What parents should know about sexting (Part 1)

December 2, 2014

An adolescent boy came into my office a couple of years ago and said, “I’ve been talking with this girl.” He had a big grin on his face, which opened up the door to many interpretations on my part. He proceeded to say that she had sent him “some pictures,” and his smile continued. He knew what I would say, but told me anyway. He was oozing with excitement, curiosity and arousal.

He had received a sext.

Getting hooked on a text

When people send sexually explicit or revealing pictures or texts, it is called sexting. This young man was “hooked,” which means captivated by or enamored by, dependent or addicted to something or someone. In other words, this teen was now under the influence of this young woman who had sent him pictures of herself. In many ways, it’s similar to being dependent on a drug. He did not know how to handle the sudden onslaught of emotion and arousal in response to what had been sent to him. Sexting presents an opportunity for getting someone “hooked on you,” and it happens more than parents think.

In my experience as a therapist, teens sext for various reasons and trust that the other person will keep the pictures or texts to themselves. They do not think that others will end up seeing the nude pictures or texts. They are thinking short term and not long term. I usually ask them what would happen to the pictures or texts once they broke up. Teens don’t usually think that far ahead because they really don’t feel they need to. They are going for a ride in the emotion of the moment and enjoying it, which is why the teen years can tend to be tumultuous.  

Asking for a sext can be an exciting risk that a teen is willing to take, especially if there is a potentially willing participant on the other end. A person willing to send the photo is most likely confident that the other person will like what they see and want to be with them (hooked).  It opens up the door to sexual fantasizing and, most likely, actual sexual contact at some point. It’s like the old way of sending a note to “test the waters,” but much more sexually overt. It is a quick way to explore curiosities, get someone to think about you more often, and see if the other person is open to continuing sexual fantasies. Usually kids sext to get attention, show off and prove their commitment or interest and to get a person’s attention. Once the picture is sent, however, no one really knows what will happen from there.  Teens, most of the time, do not have a long-term view of life due to an emotional world that requires their immediate attention. This reality, many times, leaves them blind to consequences.  

Taking a dangerous risk

The adolescent brain loves to “toy” with various risks, and adolescence offers plenty of opportunities for risks, which can be both good and bad at the same time. Risk is necessary to “grow up” and pursue life, but it can also be dangerous and destructive. Technological advances have significantly increased the potential risks that can be pursued in society, and mobile devices have stretched the limits for all of us—from learning how to use them to sending explicit photos and texts.  

One very real danger within the world of technology is the dopamine rush that sexual images, sexual communication and sexual encounters provide. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter within our neuro-communication system that helps us anticipate rewards, and it is very actively triggered by sexual behavior. It initiates the process of getting “hooked” and pursuing risk. Sexting can trigger a dopamine surge increasing the “seeking out,” curiosity and goal-directed behaviors that can quickly engulf a person’s social judgment and perception of consequences. This physiological anticipation of rewards can be overwhelming and addictive, but it eventually depletes dopamine and makes it harder to get excited about life—many times, it creates even more “poor decision-making.”

Sexting is a quick and easy way to enter an adult world of sexuality with less inhibition. It provides a novel “excitement” and the potential for immediate gratification. Sexting leads to all sorts of misperceptions and distortions. Parents need to set guidelines with teens regarding the use of mobile devices and talk openly with their teens about sex with the purpose of teaching them how to manage impulsive urges driven by emotions, hormones, and a transition to more adult-like freedoms and stages.  

Practical advice for parents

  1. Remind your teen that you are on their team and want them to successfully transition into adulthood and full freedom.  Many teens and parents don’t know that sending (including forwarding) naked pictures of people under the age of 18 is illegal and can result in criminal prosecution. Remind your teen that this applies even if they are just sending the photo to their boyfriend or girlfriend. It is against the law and is considered distribution of child pornography.
  2. Help your teen identify helpful risks and destructive risks. Make a list together and talk through the different risks and their potentially good and bad consequences.  Discuss the reality that in this tech-saturated world, once the image is sent, it cannot be retrieved. You cannot just change your mind. It is out for people to see, and they do not have control over where the picture lands. Discuss what it would be like if their peers, teachers, the entire school or their parents saw the images. This happens a lot, so they need to be prepared for the possibility of this happening, if they choose to send sexual photos.
  3. Phones and all mobile devices should be “open for review” with the expectation that there is nothing to hide. If there is any defensiveness about the devices being able to be checked at night without an erased history or erased messages, then guilt should be assumed and freedoms are lost. Again, remind your teen that you are on their team and want them to have ultimate freedoms. Sexting can get a person “hooked” resulting in less control of their own life.  
  4. Give teens the opportunity for personal ownership.  What is theirs to own emotionally and what is for other people to own. Many times, teens engage in this behavior because of emotional needs and trying to change or manipulate someone else’s emotions, which usually does not lead to smart decision-making. Discuss the possible pressures to send or receive sexual photos or texts. The potential social costs of sending a nude photo and others seeing the photo far outweigh any pressure they encounter initially from peers to send the picture. Also, the long-term negative impacts of receiving sexual photos or texts also outweigh any positive immediate impact of refusing or immediately deleting a photo.
  5. Develop a ceremony or a celebration for major transitions (i.e., pre-teen to teen and teen to adult). Teens need a ceremony or celebration to help clearly define their transition into adulthood and the responsibilities that are increasingly becoming “theirs,” including their decision-making and their boundaries.
  6. Make sure your home has a lot of openness regarding conversations having to do with sexuality and the foundation to sex: the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control). Adolescence offers plenty of opportunities to grow amazing spiritual fruit. Also, have some discussion regarding self-esteem and self-respect. Talk about their viewpoint regarding sexting. Get to know their beliefs and perceptions.

Parents can visit focusonthefamily.com, pureintimacy.com, and thatsnotcool.com for more information and helpful resources.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24