Tips for parents

The practice of sexting can have legal and psychological consequences. Here are some tips for parents:If your child sent any nude pictures of themselves, make sure they stop immediately. Explain that they are at risk of being charged with producing and distributing child pornography. If they have received a nude photo, make sure they haven’t sent it to anyone else.Have a good talk. Stay calm, be supportive and learn as much as you can about the situation. For example, see if it was impulsive behavior, a teen “romance” thing, or a form of harassment.Consider talking with other teens and parents involved, based on what you’ve learned.Some experts advise that you report the photo to your local police, but consider that, while intending to protect your child, you could incriminate another — and possibly your own child. That’s why it usually is good to talk to the kids and their parents first. If malice or criminal intent is involved, you may want to consult a lawyer, the police or other experts on the law in your jurisdiction.ConnectSafely.org, which is a project of Tech Parenting Group, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, Calif., and Salt Lake City.

West Ashley High School senior Ronnie Chatterjee doesn’t use the term “sexting,” but he sees it happening all around him.

That’s typical for teenagers, as it has become an increasingly common practice.

Sexting is broadly defined as sending or receiving sexually explicit messages or photographs mostly by cellphones.

Elizabeth Letourneau, a former MUSC associate professor who now works at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said sexting is a normal part of adolescents’ relationships. The goal shouldn’t be to stop it, because that’s not going to happen, she said. The aim should be to ensure that no one hurts themselves or others.

“Kids are going to sext,” she said. “Kids told us, ‘Don’t tell us not to do it; tell us what to do better.’?”

That’s exactly what Letourneau and other researchers are trying to do. She was part of a team representing three states that received a federal grant to study motivations behind youth sexting and to create actionable policy recommendations.

Students, parents and school employees from nine high schools, including Burke High, North Charleston High and West Ashley High, in three states participated.

Researchers gathered students, parents, lawmakers, police, educators and researchers on Friday from the participating states to review the findings and come up with policy recommendations.

A Charleston contingent gathered in an MUSC classroom, and they shared their ideas with the other groups during a nearly four-hour video conference call.

“We don’t know what our message is yet, but it will be around how to encourage youth to do it safely,” Letourneau said afterward.

Like sex, sexting can happen in different contexts. It can be experimental and consensual, or it can take a more dangerous twist when it is unsolicited, aggressive or vengeful.

Unlike sex, sexting is a relatively new issue. The term “sexting” appeared only six times in major U.S. news media coverage in 2008, but that number shot up to more than 1,000 times in 2009, according to researchers.

West Ashley High counselor Molly West was one of those present for Friday’s discussion at MUSC, and she said it was an eye-opening conversation.

The high school doesn’t have any prevention programs dedicated specifically to “sexting,” and students aren’t supposed to have cellphones on campus. But that technology is an integral part of the way students communicate, and there needs to be more discussion about appropriate ways to do that, she said.

“One thing that kept coming up is that this is something we need to talk about,” West said. “It’s probably not going to go away.”

West Ashley senior Chidiebere Aninweze said she would like to see schools dedicate a month to increasing awareness on sexting. Some people sext but don’t even realize they’re doing so in a bad way, she said.

“I wish this were something they would bring into schools,” she said. “We should bring it to more people.”

Researchers gathered ideas for recommendations from the study and from Friday’s discussion, and they planned to work on those further before publishing them.

Letourneau said one of the main messages that came through for her was that many groups need to be tasked with addressing sexting.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to help youth navigate sexting and other sexual social relationships,” she said. “It’s not just educators or law enforcement. It’s parents, but not just parents. We have to get the message to youth in every way possible.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.