmo Girl to canvass 1,280 teenagers and young adults about their electronic activities. According to their survey, one in five girls (11 percent between 13 and 16) and 18 percent of teen boys have sent or posted nude or seminude pictures or videos of themselves. About 15 percent of senders forwarded photos to people they hadn’t actually met but knew only online. E-mails containing sexual come-ons are even more prevalent: About 39 percent have tapped out lurid e-mails and text messages.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace are lousy with pages that boast names like “I’ve Sent Naked Pictures of Myself Over the Phone” and “Practicing Safe Sexting.” (Sample rules: “Don’t get your phone taken away during school” and “Don’t get caught.”)

The age of the kids involved sometimes upsets the kids themselves. Monica D. (her name, and those of other minors in this story, have been changed) went to a Connecticut middle school where one giggling girl took a picture of her friend, 12, vamping naked while changing for dance class. They sent it to a friend as a joke, and the friend sent it to the entire school. A parent saw the image on her son’s computer and called the principal. The girl who sent the photo was suspended, and she eventually changed schools.

“But this is what shocked me,” says Monica. “Two months later, the girl who posed was at orchestra rehearsal, and she raised her hand and said, ‘I just lost a tooth.’ She was young enough to still have her baby teeth!”