How to Talk to Teens About Sexting
Adolescent culture has embraced sexting – the term for sending sexually explicit messages, photos, or videos via any digital device. It can include nudity, suggestive messages, or content simulating sex acts. Parents might feel that sexting is risky, dangerous and illegal, but for teenagers, consensual sexting is often fun and sexy. They might perceive sexting as part of flirting, building self-confidence, and exploring sexuality, bodies and identities.
Despite the prevalence of sexting among youth, many parents don’t want to discuss sexting with their teens, or if they do, they take a simplistic approach of telling their teens to ‘just say no.’ While this makes sense to an adult, it doesn’t help adolescents who are struggling to navigate peer pressure in a digital world. It’s important that parents understand the reasons teens are sexting and have open conversations with them about how to keep themselves safe.
Here’s what parents need to know about sexting and how to approach their teens about it.
Parents should first know that sexting is very common among youth. A meta-analysis of studies between 2016 and early 2020 found that:
- 19% of teens had sent a sext,
- 35% had received one, and
- 15% had forwarded one without consent.
Although we don’t have the data yet, the pandemic and lockdowns reportedly sparked an increase in sexting between teens. The likelihood that your teen will, at some point, participate in sexting in some way is very high.
Reasons Teens Sext
Teens sext for a variety of reasons that parents might not have considered. Understanding their viewpoint is essential to being able to talk and advise your teen in an impactful way.
- Curiosity and Sexual Exploration. During puberty, it’s normal for kids to feel curious about their sexual identity. Teenagers have always sought to satisfy their sexual curiosity in some way, whether it’s learning or experimenting. Proper sex education by a parent or school can sometimes satisfy a teen’s curiosity, but many times teens don’t receive much information, so they talk to friends, find porn, or experiment with a partner. Teen sexting is just a new way for a teen to explore sexuality, bodies and identities.
- Fun and Exciting. Some teens might use sexting as a way to show interest in someone or flirt. They may want to take an existing romantic relationship to the next level. They might want to express trust in their partner and enjoy that vulnerability. Many teens find sexting fun, sexy, and exciting.
- Popularity and Validation. Teens sending nude images has become normal and a new popularity standard. As we all know, teenagers crave acceptance from their peers, so if the popular teens in school are sexting, then others will follow. Some teens also use sexting as a way to seek affirmation about their body. Some believe it’s the only way to attract someone they are interested in. Others, particularly boys, believe that having nude images gives them status.
- Safe Method for Sexual Exploration. Some teens perceive sexting as a safer alternative to experimenting with a partner. There’s no risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, and they can sext from the privacy of their own bedroom. In addition, researchers have also pointed out that some older teens have had experiences sexting in close, consensual, trusting relationships with no negative consequences. These teens find adults’ dire warnings about sexting to be out-of-touch and condescending.
- Impulsive. The adolescent brain is not fully developed, and as a result, most teens are very impulsive. They might not understand the potential consequences of their actions. Eve more likely, most children in adolescence simply don’t believe bad things will happen to them.
- Pressure. Unfortunately, there are many scenarios in which kids are sexting under pressure. Some teens have been threatened or coerced into sending a sext. Others simply think everyone else is doing it and feel pressured to fit in. Some teens are worried that if they decline to sext, they will shut down a potential relationship.
Strategies Teens Have Created to Deal with Sexting
Obviously there are risks involved with sexting. Young people do worry about their images being shared with other people. Many try to reduce this risk by choosing images that don’t expose their identities, superimposing watermarks on the images with the name of the person they are sending the photos, or even sending a Google image instead of their own photo, while also screenshotting the search result so they could forward it as proof that the body in the photo wasn’t theirs, if it was passed along.
While adults might think it makes the most sense to ‘just say no’ and avoid the risk altogether, today’s teens don’t believe this is an obvious choice for many of the reasons listed above, so they are creating survival tactics for their environment.
Talking to Teens About Sexting
Experts recommend that parents begin talking to their kids about sexting as soon as their child begins using technology to communicate — whether that’s by phone, social networks or gaming platforms. In addition, they caution that parents cannot bring it up once and think that’s enough. As with all issues involving sexuality, parents should check in frequently and continue to have age-appropriate conversations throughout their child’s adolescence. Given that the average age of getting a smartphone is 10 years old, it’s important that parents engage in open and honest communication with tweens and teens early and often.
Here are tips for talking to youth about sexting:
Establish open and honest communication. Teens want to discuss important topics with their parents – whether it’s sexting, drugs, bullying, or any other tough subject – but they must feel that it’s safe. If you express judgment, criticism, or launch into lectures, teens will avoid talking to you. Instead, experts suggest parents ask open-ended questions and approach a teen’s answers with curiosity. You might try using a tv show you watched together to talk about a topic in more general terms. You could try starting up a conversation about trends they see in school, such as asking whether they know people who have sent or received a nude or what their peers think about sexting. If your child has questions about sexting, try to answer them as honestly, openly and non-judgmentally as you can, which will keep the door open for them to come talk to you about any number of difficult subjects in the future.
Explain risks. It is important that your teen be aware of the risks involved with sexting:
- If you have a fight with the person who has the image, they could exact revenge by sharing the photo.
- You lose control of the image. Once you send a photo to someone, there’s no way to ensure it’s only seen by that person. Someone might accidentally see it on their friend’s phone. The photo could be shared with other people. Someone could share the image on social media.
- The image can be used for bullying or blackmail.
- If the image is shared in any way, it can damage your reputation.
- There are legal ramifications for sexting in some states. In some cases, teens have been prosecuted for having child pornography on their phone.
Approach the conversation in a gender-neutral way. Many parents make the mistake of assuming that boys are asking for sexual photos and girls are sending them, but that is absolutely not true. All genders solicit, all genders consent, all genders can exploit, all genders can be exploited. Talk about sexting in broad terms – both about asking for and sending sexually explicit photos – regardless of whether you’re speaking to a daughter or a son.
Discuss consent. It’s important to discuss and role model healthy relationships with teenagers, so that they know that respect, honesty, support, equality, compromise, and positive communication are essential ingredients in both friends and partners. Private information should never be shared without permission. Let your teen know that sharing someone else’s text or image with others, or sending a sexual image to someone who hasn’t asked for one, is not ok. Additionally, parents must explain that true consent is not a “maybe” or ten no’s that finally became a yes. For more information about how to discuss this subject, please see our previous blog, Discussing Sexual Consent for Teens.
Build refusal skills. It’s very difficult to be the one who says no when it seems like everyone else is saying yes. Even if your teen understands the risks and doesn’t want to participate in sexting, they will likely face a situation that makes it hard to say no. As a result, it’s important that we teach teens positive refusal skills. Refusal skills are ways for teens to say no to something they don’t want to do, and they’re vital for youth if we want them to stand up to peer pressure. It’s important for your child to know that they have a right to say ‘no’ and to develop a plan for how they will say no without alienating anyone. For ways to help your teen, please see our previous blog, Building your Teen’s Refusal Skills.
Develop response. If your teen should receive unwanted sexts or requests for images, discuss what they should do. For example, choosing to ignore the sext and reaching out to a trusted adult is a good idea. They need a plan for handling awkward situations. Let them know that they will not get in trouble for seeking help.
Trust plays a vital role in communicating with teens. When teens know they can come to you for help without judgment or fear of harsh consequences, they are more likely to seek you out when they are in need. It’s important that we set aside our strong reactions when we see our child doing something we perceive as wrong, unsafe, or scary. When we take a calm, nonjudgmental approach to difficult or shocking subjects, we increase the chances that our children will come to us when they make a bad choice or need help.