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How to Talk to Kids About Sexting

Talking to your kids about sexting should be as common as talking to them about healthy eating and exercise. By the editorial team and Sophia Ruan Gushée.

 

Sexting—the sending of sexually explicit photos or videos—is increasing in prevalence, including among children. And children are sexting at a younger age, according to a review of 39 studies of 110,000+ participants (Madigan et al, 2018) that was published in JAMA PediatricsMore specifically:

  • The mean prevalences for sending and receiving sexts were 14.8% and 27.4%, respectively, with prevalence rates increasing in recent years and as children age
  • The prevalences of forwarding a sext without consent and having a sext forwarded without consent were 12.0% and 8.4%, respectively

This trend is important for several reasons. The JAMA Pediatrics article explains, "sexting is a predictor of sexual behavior and may be associated with other health outcomes and risky behaviors."

With almost 80% of teens exchanging text messages—and a typical teen sends and receives 30 texts per day, according to a 2015 study by Pew Research Center (2)—it's important for us to have healthy conversations with children about the potential consequences from sexting.

When should parents start talking to kids about sexting?

Kids are curious and naturally want to be liked by peers. It's also normal for kids, including teenagers, not to understand long-term consequences, and to believe that private correspondences stay private.

Teenagers are in that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood. They are exploring adult themes with the innocence of childhood, and are not experienced in the long-term implications of intimacy gone awry.

Since sharing private information is one way to bond and to develop close relationships, it is understandable that adolescents (and adults!) will explore intimacy by sharing personal information, including pictures and photos. 

3 Tips to Help Start Talking About Sexting With Children

As uncomfortable and challenging as conversations about sexting may be, parents can introduce the topic from early on (like, from early childhood), in age-appropriate ways.

  1. Start by discussing what kinds of pictures and videos are okay to record. 
  2. For pre-teens and teens, you can start discussing the potential long- and short-term effects of sharing intimate and personal information online.
  3. Another angle through which to approach the topic is by discussing security in technology, which is uncertain. Privacy settings have glitches and trusted relationships go south. Digital, private exchange of words, photos, or videos can be broadcasted to the world in a split second, causing complicated long-term damage. Once in cyber-space, it should be assumed that there is no delete button. 

8 Tips if Your Child is Sexting

The best time to have a conversation about sexting is before it happens, and the second best time is as soon as you find out that it happened. If a parent learns that their child has been sexting, the most important challenge is, first, do not shame your child, which can shut off your child's connection and open-mindedness to you. Next, discuss the risks of sexting, and pursue appropriate actions to minimize damage.

  1. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that your first priority is to develop an ongoing, open dialogue between you and your child
  2. Talk with your teen with love and compassion
  3. Discuss what is safe—especially in regards to sexting, in this case—regarding sexuality
  4. Explore why your child sent or received the sexual content
  5. Discuss the possible legal ramifications as sexting may break the law in some areas
  6. Help your child understand the digital permanence of photos, messages, and videos
  7. Help your child delete inappropriate photos, notes or videos sent or received
  8. Help your kids realize there is no guarantee of privacy

Additional Food for Thought

1. Ask your kids to pause and “Think Before You Act.” Ask kids to consider the following questions before sending or forwarding messages.

  • Is this how I want the world to see another person or me?
  • Could this information be used today, tomorrow, or ever to hurt another person or me?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen if I shared this content?

2. Remind your kids that their reputation must be protected. Parents can help their child understand that while lots of things are out of their control—like their behavior—is in their control. Sexting removes control from the child now, and in the future. Sexual content they participated in may impact their reputation, self-esteem, college applications, and/or job interviews. Once the content is published, they can remain public forever with these risks:

  • Embarrassment
  • Regret
  • Staying power
  • Potential legalities
  • Threat to future education and professional opportunities

Final Thoughts

Published content can remain forever in cyberspace, which can cause current and future embarrassment and regret with potential legal ramifications.

Parents can help minimize the risks from texting by nurturing an ongoing conversation with their children about related facts and information. Parents should try to help shape their children’s social media presence by participating with their children so they can continue to discuss what is appropriate information to share digitally.

 

Additional References

(1) "5 Reasons Teens Sext"

(2) "Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015"

(3) Madigan et al, 2018. "Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behavior Among Youth," JAMA Pediatr. 2018;172(4):327-335. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314

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