Sexting and its consequences aren't things you want your tween or teen to learn about the hard way. The fallout from having nude photos or salacious messages spread via social media networks can be far more dramatic than red-cheeked embarrassment or a broken heart — just look at the ongoing scandal involving an adult who behaved unwisely, former congressman Anthony Weiner of New York.
Social standing, college opportunities, future jobs are all at risk, experts say. And, they add, underage sexting is, in some states, a crime punishable by jail time.
"Maybe you're thinking, 'not my teen …' (but) consider this: Research tells us that one in four teens are sending these messages, and approximately 48 percent are on the receiving end. With statistics like that it's evident that someone's teen is doing it," writes Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, the "Teen Angst" blogger for Psychology Today. "With more and more teens having Internet capability, the chances of them sexting also increase."
Thanks to the headlines, sexting is perhaps the most visible risk children and young adults face on the Internet. But there are other issues involving online privacy and security that, if you and your child aren't careful, can bring a stranger to your door.
"Nothing gets your attention like a child predator claiming he's going to get your kid," says Tim Woda, co-founder of uKnow.com, an Arlington, Va.-based company behind uKnowKids, a "parental intelligence system" that keeps tabs on kids' Internet use.
Parents must focus on preventing sexting and other Internet dangers before they happen rather than having to intervene after the fact, Lohmann said in a telephone interview from Hilton Head, S.C.
Here are some tips to keep your children's Internet experiences safe and trouble-free.
Set parental and privacy controls on every device your child uses. Don't think sexting and other inappropriate Internet behaviors just happen on cellphones. Woda notes that any device with the capacity for messages or photo-taking can potentially be used for sexting. Parents need to set limits with each and every device.
"There are school-age children, elementary school children, who own phones and there are no parental controls set on them," says Lohmann, co-author of "The Bullying Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal with Social Aggression and Cyberbullying" (Instant Help). "I don't want to say parents are not doing their job, but I think they don't realize everything a phone can do."
Begin the conversation about proper online behavior at an early age — "definitely before you buy them a cellphone," says Brian O'Connor, director of public education campaigns and programs for Futures Without Violence, a San Francisco-based agency working to end violence against women, children and families around the world. "If I were to throw out an age, man, it's early: 10 or 11. Technically you are not allowed to be on a social network under the age of 13 … but we know younger kids (are) on it."
For students in elementary school, Lohmann suggests talking in general about the Internet.
"Maybe not sexting, but how we have reputations and what reputations are," she says, using this example: "If it is not something you want your grandmother to see, odds are you don't want to send those words or pictures."
Woda says parents have to talk to their high schoolers in ways that get them to "slow down and think" before acting.
"Schools and law enforcement have been telling kids for years that this could be bad, this could be illegal. Kids presume it won't happen to them," he says. "So you need to talk to them in language they understand: 'Your social standing will suffer if you are the porn star of your high school.'"
College students, who are older, can better grasp those consequences than a 15-year-old can, Lohmann says — but parents also can't take the same disciplinary actions and curbs with them as they can with younger children at home. She suggests elevating the intensity of your conversation, perhaps even framing it around the Weiner scandal fallout and the impact it can have on their future.
"Tell them employers will Facebook you or Bing you," she says. "They will go and check out your page. Graduate schools will be all over the Internet wondering what sort of student you are."
"There are really serious consequences," O'Connor says, "ranging from schoolwide embarrassment to some real legal consequences as well."
(To learn about the law in your state, check out the website of the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying.us/state-sexting-laws.)
Help children make smart choices. Parents alarmed at news reports may be tempted to ban all technological devices. But that's not realistic in this age of social media.
"Chances are their close friends have an account," O'Connor says. "Having a little understanding about the importance of (social media) in kids' lives is critical. We need to empathize with kids; this is their lifeline in many cases."
Lohmann thinks access to the Internet can be broadened as a child gets older and learns to act responsibly. But Woda says parents can and should take away devices if kids misuse them. What's key, the experts say, is helping children learn to make the right choices online.
Bolstering their self-esteem can help, O'Connor says, because it will give your child the confidence to resist peer pressure — whether it's not following a friend's lead in sending or receiving salacious content, or caving into the inappropriate demands of a boyfriend or girlfriend. They also can see through the assumption that "because everybody is sexting, it's OK."
"Everybody is not doing this," O'Connor says.
Set a good example. Sexting and the broad issue of proper online behavior give parents something else to ponder: how their behavior serves as a model for their children.
"Kids are watching their parents," Woda says. "Junior watches mom walk out the door to go on a date with a complete stranger she met online … and she tells her son, 'Don't make friends with strangers or meet them offline.'
"We seriously have to ask ourselves why these kids are making these dumb decisions. We give them cameras when their hormones are running wild, and we're not monitoring what they're doing because we're updating our Match.com profile."
Remain alert to what your child is doing in cyberspace. Check up on your kids online. Google their names and those of their friends, Lohmann says, or pretend to be a stranger using the Internet to find where your child lives — are you able to get that information?
Some have criticized her stance, insisting teens need privacy.
"To some extent, I agree," Lohmann says. "But your child is still a minor and still needs guidance. As parents, you are the No. 1 teacher."
Woda recommends that parents examine telephone bills and question any numbers they don't recognize; be suspicious if your kids shut down computers or cellphones when you're nearby; insist that your children use cellphones and computers in public areas of the house; and set clear rules for using various devices and online behavior.
And always be vigilant.
"Know who your child is talking to and who is trying to talk to them," he says.