The dangers of sexting: decoding your teens' texts

Published: Feb. 21, 2015 at 9:23 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 27, 2015 at 2:08 AM CDT
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MONTGOMERY CO., AL (WSFA) - Teenagers are attached to their cell phones today like no other piece of technology in history.

Smartphones can do almost anything, from social media to shopping, calling and texting.

But when texting turns nasty, that's when problems start. Texting becomes 'sexting' when the text becomes sexual in nature.

When Mike and Rebecca Ellis found out their son Cole, a straight-A student athlete, was involved in a sexting situation, they'll be the first to admit they overreacted.

"First it was calm, then it got to be where it got aggressive in questioning, how did this all come about? I think in my role as leader of the household, I overstepped my boundaries as it relates to embarrassing Cole, his moral fiber and what he stood for; that was not my intention. If I could replay that day, that day would never have occurred,” said Mike Ellis.

Rebecca was shocked to learn Cole had been deleting sexts, hoping the messages and pictures would go away.

"People start talking and rumors get started and with our finding out it had escalated, I think he just felt in a moment of time where he had let a lot of people down and we asked him why he didn't come and tell us. To this day, I don't really know other than we're asking a teenage boy why he didn't tell us he was getting texts like that,” said Rebecca Ellis.

After the heated argument, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009, they prayed with Cole. It would be the last time they would bow their heads with their 13-year-old son.

"I think on that Monday morning, when we were going to go to school, I think it was just too overwhelming for him to have to deal with,” said Rebecca Ellis.

Cole Ellis committed suicide on Oct. 26, 2009.

"A young man who had it all, that's what his friend said. Why Cole? Because he had everything anybody could want, but he made a really bad choice and he didn't tell anybody. He didn't rely on anybody and it just started to weigh heavily on him and they need to think about who they're affecting,” said Rebecca Ellis.

The Ellis' say too many parents think their children aren't sexting, and as a parent, it's your job to act like one instead of a friend.

“You take a young man who is going through puberty and you think they're not going to look at the pictures on the phone? That's not even thinking realistically,” said Rebecca Ellis.

Rebecca says parents need to be open to the fact that their children are going to make mistakes, and creating an atmosphere where they can come to you for help is key.

"These kids are given so many adult toys, cars, phones, computers, and they have absolutely no life experiences to pull from and we expect them to make the perfect choice when something comes into their life and they have no idea what to do with them," said Rebecca Ellis.

Rebecca and Mike don't want this to happen to another family, that's why they are in favor of education and transparency.

"I'm a mother and I have two grown sons and as long as they live in your house, obviously these kids aren't paying for cell phones and the parents are. I think it's your parental responsibility to check them or to look and see what they're doing with their phones," said Jannah Bailey, Executive Director of Child Protect.

Experts say there are warning signs.

"Every time you walk in a room and they hide the phone from you, they're sneaking around or their phone buzzes with a text and they leave the room that you're in," said Bailey.

Bailey says kids and teens rely on text messages to continue relationships outside of school.

"A lot of times we see these texting relationships build into more and then eventually it's like let's meet in person, I don't know what the acronym is for that I'm sure there's one, you know so let's meet in person, when can we meet and then you get yourself in a situation you can't get out of," said Bailey.

Then there are regular text messages which look innocent which can be code. Here are a few examples, "GNOC," means "get naked on camera," "PIR," translates to "parents in room," "CU46 is code for "see you for sex." Even the number "8" can mean oral sex.

And when sexting goes from messages to pictures, experts say your teen could even face criminal charges.

"If you are thinking about sending that nude picture, or asking for that nude picture you need to think about what can happen because of that. That's dissemination of child pornography, that's enticing a minor, possession of child pornography. Even though you are a minor, you still are in possession of that picture, you're still sending that picture, even if it's a picture of yourself," says Caty Turnipseed, Prevention Educator for the Family Sunshine Center.

Turnipseed says sending and receiving these pictures could mean having to register as a sex offender.

Mike Ellis has spent many sleepless nights looking for red flags with his son.

"What did we miss, because as a parent that's what you're looking for. What did I miss, what did I do wrong? I do think of a few sudden personality changes that occurred, he was a passionate hunter and there were two invites that he declined to go on," said Ellis.

When asked what they would communicate with Cole if they could, Mike says "Hindsight on this is pretty big I think. I just would have loved him, I would have spent the night in his room and embraced him."

So what can parents do? Have an open dialogue with your children. Remember they are minors, you can take their phone away and can search it at any time.

You can also download an app called TeenSafe which allows you to see messages, texts and internet activity on their phone. There is a charge, but the site says more than a half million parents have already signed up.

You can also go to the Netlingo website to view thousands of additional acronyms.

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