Tweens and sexting: Time for parents to step in

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 Sexting

Sexting (Eric Audras, Onoky photo/via Getty Images)

Sexting incidents at two nearby middle schools — Batavia's Rotolo Middle School this week and Barrington Middle School Station Campus last month (two 14-year-old boys were recently charged with possession of child pornography in that incident) — are teaching moments, all right.

But the lesson shouldn't be about technology.

"Moving forward we will redouble our efforts to communicate with the kids and have ongoing conversations between the staff and students about responsible use of technology," District 101 Superintendent Lisa Hichens said in response to the Batavia case, which reportedly involves at least two dozen middle schoolers, ages 11 to 14, sending nude photos to each other via text and social media.

But the dialogue shouldn't end there — and it shouldn't end at school.

It's tempting, as parents, to chalk up such incidents to kids underestimating the reach and power of their devices. But these kids were born and raised on technology. They're digital natives, not digitally naive.

"Kids understand the technology and they understand how long (the images) follow them around," says Michelle Icard, author of "Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years" (Bibliomotion). "The technology lesson is pretty simple: Press the button and it sends. Don't press the button and it doesn't send."

The larger conversation, which parents need to launch early and often, is about sexuality and self-respect. Harder to have, equally pressing.

"Parents need to talk to their kids about sex and respecting their bodies over and over," Icard says. "It's not a one-shot deal where you explain the technicalities and you're done."

The conversations are especially critical in middle school, when the appetite for risk bumps head-first into hormones.

"Kids do weigh the danger involved in a case like this, but they perceive it as having some value to them that outweighs the risk," Icard says. "It offers some kind of social reward that makes it worth putting themselves in danger."

Step in there, parents.

"If you're in the car with your child and a song comes on — say, it's 'Your booty don't need explaining' — if you quickly shut it off and never address it, your kid gets the message that you don't talk about those topics together," she says.

"Any time something comes up, you acknowledge its existence: 'That's a weird thing to be singing about.' And you use it to talk."

Talk about your values. Talk about what healthy relationships look like. Talk about your hopes for them. Talk about their fears. Talk about what their friends are doing.

"You really do want to be the authority on sex for your child," Icard says. "Otherwise it's going to be the kid in the cafeteria. Or Google."

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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