Smartphones and their ability to allow human interaction instantly through phone, texts, photos and videos have changed the way we communicate. They’ve even fashioned a new photographic genre: the selfie.
Who can forget perhaps the most popular selfie ever taken, the photo of Pope Francis and several Italian youth made last August at St. Peter’s Basilica? Yes, smartphones have simplified and hastened our communication methods, all in a sleek, handheld device.
But as with any high tech gadget, there is a caveat. While smartphones are convenient, they can also be catastrophic. Witness last week’s report from Oshkosh, where police say a 12-year-old girl was pressured by classmates to send nude photos of herself on a smartphone to three boys, ages 14 and 15.
What made this sad story even sadder was that it involved students at a parochial school, Valley Christian School. According to news reports, school officials contacted police after they learned about the incident. Oshkosh police are recommending charges of disorderly conduct against all four youth.
Using smartphones to send sexually explicit material is known as sexting. According to a Pew Research Internet Project survey from 2012 — “The Best (and Worst) of Mobile Connectivity” — some 15 percent of teen smartphone owners (age 12-17) have received “sexts” (a sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude photo or video of someone they know) and 4 percent of teens have sent one of themselves.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported that sexting often happens consensually within the context of a relationship. However, some teens are coerced into sexting as a requirement for continuing a relationship and others have been blackmailed into sharing nude photos.
No matter the reason, sending sexual images via smartphones is a recipe for disaster.
“If an image surfaces at school, its creator and anyone caught distributing or possessing it may face removal from athletic teams or student groups and suspension,” notes the NCMEC. “If a sexting incident involves harassment, coercion or images passed around without the creator’s permission, law enforcement may become involved.”
The social and emotional stigma of sexting images that go public can even lead to life-threatening consequences.
Parents need to be aware of the prevalence and dangers of sexting before buying their children smartphones. They also need to make children aware of the long-term consequences of misusing their smartphones, such as the academic, athletic and even legal punishments that can be incurred.
Here are a few more suggestions for parents.
- Set ground rules for children. Establish guidelines about what is inappropriate to share, in words and images. Remind them that once a photo is sent, there is no way to take it back, even if it’s deleted.
- Put smartphones away at night. Don’t allow your children to “sleep” with their phones. Have them leave it (recharge it) in the kitchen or somewhere else at night, away from their possession. Call it a phone curfew.
- Contact your service provider about parental controls. These can include limiting data, preventing app purchases, blocking calls and texts and restricting texting, web browsing and outbound calling during specified times of the day.
- Consider subscribing to monitoring services such as My Mobile Watchdog or Phone Sheriff. These services can monitor your child’s phone activities from any computer or smartphone.
- Keep the lines of communication open with children. Let them know you are there to talk. If a sexting incident becomes public, talk to your children about it. Remind them that if anyone ever pressures them to send an indecent photo, don’t give in.
In his message for World Communications Day on June 1, 2014, Pope Francis calls modern communication technology “a gift from God.” But gifts can be misused and abused. That is why we must help young people make the right choices and keep the “smart” in smartphones.