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It’s Time to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting

It’s Time to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting

How to avoid the pitfalls of this increasingly common digital habit.

America’s young people are attached to their smartphones, and texting is their predominant mode of communication. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, a typical teen sends and receives 30 texts per day, and those numbers are climbing. But with the increase in texting has come a parallel explosion in “sexting,” messages or images related to sexual acts.

An analysis of 39 studies and 110,380 participants, published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2018, estimated that nearly 15 percent of teens have sent a sext and 27 percent have received one. Older teens were more likely to engage in this behavior than younger ones.

The good news is that one or two sexts doesn’t mean your child has a serious problem. But if you worry that your teen is stepping onto unsteady ground, it’s worth having a talk, and better to do so sooner than later. Here’s how:

Don’t freak out: If you discover your child is sexting or they mention to you that they are, try to stay calm. If you’re upset, they’re more likely to get upset, too. Remember that the teenage years are full of exploration and it’s normal for them to experiment when discovering their sexual identity.

While there are risks involved with sexting, try to reframe your preconceptions about sexting. For example, a sext could be a way for teens to flirt without actually having sex, especially if the sext doesn’t involve photos, Tara Haelle, a science and multimedia journalist, told Forbes in a recent article.

Determine why they’re sexting: It’s possible your teen is sexting because others in their social circle are experimenting with it. Perhaps your teen is sexting to feel more attractive, to enhance self-esteem, to become popular, or simply out of sexual curiosity. Once you know the intention, you may find it easier to discuss the dangers that come with the practice.

Consider their age: The way you approach the subject will depend on your child’s age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a general conversation is best for younger children. You can start off with questions like “Have you heard of sexting? Tell me what you think it is,” since they might not even be aware of it yet. Then let them know that they should never send or receive images that depict kids or adults without clothes on or those that involve inappropriate kissing or touching.

For older children, discuss the term “sexting” as it relates to any sexual terms they know about. When talking with teens, be more specific: use examples they’ll understand, like particular phrases that are cause for concern, and be frank about the fact that some sexting is considered pornographic.

Make sure they have someone to look up to: Research has suggested that teens’ peer groups can have a major impact on their behavior. For example, teens who surround themselves with positive role models are less likely to involve themselves in unhealthy behaviors, while teens who associate with negative role models—such as those who refuse to listen to their parents or those who skip school—may be more prone to become involved in risky activities, or pressured into them by their friends.

A positive role model could be a tutor at school or a slightly older high-achieving neighbor or relative. Connecting your teen with a mentor—whether to provide college advice, sports coaching or just a friendly ear for listening—can help steer them toward healthy activities like school sports or community service and away from potentially risky behaviors.

Remind them that texts are forever… and can have consequences: Adults know that anything shared on the internet or through a text message has the potential to wind up in the hands of one—or many!—unintended recipients. But teens may be unaware of these dangers.

Emphasize to your teen that once a text has been sent, they’ll lose control over the content. Those words or images may be copied, shared or posted many times over, and if the message winds up in the wrong hands, it could lead to embarrassment and humiliation. Without terrifying your teen, it may even bear noting that sharing sexually explicit images of people under the age of 18 can run afoul of child pornography laws.

Don’t go it alone: Navigating the teenage years can be challenging (for you and for your teen), and conversations about sexting can be difficult and uncomfortable. At the same time, an honest talk can bring you closer to your teen. Either way, it’s okay if you need extra support. Here are some additional resources to help you and your child navigate the topic:

  • ThatsNotCool.com is an online forum that discourages cyber bullying. Teens and parents can read encouraging stories and chat with others experiencing the same pressures.
  • Common Sense Education’s Sexting Handbook is a great resource for families looking to navigate sexting: what it is, who does it and why and how to turn down a request for a sext, among other things.

As you learn how to talk with your child about sexting, remember that you can also set a positive example for them. They may be interested to hear about the healthy ways you use texting and email, such as to notify your significant other that you’ve arrived at your destination or to check in with a coworker who’s out sick. Your kids may be encouraged to model these positive behaviors in their own tech lives.

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