A leading internet safety advocate is warning parents about the dangers of sexting, saying that it has become a "rite of passage" among teens.
"Internet pornography has become the wallpaper of our children's lives from a very early age," said Donna Rice Hughes in an interview with The Christian Post on Tuesday.
"Here is the reality: Parents are often the last ones to know and to understand that their own children are not immune to internet dangers, whatever they are."
Hughes, president of Enough is Enough, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the internet safe for children, noted that troubling research shows both youth and adults regard sexting as normal.
Now that prominent public officials have also been caught doing this, she believes that sending sexually explicit messages and pictures has become an unfortunate rite of passage of sorts among today's youth now that so many are connected to the internet all the time.
"When kids see Cowboys and Indians movies, what do they do? They're out playing Cowboys and Indians," she said, adding that the same principle applies, unfortunately, when they view porn.
"So, when kids see sexually charged material they do tend to act out," Hughes said.
"Young people are much more likely to get involved in sexting if they are also involved in viewing pornography online. So all of this is wrapped up together," she said, emphasizing that peer pressure often comes with sexting.
"I hate to say that it's possibly a rite of passage for these young people in their 'dating' relationships, but I dare say that's not a stretch at all."
Her concerns are borne out in recent research from the University of Michigan Health System which reveals that sexting has moved into the top-10 list of health concerns for children in the United States.
Moreover, the accessibility of smut on the Web has fundamentally changed the way people relate to each other — for the worse.
"[Youth] are going to text way more than talk," Pastor Craig Gross of XXX Church told CP on Tuesday.
"We have this rule in my family where I'll tell my son that you're not allowed to text girls, but you can call them. What I've noticed with kids especially is that they are not learning how to communicate. Sexting, to me, when you're texting all day long, it's so much easier to turn anything sexual," he said.
Indeed, things can escalate quickly when one does not have to have an actual conversation.
One needs to look no further than the recent developments in the Anthony Weiner saga. Last week, Weiner, a former Democratic congressman from New York and his wife, Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton, announced they were separating in light of revelations that Weiner was still sending illicit photos of himself to strangers.
"In the case of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, sexting appears to have become a compulsive addiction," Hughes said last week following the revelation.
"Parents can use public cases such as Weiner's as teachable moments: Sexting is not 'OK.' It is not safe, it is not admirable, and can lead to public humiliation and worse, in some cases. It can lead to the very real dangers of sexted images landing in the hands of sexual predators, cyber bullies and sextortioners in which lives can be shattered," she added.
This is not the first time Weiner has been caught doing this. As Fox News reported in June 2011, police investigated Weiner for sending illicit photos to an underage girl in Delaware; he resigned from Congress shortly thereafter.
In light of such numerous dangers, even presidential candidates are paying attention to the issue, particularly as anti-pornography sentiment rises in the wider culture.
CP reported last month that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump signed Enough Is Enough's internet safety pledge, an eight-page document that calls for, among other things, "the appointment of an attorney general who will aggressively enforce laws like the Children's Internet Protection Act and a presidential commission to address the public health impact of porn on young people and families."
Hillary Clinton has not signed the pledge but her campaign has vocally supported EIE's goals.