In today’s digital world, countless people are electronically embarrassed every day. Stories of troll attacks, revenge porn, sexting scandals, email hacks, webcam hijackings, cyberbullying, and screenshots- gone-viral fill our newsfeeds.
If you're a parent of a teenager (maybe even a tweenager) it's more than likely they have their own mobile device, and that means they are exposed to these dangers, too.
While parents have likely practiced “digital parenting” in some manner—maybe by asking schools to implement CyberCivics classes or threatening to take their children’s’ gadgets away if they don't maintain good grades or for other poor behavior-- are they truly aware and prepared to help their children face the challenges that await them online?
Sexting, one of today’s biggest online challenges
Sexting (asking and/or receiving sexually-explicit photos) is, according to teens, a common practice. Surely you’ve discussed the importance of saying no to drugs with your children, right? Hopefully you've also chatted with them about the permanency of the Internet. For example, have you told them about the seriousness of sending a nude image? Have you explained that this act can leave an emotional scar that will be with them for a very long time -- especially after they’ve realized the action didn't accomplish what they expected? Many girls believe sending such an image will land them a boyfriend – this myth has been soundly debunked.
In a 2015 survey, sexting researcher Elizabeth Englander, PhD, of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, found that of the students who were pressured into sending a sext hoping to land a potential boyfriend, only 2 percent managed to do so.
In Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, we dig into one of the most unexpected cases of sexting scandals amongst teenagers, where parents swear up and down --- "Not my teen..." Until it was.... This happened in the oceanfront community of Duxbury, Massachusetts.
One Duxbury teen girl told us she is constantly asked for nudes and the boys always promise they wouldn't save them -- luckily she knew better. Sadly, some other girls weren't so fortunate. “Slut pages” and a sexting scandal exploded in the Duxbury Schools.
Don’t let this cautionary tale happen at your child’s school.
5 Tips for parents on addressing sexting:
- While monitoring apps and spot checks on your child’s phone are both smart practices, nothing replaces common sense and communication. It's repetitive but important: Short, frequent chats are better than no chats at all. Whether it happens during a ride in the car or at the dinner table, discuss a headline and ask about your teen's cyber-life. It matters.
- Don't blame the victim. As we discovered in Duxbury case mentioned above, the teen girl said she was tired of adults telling girls not to send nudes - why not tell boys not to ask for them?
- Remember, it's not only girls that are victims. Boys can be victims of sexting too.
- Talk frequently about the digital permanency of the Internet and the fact there is no privacy online.
- Discuss legal consequences - for both you and your child.
5 Warning signs your teen might be struggling with online shaming as a result of a sexting incident.
- A sudden drop in grades.
- Becomes secretive, loss of appetite.
- Withdraws from friends and family.
- Dropping out of activities they used to love.
- Doesn't want to go to school - or insists on changing schools.
If you suspect your teen is involved in an incident of sexting, cyberbullying, online hate, or maybe even sextortion, and if they won't open up to you, encourage them to tell someone. Let them know CrisisTextLine is open for them. Tell them that they are never alone no matter what. As redundant as it sounds, communication is key and your child needs to know they will never need to go through a dark period by themselves.
If your teen is being digitally shamed, never diminish their feelings.
No matter what your age, when you are electronically humiliated, especially if it's involves sending sexual images, the last thing you want to hear is "this will pass" or "what were you thinking?" -- neither one of these comments are helpful.
As adults, we know that time will heal emotional pain, but this won't make your teen feel better now. The damage has been done. Asking them, “What were you thinking?”, isn’t helpful and initially you don't want them to feel like you are blaming them.
But remember, if he or she is being extorted for money, contact the authorities immediately and never give into the extortionist.
5 steps to help a teen who has been shamed online.
- Be empathic. Validate their feelings. Let them know as bad as it may seem, you are all going to get through this.
- Identify the shamer/cyberbully, however do not communicate further with them. Depending on the situation, talk to your teen and find out if they know the person. Many kids don't tell parents for fear they will make it worse. Explain that this person is not only hurting them, but they may need help themselves. Most bullies are also hurting.
- Contact school administrators (if appropriate) and authorities.
- Document and preserve all the evidence.
- Seek counseling to help both you and your child manage this, never feel you have to do this alone.
Studies show that adolescent online harassment has an impact on students’ grades, mental health, and can linger into young adulthood if not addressed. It is important to face these cyber-issues head-on and to let your teen know you have his or her back.