Parents are increasingly worried about the negative effects of technology – sexting, in particular – and its effects on their children’s health, according to a national poll.
“Parents are seeing [sexting] happen more with their kids or kids’ friends,” said Dr. Brian Keyes, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist who sees patients through various non-profits including the Children’s Center in Hamden and NAFI Connecticut in Hartford. “Parents get concerned, and rightly so, as kids start to get involved in any sexually related material.”
Sexting – sending sexually explicit text, photo or video messages via mobile phone or other electronic devices – also is gaining more attention in the media, bringing it to the forefront of parents’ minds, said Keyes, who also is on the clinical faculty at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and the Yale Child Study Center.
In the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, adults ranked sexting as the sixth health concern facing children. Forty-five percent of adults listed sexting as a top concern, the poll released in August reported. Sexting made the biggest leap in the national poll, rising from the thirteenth spot.
In an age when many teenagers have mobile phones, sexting has become increasingly common. Nationwide, one in five teens admit they have sent or received a “sext” message, according to a brochure issued by the Connecticut State Police to educate parents and caregivers of the dangers.
State police urge parents to be proactive and discuss sexting with their children even if they don’t think they are doing it. Children may be tech-savvy but often don’t realize the consequences sexting can bring.
Under a state law passed in 2010, possessing or distributing images of youths under 16 can result in misdemeanor or felony charges.
Sexting also can lead to embarrassment or bullying as photos can be shared and spread quickly, Keyes said.
“Kids can be pretty easily victimized,” he said. “Teenagers think, ‘Oh, none of that bad stuff is going to happen to me,’ but you still need to talk about stuff. Parents need know what their kids are doing.”
Parents should not be afraid to have frank conversations with their children and even check their phones at random, said Dr. Joyce Pere, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at Greenwich Hospital. She also sees patients at her own practice in Greenwich.
“You need to talk to your kids before it happens,” she said. “Explain to them that this (sexting) is going on. It’s out there. They should understand that this will cause them social humiliation.”
One young patient Pere saw in her practice, for instance, was embarrassed when she sent a naked photo of herself to her boyfriend and he shared it with others.
“The whole school found out about it,” she said, leading the girl to be humiliated and depressed.
Teens often sext because they are peer-pressured into it or see young celebrities gaining notoriety from suggestive photos, and many do it as an impulse, Pere said.
“They want to be popular, they want to be accepted, and they think it’s going to get a positive outcome,” she said.
Sexting also can increase young people’s likelihood of having sex earlier, she said.
Even for those who are not engaging in risky sexual behavior, sexting can be a precursor to sex, offering proactive parents an “opportunity to intervene” and educate their children, Keyes said.
While 45 percent of adults nationwide said they worry about sexting, more Hispanic adults were concerned about it than adults of other races. In the Mott poll, 52 percent of Hispanic adults named it as a top concern compared with 42 percent of white adults. Sexting did not crack the top 10 concerns cited by black adults, according to the poll.
While sexting was the concern that made the biggest jump from last year, the top three health concerns for children cited by adults were obesity, bullying and drug abuse – which have topped the list, in that order, for the past few years.
The fourth concern was Internet safety, which rose from eighth in the 2014 poll. About half of adults, 51 percent, named that as a top worry.
C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, based at the University of Michigan, polls adults nationwide annually.
“The perception of Internet safety as a major concern, along with rising concerns about sexting for children’s health, reflect growing public perception that youth access to the media environment in 2015 includes risks that worry many members of the public,” according to this year’s report.