Talking to your teen about sexting has become a necessary conversation. The discussion can be uncomfortable–for both parents and kids–but knowing, understanding (and, yes, even supporting) your kids’ sexting behavior is what’s important. 

By Ann Votaw

Parents Cannot Ignore the Sexting Phenomenon

But abstinence may not be effective in preventing teenagers from sending provocative messages to each other. 

“The Nancy Reagan approach doesn’t work,” says Leslie Kantor, chair of Rutgers School of Public Health. “People don’t just say no. Sexting is part of the repertoire that is out there right now. We need to incorporate it into education.” 

Kantor was speaking about recent studies reflecting a spectrum of habits among young people in the digital era. 

Defined as sending sexual images, videos, or messages to another person through electronic devices, sexting isn’t going away anytime soon. Today, 95 percent of teens report they have a smartphone or access to one, according to a 2018 report by Pew Research Center.

Similar to how automobiles and telephones changed mating rituals in the 20th-century, mobile devices have transformed the way people date, Kantor says. A decade ago, selfies were a novelty. Now such portraits are common and easy to share, especially among a connected population that is rarely off-line. Some content may be flirtatious, helping to “build trust and intimacy.” But then there’s the more explicit “horrible stuff”: nude, partially clothed, or clothed images of body parts that may fall into the category of potentially harmful sexts. 

Not All Sexting Is Dangerous

Posting and receiving unwanted sexts can be linked to depression, anxiety, and stress, but wanted sexts were not associated with mental distress according to a published June study published in Lancet Child Adolescent. Researchers concluded that consensual sexting "in a committed partnership might be indicative of healthy exploration."

Among younger adolescents, sexting can be more strongly related to risk-taking patterns, such as alcohol and drug use, and multiple sexual partners, according to a June study in JAMA Pediatrics

Sharing such sensual content may become a “normal part of sexual behavior and identity formation in the digital age,” according to a 2018 study in JAMA Pediatrics. Yet one in eight teens report forwarding or having a sext forwarded without consent.

Here’s where parents need to be especially concerned, says Vijayeta Sinh, a New York City-based psychologist and teen and young adult expert. While experimentation may be a “biological imperative,” it’s how young people engage that may cause lasting damage. Among adults and people in relationships, sexting can be a playful means of exploring erotic fantasies. For younger participants who don’t understand romantic nuance, sexting can have devastating outcomes.

“The negative consequences are public humiliation, cyberbullying, school suspension, and criminal charges,” Sinh says. “Kids also ‘sext’ to show off, to entice someone, to show interest in someone, or to prove commitment. So it may be consensual, but it's still not healthy.”

Dozens of legal cases involve sexting and revenge porn, where emotional breakups lead to the leaking of sexual images and videos. Guilty parties may be labeled as sex offenders. 

When the ex-boyfriend of a Cincinnati girl circulated a naked photo of her to classmates, the distress became so great she committed suicide in 2008, a week after she graduated from high school. In 2010, Ohio passed the Jessica Logan Act that prohibits harassment, intimidation, and bullying through computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age of first intercourse is just above 17, so you must become a reliable guide for a new technology applied to a teen’s natural curiosity. Kantor suggests the “sexting talk” should go hand-in-hand with smartphone ownership. 

“Just as you would discuss the negative aspects of intercourse,” Kantor says, “like getting pregnant before you’re ready, you need to discuss with kids how to lay down boundaries with their partners about sexting. We can’t count out them to think about the consequences. It’s not obvious to them. We have to walk people through the process.”

Sinh also recommends the dreaded conversation. “Don't wait for an incident to happen to your child or your child's friend before you talk about the consequences of sexting,” she says.

Photo by Getty Images

Here are 3 guidelines for supporting teens in regards to sexting:

Be a trusted source.

With their developing pre-frontal cortexes, young people’s brains may not be well-equipped for rational decision making, Kantor says. If someone sends upsetting content that makes your child feel manipulated or embarrassed, listen to their feelings and assist them in making wise decisions that benefit everyone. 

“Help children understand that the buck stops with them,” Sinh says. “If someone sends them a [provactive] photo, the receiver should delete it immediately. It's better to be part of the solution than the problem.”.

Establish standards. 

Parents have a better idea of what is appropriate for children who are 12 to 13 years of age versus 17-year-olds in committed relationships, Kantor says. 

“Parenting means having to say no and taking away privileges,” Sinh says. “We don't let our kids drive drunk or ride in the car with no seat belts. So it's fair to give them a cell phone and establish rules.” Random phone checks are completely okay when it comes to keeping teens safe. 

Notice coercion and pressure to send revealing content.

Many adolescents feel obligated to produce provocative and personal material in order to fit in with peers. “Let teens know that you understand how they can be joked, pushed or dared into sending something,” Sinh says. “Clarify that no matter how big the social pressure is, the potential social humiliation fallback can be hundreds of times worse.”

As a general rule, Kantor believes teens should be instructed not to take pictures of people in various states of undress. Likewise, young people should not let anyone snap suggestive shots of them. 

Going further, Kantor believes sexting lectures can lead to best practices for everyone, adults too. “Don’t take pictures of anyone without asking first,” she says. “In doing so, we create a healthier normative for all of us in building a culture of consent starting at a young age.”