Kids Sexting: Child Porn, Exploitation, and Human Trafficking

Posted by Stephanie Kunstle on June 24, 2020

Teen boy looking at his cell phone

 

Sexting [seks-ting]

noun Digital Technology.

the sending of sexually explicit digital images, videos, text messages, or emails, usually by cell phone.

 

On a cold and snowy morning in Colorado, I settled in at my kitchen table with a cup of tea and my phone propped for a FaceTime interview with Cheryl Kosmerl to talk about sexting. A series of spring snow storms led to our decision to finally just meet virtually. 

 

Kosmerl is a mother, a clinical social worker and child advocate. With more than twenty years of experience working with children and adolescents, she created Sexting Solutions, a program designed to teach kids to respect themselves and others, show empathy and stop abuse. In the state of Colorado, this program is intended as an alternative to legal consequences for kids who were caught sexting which, according to the law, is the creation and sharing of child pornography. Kosmerl was asked to create the program specifically for the District Attorney's office in the 1st Judicial District of Jefferson and Gilpin Counties.

 

After counseling so many juvenile offenders and victims, Kosmerl was well prepared to create an education program for kids who find themselves entangled in sexting and the legal and emotional consequences that follow. Sexting Solutions was the first program of its kind in the state. It focuses on building skills that develop a solid foundation for healthier adolescent years and relationships. 

 

Before Sexting Solutions, the Colorado judicial system struggled to appropriately address the issue among minors who were sending explicit messages. Technically speaking, exchanging, possessing, and posting any images or videos of a minor carries legal penalties as the material being exchanged is still considered child pornography. 

 

A study published by JAMA Pediatrics in 2018 found that 1 in 4 teens are receiving sexually explicit texts and emails and 1 in 8 children between the ages of eleven and seventeen report either forwarding or having a sext forwarded without their consent. Sexting has become commonplace among children with 14.8% sending and 27.4% receiving sexts with those numbers growing, the older the child. These statistics are likely much higher as they found a majority do not report their sexting activity.

 

Two tween boys looking at a cell phone

 

So why are kids sexting?

 

What was surprising to me is that Kosmerl reports that she actually sees more middle school age kids for sexting issues than high schoolers. However, she believes it’s less of the latter because they tend to be smarter about hiding their sexts.

 

Through the years, she has found that sexting originates with boys’ requests, expectations, and pressure for photos or videos from girls. However, she has noted that as a culture, we place much of the focus on why girls respond with sexts. As Kosmerl puts it, “The boys want a challenge and bragging rights. The boys have the girl they date, and the girl they sext. They have a competition of who can get pictures from her.” 

 

Kosmerl’s education program begins with this concept: treating each other with respect and not asking for pictures at all. In her classes, she’ll ask male offenders how they would feel if someone asked their sisters for explicit photos and videos. As expected, the thought of that is angering to them, and they feel protective of their sisters. She then reminds them, “Guess what? This is someone’s sister.”

 

Where sexting begins and ends is complicated and because of this, Kosmerl likes to teach separate female and male Sexting Solutions classes. Girls typically sext because they are interested in boys and believe it's a way to obtain or maintain a relationship. The boys take advantage of girls' feelings and pressure for pictures. Because the boys don't always understand they are pressuring the girls, Kosmerl breaks down what pressure can look like, which isn’t necessarily repeated requests. 

 

Kosmerl states that we do need to teach girls to stand up for themselves, but argues that we have to stop putting all of the responsibility on the girls. She sees “slut shaming” as a bigger issue that needs attention. Girls are being judged, especially by their own parents and meanwhile, they completely ignore the behavior of the boy asking for the sext. Kosmerl was once asked by a teen girl “What am I doing wrong? Every time I talk to a guy...at some point he wants a naked picture.” 

 

Tween girl in her room looking at cell phone

 

When sexting becomes sextortion… and leads to human trafficking.

 

Sextortion (as defined by a FBI special agent) "is a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money. The perpetrator may also threaten to harm your friends or relatives by using information they have obtained from your electronic devices unless you comply with their demands."

 

The real problem with sexting is that once the photo or video has been sent, control of that content is now gone and the receiver gains control over the sender. Kosmerl notes that the most vulnerable are the children and teens with a low self esteem who use social media as their social outlet. She explains, 

 

Someone is telling them they’re wonderful. Abusers and traffickers tell them everything they want to hear, and then they start to pressure for pictures over time. Once the person sends the pictures, the power dynamic is absolutely switched because they now have something they can use against that person. ‘Do what I say or I’m going to share your pictures or show your parents.’ 

 

Abusers can go on an app, pretend to be a certain age, and once their target shares naked pictures, they start getting nasty and mean.

 

One teen finally sent nudes, then they started threatening violence if she didn’t do what they said. She got in over her head and they talked her into doing things that were illegal on her part. It got really dangerous really quickly.

 

It starts online and then they rope the person into meeting them...and based on the amount of info you share online, they can come find you. Traffickers comb social media to see who is at risk. It’s prestigious to get a virgin. That’s part of the allure to look for someone that’s younger. Traffickers look for targets based on information already provided in their social media app’s profile. I have seen a case of sexting lead to human trafficking with the abuse all done completely online by the trafficker.

 

It’s boys too. Boys are sex trafficked. Boys are catfished.

 

Young teen girl looking at cell phone

 

Pornography is usually a gateway to sexting.

 

Kosmerl found that one connection between clients who have committed sexting offenses is that they have all watched porn. On average, kids are exposed to porn by age eleven. Without restrictions, the world of porn is open to them on their device. Juvenile offenders are all exposed to the sexuality piece. 

 

When Kosmerl talks about porn in her Sexting Solutions program, it’s an educational piece. One third of porn users are female. It is now common for young girls looking to porn for sex education and view it as an example of how they are supposed to behave sexually. Kosmerl says parents would be appalled at what she has to tell boys -- not everyone wants to experience the kind of sex that is demonstrated on porn. 

 

Furthermore, because some porn is now animated, kids are watching unrealistic illustrations of sex, without mention of mutual consent or relationship. Kids can google their questions, and websites like PornHub will answer. “ The world’s biggest porn site has even included information on sex education and contraception. Kosmerl asks, “Is this where kids should be learning about sex?”

 

Warning signs that your child might be experiencing online exploitation or sextortion:

#1 Abandoning interest in doing things they usually love to do. 

 

#2 Abusive or unhealthy behaviors become normalized. Typically, boys use their influence or power to get girls to do what they want. An example is that more boys are practicing self harming as manipulation and are asking girls to send nude photos so they won’t harm themselves. 

 

#3 Look for major shifts in behavior. Change in mood, motivation, hiding, dishonesty, bruises, being secretive, not talking as much, not spending as much time with family. 

 

It’s important for kids to understand what is healthy, unhealthy, and abusive. A lot of behaviors are normalized as healthy which are not. Kosmerl recommends talking about what healthy relationships look like, and  meeting the person your child is spending time with to observe if the relationship is healthy. She suggests, 

 

Have the person they are dating around the house. Meet the parents of the person your child is dating. Don’t just clamp down and say 'no you can’t see this person' -- if you don’t approve, invite them to hang out here, at your house, where you are a part of it. But it should be that way always, from the beginning, in general. It can be hard when parents work, or in the case of single parents. But try to do family stuff together where they can be invited. 

 

Teen girl gazes out of the window

 

How should a parent handle a situation where they discover their child has been involved in sexting?

 

We love this shareable video from Thorn that destigmatizes sexting and encourages conversation about sextortion:

Stop Sextortion

 

“I think that parents don’t understand how their response can be really rough on kids. If you catch your child sexting, how you handle it is so important.” Kosmerl shares that over, and over, and over again she hears from girls that their fathers can’t handle it, they shame them, and these behaviors push their kids away. Sexting is a red flag that some kids are starting to address their sexual development in an unhealthy way. Kids are inundated with sexual messages these days. They need to be taught about good touch, bad touch, and secret touch. They need to be told ‘don’t ever let anyone take naked pictures of you, don’t ask for naked pictures, and don’t let them ask you for naked pictures.’ She brings up the fact that even parents are taking naked baby pictures and posting them online. “As a society, we need to think differently  about what we are taking pictures of and posting. If you find your son or daughter has been sexting, this is an opportunity to talk to and teach your kids.”

 

What can parents do to promote online safety and prevent sexting?

 

#1 Be on the lookout for apps that have chat capabilities. Restrictions on technology are overlooked. Parents really need to be cautious about what apps have chat features, including apps for memes and videos. 

 

#2 Do the research before you allow an app. It’s easier to save it for later, than to take it away from your child. Use the limits that are already in place. Respect and even investigate the age ratings for apps. Kosmerl emphasizes this: “Parents really need to research what kids are downloading. Find out what is on the app, and what capabilities it has. I love Common Sense Media -- they rate everything, even Youtube channels. Use it to review everything your kid wants to download. They do the research on this stuff to tell you what to be concerned about.” 

 

#3 Think of the internet as a physical place and take the same precautions you would in a big city. “In downtown Denver you don’t let your kids hang out on 16th street mall at 2 am. Why do kids have access to the world 24 hours a day?” she asked.

 

#4 Consider setting downtime restrictions on your child’s devices. Late night tends to be more dangerous. Sexting and abuse often takes place at night. 

 

#5 Check in regularly and have conversations about sexting. Don’t just monitor your kid’s emails, texts, social media and online usage, talk to them. If you are not willing to have conversations with your child about sex, they’ll look for guidance online. Parents have to be role models. Your kids are watching what you do. 

 

Kosmerl further explained, 

 

We have to look at technology completely differently. We need to teach our kids to abide by the rules for their own safety. If an app says 17+, don’t allow them to override that. Fifteen years ago we were not walking around with computers in our pockets. There should be limits and structure to using them. You can’t just hand your child these devices. The World Health Organization recommends that children should not be offered screen time before the age of two. As a culture we have not caught up to how dangerous these devices can be. 

 

As we closed our conversation on that snowy day, we discussed how many kids are desensitized to sex and sexualized banter by the time they are teens. Unrestricted access to everything online is the culprit. She was adamant about a few specific platforms, too: 

 

Almost nothing positive is happening on SnapChat. Inside the Snapchat server is child porn. It doesn’t disappear. TikTok is huge for human trafficking. And super alarming and starting to evolve is that kids can make money online on platforms such as Sugar Daddy.com. You set up a PayPal online and you perform sex acts for people over Skype and video chat. 

 

Ultimately? She says, “Treat people with kindness. Your kids see how you act online.” And more than ever, those are wise words not only for online behavior, but in life.

 

Cheryl Kosmerl

Cheryl Kosmerl has 20 years of professional experience in the social work field. This includes extensive, specialized history working with children, adolescents and their families who have experienced abuse, neglect, and trauma. She has worked for over fourteen years with children who have committed sexual offenses in a private therapy practice, running groups and individual therapy.

 

Seven years ago, Kosmerl created a sexting specific curriculum called Sexting Solutions based on research and best practices at the request of the Colorado 1st Judicial District Attorney Office. This program was the first of its kind in the state and more than 300 students have successfully completed the program.

 

Kosmerl provides proactive presentations for parents and youth in the Denver area as a supportive and preventative strategy. One of the goals of these presentations is to prevent youth from committing sex-related crimes. She also provides specialized education to equip adults and adolescents with information regarding laws related to sexting, sexual behavior, healthy and unhealthy relationships, setting appropriate boundaries, peer support tools, and internet safety and security.


Coming soon: SextingSolutions.com a resource for parents, teens and tweens.

Cheryl Kosmerl’s practice can be found at SeedsOfChangeTherapy.

 

 

Additional Reading:

Porn and Human Trafficking: The Facts You Need to Know

Ten Tools to Keep Your Kids Safe Online

Human Trafficking May Be Closer Than You Think (How to Keep Your Kids Safe Online)

Cybersex Trafficking: Grooming and Exploitation Online