Sexy & Savvy: Safer sexting

Contributed by Rebecca Smith, M.A., L.C.P.C., C.S.A.T.

You’ve heard of safer sex, but what is safer sexting? It’s being smart with your phone while sending sexual texts or pictures to others.

Sexting results from advances in technology enabling new forms of social interaction. Messages with sexual content historically have been exchanged over all forms of media. Newer technology like smart phones and iPads allow the transmission of photographs and videos, which are intrinsically more explicit and have greater impact. Sexting can socially dangerous specifically because material that’s sent through these newer technologies can be very easily and widely propagated, with the originator having no control. Read more about the history of sexting here.

Proceed with extreme cautionCell phone receiving a "sext"

I’ve heard many students talk about receiving or sending a naked picture from/to someone they knew. It seems to be very common these days. Social media and texting make it easier to say things that normally may be too risky to say out loud to someone standing right next to you. Students admit to being a lot bolder with what they type than what they’d actually say to someone they just met. Some students only use sexting with semi-strangers — in other words, people across the country whom they’ll never meet but whom they chat with online. They may feel safer sending explicit messages or pictures to someone who doesn’t know them and who wouldn’t be able to send it around their university or community. Just remember, it’s a small world: I’m always amazed at who knows who, no matter where they’re from. As stated above, once you send the picture off to someone, you lose complete control. You never know how long that person will keep the picture on their phone or what they’ll do with it once they get it in their possession.

Spice up your relationship?

Other people tell me that they only send sexually explicit messages to their boyfriend or girlfriend — in other words, to someone they trust. This may seem like a good way to spice up your relationship, but be aware that people do fight and break up. If you’ve sent messages or pictures to someone who now wants to get back at you for something, you could be in trouble. A lot of students also admit to being in a committed relationship with someone and sexting someone else. You can cheat with technology very easily. Even if the person lives across the world, if you do this behind your boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s back it’s considered cheating. If your boyfriend or girlfriend finds a naked photo on your phone that a same-sex friend passed along, that could also look very bad for you. People do forward photos. You want to remove those ASAP if you’re in a relationship. Keeping them on your phone or computer, even though they were sent from a buddy, isn’t considered a smart idea.

Save some face

Another way to be safer while sexting is not to send any pictures with your face in the photo. I’ve heard students say it’s a little less likely that someone will be able to identify you in case the picture gets out to others — although, as you know from the cases of celebrities in the public eye, you don’t need to put your face in the picture for it to be able to be traced back to you. You may want to set some ground rules before you engage in such behaviors. Sexting can start arguments because some people promise something through text that they can’t deliver in person. Be careful about what you tell someone you’re willing to do. You could find yourself pressured later to go through with things that may be easier to say than to do.

The bottom line

Don’t feel pressured to engage in any sexual activities that make you feel uncomfortable. You have the right to say no. It’s also inappropriate to send naked pictures of yourself to someone who doesn’t desire to receive them. It’s not a turn-on to receive unsolicited texts or pictures of a sexual nature; it’s usually a turn-off. Don’t just assume someone is willing. Ask the person if they’re okay with it before sending anything sexual. If that person says no, be respectful. It’s also not a turn-on to beg someone for sexual material. “No” means “no.” If you proceed after this point, it’s considered sexual harassment.

As a counselor, I recommend that you educate yourself before engaging in sexting with anyone. It may seem fun, harmless, and safer than having sex, but there are still consequences that can be devastating. Be aware of all the risks before deciding what’s best for you. If you’re over 18, it isn’t illegal to send sexual material over your phone to someone else who’s over 18. You have to decide what you’re comfortable with and be strong about setting clear boundaries with others. If you start something and then feel uncomfortable, stop, and let the other person know. If they won’t stop, find a way to block them from your phone if possible, or report them for harassment.

Be smart and be safe. Safe sex isn’t just about using a condom anymore. Click here for more Sexy & Savvy posts. Share this post by using the buttons below.

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Body Sense: Beauty isn’t baked

Contributed by C. Claire Armagnac, B.A.

Long before the guidos and guidettes of MTV’s Jersey Shore were bragging about their daily GTL (gym, tan, laundry) routine, many young people were taking the “T” to an extreme. Tanning salons have been in business in the U.S. since the 1970’s, and they are no safer today than they were when they first became popular. Avoiding tanning beds is a health-conscious decision, but there are also other things you can do to get serious about sun safety.

Pig and bacon cartoonSPF = Super-Protected Fun

OK, SPF actually stands for “sun protection factor,” but you should still view sunscreen with a high SPF as a way to have fun outdoors without worrying about a painful, ugly sunburn. Failing to use sunscreen can lead to a variety of other problems in addition to sunburns, such as skin cancer, wrinkles, and premature aging. All sunscreens use similar chemicals to protect your skin from UVA and UVB sunrays, but dermatologists recommend that you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30. Some sunscreens are labeled “waterproof,” but it is still a good idea to reapply them after you swim and towel off because water can decrease their  effectiveness and toweling off can wipe them off of your skin.

Play it safe in the shade

The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you have to be outdoors during those hours, wear extra sunscreen and try to stay in areas that are shaded by trees or tents. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and clothing that covers your body is another way to decrease your chances of getting sunburned; some sportswear companies make lightweight clothing that is specifically designed to block UVA and UVB rays. Sun-blocking clothing tends to be a little pricey, but you may want to invest in it if you’re going to be working at a job that requires you to be outdoors all summer. Large sunglasses are fashionable, and they also protect the skin around your eyes from the wrinkles that can be caused by years of squinting.

Get a faux glow

Self-tanning lotions have improved a lot in recent years. I’ve personally had luck with several drugstore brands that allow you to build a tan gradually. I was a bridesmaid a few summers ago, and I wanted to look tan in the wedding photos, so I started applying self-tanning lotion two weeks before the wedding. I was really pale to begin with (my heritage is French and German) and ended up about four shades darker prior to the big day. Self-tanning lotions can cause the palms of your hands to look unnaturally tan if you apply them every day, so be sure to wash your hands right after application to achieve the most natural look. Some tanning salons offer spray tans, but my experience with a salon spray tan was really unpleasant, and some of the chemicals may not be safe if you inhale them.

It is also important to note that dermatologists recommend that people of all skin tones, including African Americans, use sunscreen. People with dark skin are still at risk for skin cancer, and they are also at risk for wrinkles and uneven skin tone from prolonged exposure to the sun.

This summer, try to make sun safety more than just an afterthought. When you’re a wrinkle-free 40-year-old who still gets ID’ed when buying alcohol, you’ll be glad you did!

Questions? Comments? Shoot me an email at or write them in the comments section. Click here for more Body Sense posts. Share this post by using the buttons below.

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Overheard On Campus: What is a vaporizer? Is using one safer than smoking tobacco or marijuana?

Contributed by Lisa Salazar, M.P.H, A.C.E.-C.P.T., & Daniel Gittins, M.A.
Introduction by Tyler Achilles, B.A.

I haven’t heard anyone refer to a vaporizer in a long time. Maybe it’s because I’m becoming more removed from college culture as I get older, but I’m sure vaporizers are still around, especially since many states have loosened their stance on marijuana. In fact, vaporizers are probably becoming more popular because of that fact. There are risks involved with using a vaporizer, though. Check out what Lisa Salazar, director of the wellness center at Idaho State University, and Daniel Gittins, coordinator of alcohol and drug programs at Duquesne University, have to say about vaporizers below. For information on similar topics, check out the Overheard On Campus category or log in to MyStudentBody.

Male using a vaporizer

Photo credit: Gizmodo

Lisa Salazar, director of the wellness center at Idaho State University, says …

Vaporizers experienced resurgence in popularity after Johnny Depp was seen using one in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Vaporizers are instruments often used with herbal drugs like marijuana, salvia, etc., although they may also be used for other drugs including meth or crack cocaine. Vaporizers may be made from crude materials, such as light bulbs or expensive purchased models, but all have the same general function. Unlike rolling a joint, or using a pipe where herbal drugs are burned directly, a vaporizer is used to create convection heat that warms the entire substance to a temperature that releases chemicals, such as the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from the plant matter forming a steam or mist. A tube or pipe is used to inhale the steam vapor and initiate the “high.”

Advocates for marijuana use claim that using a vaporizer is safer than smoking, as the vaporizer doesn’t release burned materials (carbons, tar, benzene, toluene, naftalene, etc.) into the lungs; therefore, it is less of a health hazard than smoking the herb directly. Instead, the volatile or essential oils of the plants are released with the vapor that is to be inhaled, and these are said to be more pleasing and calming to the imbiber.

From a health standpoint, however, it’s important to remember what THC actually does to the brain. Scientists know that THC has an impact on the parts of the brain that impact memory, thinking, perception, pleasure, and coordinated movement. There has been a direct correlation with marijuana and mental health issues, as well including violence, psychotic reactions, and even onsets of schizophrenia.

In addition, marijuana has been shown to impact more areas of the body than just the lungs and brain.  In fact, marijuana users have a nearly five times higher risk of heart attack in the first hour after smoking the drug and often experience elevated heart rates for up to three hours after smoking. Because the chemicals released when using a vapor are said to be less diluted, these risks could also be amplified. Regardless of what the word is on the street, vaporizers do not offer any less risk than traditional drug use methods.

Daniel Gittins, Coordinator of Alcohol and Drug Programs at Duquesne University, says …

According to Got Vape?, a blog dedicated to vaporizers, a vaporizer is a product used to smoke a blend of tobacco like substances. It says that a “vaporizer works by using heat to bring the temperature of your blend to the point where it boils the active ingredient out of the blend without burning the plant material. The vapors that result are much cleaner and tastier than smoke, and more highly concentrated as well.”

There has been an increase in the visibility of these type products recently, perhaps in response to the growing number of states that are allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Additionally, the increase in vaporizer use could result from an increase in the amount of synthetic “smokeable” products marketed as well as the ongoing quest to find safer ways to smoke tobacco products. Vaporizers are marketed as a safer way to smoke tobacco and/or plant products (though there hasn’t been enough research conducted to support this claim). Proponents of this claim say that “vapors are free of tars and other unhealthy bi-products produced when blend is burned instead of being vaporized.”

There are many kinds of vaporizers. Many college students have been using them under the thought that they are smokeless and odorless (not true), and, therefore reduce the risks of getting caught smoking illegal substances, or legal ones in areas where smoking is not allowed. There are risks involved.

Bottom line: Although there are claims that using a vaporizer is safer and, in some ways, better than smoking tobacco or marijuana, there is no evidence to support this claim. There are real risks associated with using these substances.

For more tobacco-related posts, check out the Tobacco category in Health Topics or log in to MyStudentBody and navigate to the Tobacco section. You can take a self-assessment of your tobacco use and find educational materials to help you quit.

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Overheard On Campus: Why do certain types of alcohol, like whiskey or tequila, make some people act differently than when they drink beer?

Contributed by Rebecca Smith, M.A., L.C.P.C., C.S.A.T.

Different types of alcohol have different amounts of alcohol content by volume. What does that mean? Well, if a bottle of tequila is labeled as 80 proof, then it means it contains 40% alcohol and 60% other ingredients. Tequila and most other hard liquors, like whiskey, rum or vodka are usually 40-50% alcohol by volume, or 80-100 proof. Unlike liquor, most servings of beer are going to be 4-6% alcohol. Many times people who drink hard liquor will add more than a standard shot to their drink (sometimes equaling 2 or 3 shots!) because they are not aware of the proper amount. Adding 2 or 3 shots to one 12-ounce drink is the equivalent of drinking 2 or 3 whole beers.Bartender pouring shots, college students looking on

Most people are going to get drunk faster when they consume hard liquor because they don’t have to consume as much liquid to get a high volume of alcohol. Alcohol shuts down the judgment and coordination center of the brain. This is why most people act differently while drinking hard liquor as compared to just drinking beer. The amount of water in beer slows down the absorption of alcohol into the blood stream, so a person has to drink several beers to feel the same effect of having one glass of hard liquor, which will be absorbed more quickly.

Be safe and smart while drinking. Most people can only consume one beer, one glass of wine, or one shot of hard liquor per hour before going over the legal limit of a .08 blood alcohol level (alcohol tolerance and weight will affect this number, but in general this is a good rule to follow). If you drink more than one drink in an hour, your body won’t be able metabolize the alcohol, and your blood alcohol levels will go up. This will definitely affect the way you are behaving toward and around others.

Bottom line: Alcohol is alcohol, but pay attention to how much you’re drinking, especially if it’s hard liquor. Click here for more Overheard On Campus posts.

Any other advice to add? Have a story to share? Write a comment below!

How to Help Students Understand the Risks of “Study Drugs”

Contributed by Donna Wentworth

Drawing of prescription drug bottles

For college students facing the stress of final exams, taking a “study drug,” a medication usually used for ADHD, might seem like no big deal. After all, if their friends are taking it with no side effects, why shouldn’t they?

Daniel Gittins, AOD coordinator at Duquesne University, warns students that prescription medications are intended only for the individual they are prescribed to and no one else.

For “person A,” he explains, a medication like Ritalin® will have primary benefits, but also secondary effects such as “elevated blood pressure, faster heart rate, etc.” But if “person B” borrows the medication without considering their own medical history – such as a family history of high blood pressure, stress, or heart concerns – “the risks can be far more significant.”

How can you get this message across to students? Here are three strategies you can try:

  • Got Drugs? Take Them Back. Tackle the problem at the community level by participating in a take-back program such as the DEA’s National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day last month. The FDA has additional information about the safe disposal of prescription medications.
  • Student, Know Thyself. MyStudentBody works at the individual level, using scientifically validated methods to help students understand the risks of misusing prescription medications. It also gives them practical information about how to safely manage their medications if they are using them for medical reasons.
  • Parental Guidance Suggested. Help prevent abuse of study drugs before next year’s freshmen show up on campus by reaching out to their parents. MyStudentBody-Parent, an important component of our program, is designed to help parents communicate effectively with students about alcohol and other drugs, including prescription medications. You can log in to the program to access a newly updated, print-ready companion guide, College-bound: Strategies for Parenting Your First-year College Student, and hand it out during orientation.

*MyStudentBody administrators -> If you have questions about how to use MyStudentBody to support your drug abuse prevention efforts, we encourage you to contact Amy Cavender, our Implementation Specialist, by email or phone at (800) 848-3895, ext. 205.

Overheard On Campus: Sometimes people offer me drugs at parties. I feel uncomfortable just saying no. How should I respond?

Contributed by Daniel Gittins, M.A. & Rebecca Smith, M.A., L.C.P.C., C.S.A.T.
Introduction by Tyler Achilles

Yikes! I definitely wouldn’t want to be in this kid’s position. Undoubtedly, however, many college students find themselves faced with this dilemma, and it’s not an easy one to navigate. It should be just as easy as saying no, but sometimes it’s not. Let’s see if our experts can give this student some guidance on the issue.

A girl is offered a joint (marijuana)

Daniel Gittins, coordinator of alcohol and drug programs at Duquesne University, says …

Do whatever it takes to be strong and to stick to your convictions and personal expectations. There are a variety of approaches you can take when responding to these people. Just saying no is the most direct way to deal with this, but it can clearly be difficult to take that one word approach. No one wants to look “lame” in front of other people; and, unfortunately, our culture leaves people feeling that if we choose not to drink, or take drugs, or engage in certain behaviors, then we are somehow not fun or too uptight. Remember that it’s absolutely fine, and encouraged, to stick to your principles and decline any activity that makes you  feel uncomfortable.

You could also try some humorous or fictional story approaches:
•    “No thanks. Last time I tried that I ended up cliff diving, and I’m not having that again.”
•    “Last time I did that I was in the Bahamas. I got into a fight and had to spend the night in a foreign jail. Not fun.”
•    “I really lose control when I do that, and I can’t get crazy tonight because I have an exam tomorrow.”

The list goes on and on … whatever you say, be creative and be strong. You’re worthy; even if, and perhaps especially if, you decline to participate in risky behaviors that could negatively influence your safety and success. In most circumstances, we can choose what we want and don’t want to do; it’s your power, use it!

Rebecca Smith, counselor at Aurora University, says …

Some people are uncomfortable because they feel like they’re rejecting the person offering the drugs. If you are a people pleaser it can be hard to say no, in general, to anyone. In this case, it’s best to have a reason ready to give the person offering. A valid reason to use is saying you have a big test or paper coming up and you need to be able to focus. You can also say you, or someone you know, had a bad reaction to that drug in the past and you don’t want to risk it.

Other people are uncomfortable because they feel they won’t fit in. Go to the party with friends who also don’t do drugs. That way you can say no as a group and still feel like you fit in. It’s easier to say no when there are others making the same choice. If you only have friends who do drugs, try to find a different group of people to hang out with who feel the same way you do. You can then attend parties where drugs may not be offered, and you won’t have to worry about feeling uncomfortable at all.

Top 10 Programming Tips for Mental Health Advocates

Contributed by Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D., M.N.M.

For the past 20 years I have worked with mental health advocates on college campuses and in communities to help them create positive change. Here are the top ten programming tips I have learned along the way:

Helping a friend

1. “Normalize struggle” safely

One goal for many mental health advocates is to let people know they are not alone. When mental illnesses and suicidal crises strike, people often suffer in silence. Letting people know that others have lived through similar challenges often provides comfort. One of the most successful programs using this strategy of “normalizing struggle” is Frank Warren’s Post Secret project. Frank encouraged strangers to send him their secrets written on postcards, which he subsequently posted to a blog. The honesty of these pieces is very compelling. The program has been replicated on many college campuses, and it has started many positive conversations about despair and help-seeking. It’s the idea that pain shared is pain lessened. The trap that some mental health advocates fall into, however, is overemphasizing the prevalence of extreme behaviors as an “epidemic.” This type of messaging can make people feel hopeless about change. Worse, when it comes to suicide, this type of exaggeration might even create a cultural script that inadvertently influences people to engage in suicidal behavior because it is the ‘norm’ of what people do to cope with pain. Following the safe messaging guidelines can help mental health advocates make sure what the messages they are sending are promoting health and not creating additional risk.

2. Offer screening tools that lead to action

Screening is a great example of a low cost, high impact tool for mental health advocates. Like with other health issues, screening for mental health conditions increases the likelihood that we can identify emerging symptoms and alter their course with early intervention. Screening offers people a way to anonymously self-assess, which is often an attractive first step for those who are ambivalent about help-seeking. A screening that just gives participants a label, however, will fall short. Effective screening tools give participants a call to action and link them to additional local and on-line resources. Many on-line and paper screening options exist (e.g., Screening for Mental Health), and nationally recognized days can make screening a part of a community’s regular health programming:

Young woman calling a crisis line

3. Know your resources on a first-person basis

Effective mental health advocates do their homework. If you want to be a trusted referral source, you need to “walk the walk.” Get to know your local mental health providers. Visit your local psychiatric hospital. Invite local counselors to a “meet and greet” event. Call your local crisis line to get a better sense of how it works. Ask the questions you need to have answered so you can confidentially refer. Your referral will be so much stronger if you can say, “Oh, I know Dr. So-n-so; she’s really approachable and competent. I’ll take you there to meet her if you’d like.”

4. Share stories of hope and recovery

A main goal of many mental health advocates is to reduce the stigma of mental illness; however, the more we talk about stigma, the more we actually reinforce it. Instead, we can fight stigma by sharing stories of hope and recovery. When we can demonstrate how others transform their wounds into sources of power, we create hope. When respected people come forward and say, “I suffered, and I got better,” others feel they can get better too and the issues become less marginalized. When you do programs that highlight the experience of mental illness, be sure they don’t end with despair; share the healing practices and positive outcomes as well.

5. Make programs attractive and fun

It’s human nature to turn away from things that are scary, confusing, and depressing. The challenge for mental health advocates is to make programs uplifting, engaging and cool without becoming so superficial they miss the point. One of my favorite examples of this outcome came from a student group I worked with a few years ago. One student was a musician, one worked at the radio station, and one was a community organizer. The musician came up with the idea to have friends write songs with themes of overcoming emotional struggles. These songs were then recorded in the campus radio station and turned into CDs. The community organizer then sold them to students, faculty and staff around campus to raise money for future mental health programs. The student musicians were excited to be recorded, and they helped spread the mental health messages much wider than the small group could do alone.

6. Tell people what you want them to remember

Sometimes, in our attempt to get attention to our cause, we play up tragic outcomes and overlook important calls to action and messages of hope. We need to tell people what we want them to remember: treatment works, prevention is possible, and people recover. Let people know what to do if they are struggling, or if they are worried about a friend or loved one. Tell people exactly how to get involved in suicide prevention in their communities.

7. Engage leadership

Often mental health advocacy work gains momentum at the grassroots level – passionate families, students, or faith community members come together and apply their collective energy to make changes. “Grass-top” approaches should also be considered to augment this strategy. People in position of influence can often move things along more quickly, and they usually just need to know that people care about an issue. So, start the conversation. Write to your legislators. Set up a meeting with your university administrators. Have coffee with professional association leaders and business leaders. Speak the language that is meaningful to them (voters needs, cost savings, student retention), and give them concrete and simple ways to help.

8. Provide opportunities for deep learning

Many mental health promotion efforts seek to promote awareness, but education alone will not move the needle. We call it the “State Trooper Effect.” We pay attention to educational or awareness raising efforts when they are done well and right in front of us, but once they are in our rear view mirror, we tend to go back to what we were doing before. Deep learning goes beyond passive input of knowledge. Deep learning engages people in a knowing-being-doing process. Yes, education is part of that equation – a necessary, but not sufficient piece. We also need to get people “doing” – physically, emotionally, and even spiritually involved in the work, and in order to really make it stick, personal reflection on the experience is key.

Mardi Gras beads

9. Create a symbol of solidarity

We’ve seen the pink ribbons and the Livestrong bracelets. Symbols of solidarity work, but they need to be unique. When these symbols work well, people can see at a glance the community that is being built. Symbols used to promote suicide prevention can let people who are struggling know who might be a safe person to approach with questions. When the symbol of solidarity starts to spread to large groups of people it is a powerful testament to a person secretly in despair. Some examples of symbols of solidarity include:

  • Mardi Gras beaded necklaces often worn at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of Darkness Walk. Participants choose to wear different colors to symbolize their experience – one color represents “I have lost a loved one to suicide,” another color might mean “I have struggled myself,” while another “I support the cause of suicide prevention.”
  • Stickers that show hands reaching out to one another hung on the room doors of Residence Hall Assistants who have been trained as suicide prevention gatekeepers.
  • Stars displayed on the stage of a community forum – one star symbolizing each person who received help that year.

10. Promote belonging and purpose

Thomas Joiner’s model of suicide risk tells us that thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness are two critical factors that increase a desire for suicide; the opposites of these states are belonging and purpose. When we create meaningful communities and let people know they are needed, we are doing suicide prevention.

For more information: