About once every day, our Student Safety Representatives discover a student who has sent an inappropriate image or video using their phone. For the most part, these are good kids who just had brief lapses in judgment.
We send these incidents to our school or district emergency contacts who likely involve the child’s parents or legal guardians as an immediate next step. A sexting incident doesn’t make the child a bad person nor does it mean bad parenting. In fact, if mom or dad discovered the content, they could turn to you for help.
Start by asking why the child took the pictures. It might be an innocent, although misguided intention, like tracking weight loss. The next step could be discussions about privacy, sex and being safe online. Turning the incident into a teachable moment and educating children about the dangers of sexting could already be part of digital citizenship courses, now’s the time to reinforce these lessons and come up with a plan to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Find out if the child shared the content and with whom. Determine if this is the first time or only the most recent occurrence. Berating a child or teen for something that has already happened might make it more difficult for him or her to open up. Sexting can be a humiliating situation, and having parents involved doesn’t make it any easier.
Best case scenario: No one will see the image or video. If an adult discovered the photo or video before being shared, it should be removed from any device on which it appears. A discussion should still follow about the legal implications of sharing pornography since most youths are not aware of the felony consequences of possessing a nude image of a minor, even if it’s of themselves.
If the child or teen shared the image or video, discover what you can about the recipient(s) before proceeding any further. Sharing with another minor who the child personally knows or is in a relationship with is very different from sharing with someone he or she has never met in person. The method of sharing is also important. While sharing an image via text or a product like Snapchat can be private, sharing via other services and social media could make the content public without the child realizing it.
Also, parents or guardians should do whatever they can to discover who knows about the images, advises David DeMatteo, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and law at Drexel University. “If it involves behavior that is illegal (e.g., sexually explicit photos of minors, even themselves), it may be necessary to get legal advice if the school or law enforcement is aware of the sexting and plans to take action.”
If a child has shared the images with someone of a similar age with whom there has been a romantic in-person relationship, you should contact that person’s parent or guardians and request that they remove the images from all devices. If the minor shared the content with a potential predator, or you are concerned that a former romantic interest is now sharing the content for revenge, harassment, or blackmail, consider involving law enforcement.
You can also report the incident to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which tracks images, videos and victims throughout the world. NCMEC will also notify parents if they find the child’s image in other places. Keep in mind that this could result in notifications arriving for years to come.
Finally, children should feel comfortable going to a trusted adult, other than a parent, days, weeks or months later. A counselor, teacher or principal can help the child, and his or her parents, find resources or additional tools to help make sure this misstep never happens again.