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Monday, March 2, 2009

Tech Talk: Sexting: Consumer Reports Electronics Blog

February 24, 2009

Tech Talk: Sexting

Cell-phone-camera Q: What is "Sexting?"

A: Sexting, according to Wikipedia, is a risque new communication trend where cell phone users—typically teens—create and exchange provocative, sexual images of themselves using their cell phones' built-in digital camera.

The term has been around for a while, and a survey from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy suggests that one in five teens have "electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves."

But more than just a risky behavior, passed off as youthful indiscretion among teens and young adults, sexting can lead to serious legal repercussions. Six Pennsylvania teens, ages 14 through 17, now face child pornography charges after they were caught sexting each other.

If you're concerned about your child's potential exposure to sexting, here are some points to consider:

Outline the risks. Make sure they understand what can happen if they engage in such risky behavior. It's not only embarrassing, but it can open them up to much greater dangers—such as online bullying. (Ask your daughter what will her "boyfriend" do with those pictures of her once they "break up?") Make sure they know that once such pictures are sent out from their cell phone, there's no telling where those images will go or who will ultimately see it.

Consider getting your teen a camera-less cell phone. You can find a list of basic phones in our Ratings of cell phones (available to subscribers). That might reduce your kids' risk of temptation to take and share embarrassing self-portraits. But be aware that your kids can still be at risk. (Their peers—and others—can still take embarrassing shots if your kids fall victim to peer pressure.) And even a basic phone can still receive—and forward—sexting messages.

Disable attachments on text-messages. Some cell phones and cell service providers can limit what can be sent and received via text-messaging. Check the manual that came with your child's cell phone and contact your wireless service provider. If you can't disable attachments, consider turning off text messaging and go with a voice-only plan.

Spot checks. Go over your monthly cell phone bill and look for unusual patterns such as a rise in the number and frequency of text messages and a spike in "data traffic." Also, make it a policy to physically inspect your child's cell phone at random intervals. Look in the cell phone's memory (including any removable memory card slots), text-messaging "inbox" and "sent" folders for risky images and messages.

Remember, sexting can do lasting damage. Images can spread like wildfire. And while your kids might think some pics aren't "porno" or "sexy" or "a big deal," as those six Pennsylvania teens are discovering, passing around what can be legally considered "kiddie porn" is a crime that law enforcement pursues vigorously!

For more on privacy issues and staying safe online, be sure to check out our Guide to Online Security, which features a section on protecting your kids. You'll also find more safety tips on our Babies & kids Blog and Safety Blog.

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