Youth Culture Window

Selfies, Sexting, and Censorship

Dynamic ImagePose. Snap. Hastily delete. Re-pose. Re-snap. Save. Add filter. Add another filter. Upload/Tweet/Send. Enjoy all the likes, retweets, shares, and positive comments.

But what if the outcome isn’t so positive? Welcome to the convoluted world of teens and selfies.

Snapping, Sending…and Regretting
Young people have a fascination with their smartphones. Specifically, the cameras on them. They really like taking pictures of themselves. A lot. In fact, according to an interesting survey conducted by Luster Premium White, Millennials will take more than 25,000 selfies across their lifetime (if their current rate of selfies continues, that is). It’s no secret that Millennials, those born between the early 1980’s and the early 2000’s, are fairly enamored with themselves; young women in this group spend a total of 5 hours every week snapping selfies. That’s because 47% of them admit to practicing their facial expressions before taking the pic, and, on average, each snap takes 7 minutes to capture.

Taking selfies is such a popular pastime there are now tons of videos on YouTube, like this one, that show users how to take better selfies. Most of those selfies wind up on Twitter or Facebook or some other social media platform to gather the all-important “likes” or “retweets,” but some of them are destined for other purposes…like sexting.

And now, New Mexico teenagers (between the ages of 14 and 18), can legally exchange nude photosof themselves without the fear of criminal prosecution. The “consensual sexting” bill signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez (Rep), exempts minors of child pornography charges that could include prison sentences and the long-lasting title of sex offender.

The driving thought behind this statewide decision was the admission that kids are going to do what they want. According to George Muñoz, a Democratic state senator who authored the bill, “Kids will be kids, and they’re going to make mistakes. You can’t punish them for the rest of their lifetime with a charge of child pornography…if they’re consensually sending photos back and forth.”

Of course, the bill has its opponents, for example, Attorney General Hector Balderas. “I cannot support an amendment that weakens protections for teenagers from predatory activity, creates a dangerous new child exploitation loophole, and places New Mexico’s federal Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force funding in jeopardy,” he said. It also raises immediate questions like, “What if the photo is shared for the first time consensually, but not the second time…or the 66th time?” Or, “What happens when a 16-year-old boy who has nude photos of his girlfriend who once lived in Albuquerque relocates with his family to Flagstaff, AZ?” Time will soon tell how this new law will impact kids.

And though many teens have no problems sharing pics of themselves – with or without clothes – they’d really rather their parents not do that to them. A recent study of 249 parent and child pairs conducted by the Universities of Washington and Michigan found that one of the most common requests from kids between the ages of 10 and 17 were for parents to stop posting pics without their permission. The kids said the over-sharing of content was embarrassing for them and they were frustrated that their parents would impact their online presence without their permission. (It’s always a strange time when kids think that parents should be getting censored.)

The takeaway is obvious: communication between parents and kids about sharing online pics should take place before hitting send…and should be a two way street.

Solving Selfie Problems
But there’s more that parents – and youth workers – can do to help teens steer clear of troubles related to selfies. After all, prevention is always better than cure. Here are a few very simple ideas:


  • Find out where YOUR kid stands on these issues. Granted, not every kid spends half-a-day each week taking pictures of themselves. Nor is every kid willing to send a nude pic of themselves to a friend. But, as parents and youth workers, you need to know exactly where your kids land on these issues. Here’s a “ready-made” guide Common Sense Media just released for teenagers. Use it as a discussion tool, or just ask them some questions about their practices and beliefs, like these:
  • How important is your image?
  • When does texting become sexting?
  • Legality aside, what are the consequences of sexting?
  • What is appropriate to send in a message, and what is inappropriate? Why?
  • If you received – or were asked to send – a sext message, how would you respond?
  • In your opinion, what are the best ways to protect your image online?


  • Teach mobile device responsibility. Jonathan just wrote an entire article about this on providing 5 steps parents can take to help their kids learn to be responsible with their mobile devices.
  • Encourage and model responsible use of online pics. Though it may be common sense, it’s not always common practice, so let me be blunt: if you don’t want to see vanity in your kids, don’t model it yourself. If you don’t want to see questionable content on your kids’ social media stream, keep yours clean, too. If you want your privacy protected, do you part to help protect the privacy of your kids, too. These actions on your part won’t guarantee avoidance on their part, but any hypocrisy on these matters will weaken your stance in their eyes.

A teenager’s image is something worth protecting. Be as proactive in this arena as you can be, doing all you can to prevent problems that would damage their image.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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