When you’re a parent, worrying goes with the territory, especially about your kid’s health. Childhood obesity, bullying, drug abuse, smoking — all are concerns shared by many parents. But increasingly, moms, dads and other American adults see technology as problematic: According to the just-released 2015 C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, an annual survey, Internet safety and “sexting” (sending or receiving texts with sexual content, including photos) have become greater worries, now ranking at #4 and #6, respectively, on the poll’s top 10 list of leading health concerns for American children.
“The big surprises this year were how many adults across the U.S. consider Internet safety and sexting as big health problems for kids,” says Matthew M. Davis, MD, director of the poll and professor of pediatrics and internal medicine in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan Medical School, in Ann Arbor. “The public clearly sees several behavioral health concerns as among the top priorities for addressing children’s health needs.”
The yearly top-10 list typically includes a mix of both of physical and mental health concerns, reflecting adults’ awareness that a child’s well-being means both physical wellness and emotional wellness, says Davis. In both 2014 and 2015, childhood obesity and bullying topped the list as the #1 and #2 health concerns, respectively, of adults for kids. This year, though, Internet safety and sexting took huge leaps up the list, moving up from #8 and #13, respectively. This is the ninth year that C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital has conducted the poll. Addiction-related problems — drug abuse (#3) and smoking and tobacco use (#7) — also made the list.
It’s worth adding that most of the health concerns on the list are, in fact, known risk factors for addiction, including depression, bullying, child abuse and neglect, exposure to violence at school and stress.
What Can Parents Do About Online Safety and Sexting?
According to April 2015 data from the Pew Research Center, 68% of 13- and 14-year-olds have a smartphone and 76% of 15- to 17-year-olds do. When it comes to access to a desktop or laptop computer, between 83% and 90% of boys and girls ages 13 to 17 can use one. The ubiquity of these devices make access to unsafe Internet content and the ability to send and/or receive sexts a real risk for most adolescents and quite a few younger kids too. Here are some things to keep in mind and advice to help reduce risks:
- Be aware of the sexting-substance use link. You might not think your child would sext. But according to 2014 article in the Journal of Pediatrics, sexting among teens is common and may be related to substance use. Researchers also demonstrated that sexting may indicate that a teen is sexually active.
- Explain the dangers of sexting. It may seem obvious to you, but kids don’t always realize that sexts they send (even if they’re just meant to be funny) can be shared with anyone and that racy words and nude pictures can come back to haunt them. Even more worrisome: Kids typically don’t understand that it’s illegal to distribute childhood porn, which these sexts are. Teenagers in several states are facing or have been convicted on child pornography charges. Distributing sexually explicit images of minors under 18 is illegal, even if minors distribute images amongst themselves.
- Tell children to say something if they see something that seems questionable online. “When it comes to Internet safety and sexting, parents should set the expectation that if their children are upset about anything they see that they tell a trusted adult right away and do not try to resolve it themselves,” says Davis. So encourage your child to speak up and ask for help from an adult she trusts if she lands on a website she thinks is iffy or gets a sext from a friend (or anyone else).
- Know where your kids are online. Parents of younger children should know where their kids go online and with whom they’re interacting, Davis says. Older children may deserve some privacy online, but it’s still important to be an involved and aware parent when it comes to the online world, as much as possible. Ask about websites your teen or tween visits and the social media platforms he’s participating in, adds Davis.