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 Pediatrics. More specifically:
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.
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.
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.
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. Ask your kids to pause and “Think Before You Act.” Ask kids to consider the following questions before sending or forwarding messages.
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:
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.
(1) "5 Reasons Teens Sext"
(3) Madigan et al, 2018. "Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behavior Among Youth,"
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