This post: Why You Need to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting Now
Co–Written by: Marybeth Bock & Nancy Reynolds
In so many ways, parents of teens today are fortunate. We grew up before smartphones were in existence. Sure, we didn’t have access to the plethora of helpful and insightful information that lies at our kids’ fingertips, but we also weren’t exposed to the downside of smartphones.
Social media didn’t consume our lives. We didn’t live in fear that any mistake, misstep or mishap in our lives could become humiliating public knowledge. We weren’t privy to every aspect of our friends’ and acquaintances’ lives so we didn’t compare ourselves to them nearly as much. And… we weren’t lured in by the intriguing idea of sending explicit photos of ourselves across a platform that promised to delete our photos permanently.
Sexting… most parents can’t even fathom why their teen would willingly send a sexually suggestive picture to another person on their phone. But make no mistake about it, A LOT of teens do. That’s why you need to talk to your teen about sexting… NOW.
Why You Need to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting Now
What is Sexting?
According to KidsHealth, sexting is sending or receiving explicit or suggestive sexual images, messages or videos to another person via a smartphone, tablet, computer or other device. Sexting can include anything from:
- Nude or partially nude photos or selfies
- Videos that portray sexual acts, simulated sexual acts or any form of nudity
- Text messages that propose or solicit sex or sex acts
How Common is Sexting Among Teens?
According to Dr. Justin Schleifer, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, “Sexting is considered a relatively common practice among teens.” Some research shows that as few as 20 percent of teens are sexting, while other studies reveal that number is much higher hovering around 60 percent. Teenagers, however, believe that about 90 percent of their peers are sexting – an indicator that, among teens, sexting is, in fact, normal.
And, it’s not just older teenagers who are sexting. A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that upwards of 22 percent of middle schoolers admit to sexting. Another study found that kids as young as seven years old are sexting.
Facts About Teens and Sexting You Need to Know
Here are a few statistics according to DoSomething.Org:
- 17% of kids who sext share the messages they receive with others, and 55% of those share them with more than one person.
- While nearly 70% of teen boys and girls who sext do so with their girlfriend or boyfriend, 61% who have sent nude images admit that they were pressured into doing it at least once.
- Nearly 40% of all teenagers have posted or sent sexually suggestive messages.
- Sending semi-nude or nude photos is more common among teen girls with 22% of teen girls admitting to sending images.
- 15% of teens who have sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves send these messages to people they have never met but know online.
- 24% of high school-age teens (ages 14 to 17) and 33% of college-age students (ages 18-24) have engaged in some form of nude sexting.
- In the U.S., eight states have enacted bills to protect minors from sexting, and an additional 13 states have proposed bills for legislation.
Why Do So Many Teens Engage in Sexting?
There are a number of reasons teens choose to sext. Kidshealth notes that some teens may sext as a joke, to feel sexy or desirable, as a way of getting attention, or because of peer pressure. For others, though, it might simply be a way of flirting, seeming cool, boosting their popularity or becoming more intimate with a sexual partner. They might also view it as simply being “adventurous” or just having fun.
Problems that Can Arise from Sexting
While sexting can seem like it’s no big deal to our teens because it doesn’t carry the risk of pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection (STI), it can still have profound consequences, including the potential to negatively affect their future.
The Digital File Can’t Be Controlled
One of the biggest concerns surrounding sexting is that a digital file is produced. Whether your teen shares a photo, a video, or a text message, once digital media is created and sent to another person, your teen no longer has control over if or with whom the file is shared. Even when a sext is sent via Snapchat (a popular app that deletes images after a period of time), your teen can’t control whether the viewer took a screenshot of the image.
Plus, any digital expert will tell you that a person’s “digital footprint” never really goes away. in fact, it can rear its ugly head days, weeks or even years later. According to experts, even Snapchat images can be recovered after they disappear.
True Identity is in Question
Another concern surrounding sexting is the idea of “true identity.” Technology has made it easy for any user to hide their identity, age, and intentions. A teen could unknowingly be messaging an adult online, a pedophile, or even a peer who may have harmful intentions.
Legal Consequences to Consider
According to CriminalDefenseLawyer.com, if a teen is 18 years or older, they can be charged as an adult if they’re caught sending or receiving sexually explicit messages/images/videos with a minor. While laws differ from one state to another, sexting is often considered a sexual crime, and therefore a felony in many areas. Even just forwarding a photo can get your teen in serious trouble. Depending on the circumstances and charges, offenders can face fines (oftentimes exceeding $5000) and/or jail time. You can find more information about the legal consequences here.
Suspension, Expulsion or Denial of College Admission
If sexting occurs while your teen is on school property, they may suffer consequences due to their school’s policies, including suspension or expulsion. Other potential consequences could include denial of admission to colleges or military service, restrictions on financial aid or denial of employment.
Sexting Can Affect a Teen’s Mental Health
If explicit images end up being shared widely amongst peers, a teen may feel deep regret, shame, sadness, and depression that can lead to social isolation, bullying, loss of friendships, and victimization. They may also lose respect for themself and even consider self-harm or harming others.
6 Tips for Talking to Your Teen About Sexting
1. Compose Yourself First
If you find that your teen has engaged in sexting, it’s best to wait a brief period of time and calm down before having a discussion. It’s helpful to keep the tone of your conversation honest, calm, non-threatening and non-judgmental. Chances are your teen doesn’t under the full ramifications of sexting so it’s important to avoid blaming or shaming.
2. Keep the Big Picture in Mind
Try not to focus on their behavior, but on their emotions related to their behavior. It’s important to let them know that you are interested not just in keeping them safe, but that you’re also trying to understand them and the oftentimes complicated world they live in. Make sure they understand that you love them unconditionally and you’re there to help them get through this.
3. Remember… Your Teen’s Brain is Still Under Construction
If you discover that your teen is sexting, remember that the rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until around age 25. Research shows that adult and teen brains work differently. We think with the prefrontal cortex, our brain’s rational part. This allows us to respond to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences.
Teens process information with the amygdala, which is the emotional part of the brain, and therefore, thoughts about the consequences of sexting may never occur to them. When the teen brain is experiencing a lot of emotional input, it doesn’t think as much as it feels.
4. Dive Into the Discussion – Even if it’s Awkward for You or Your Teen
Yes, conversations about sexting can be awkward but try to move past the discomfort and remind yourself that your teen is going through a challenging developmental period in their lives and peer acceptance is extremely important to them. Help them understand that if someone genuinely cares about them, they won’t ask them to do anything that puts their reputation, mental health or future at risk.
5. Talk About Their Digital Footprint
Remind your teen that nothing shared online is ever truly private. Help them get into the habit of stopping to think before posting anything. It’s necessary for them to consider how they would feel if a wider audience saw their image or message. What would their grandparents, school principal, coach, or college admissions officer think if they viewed that photo or read their message? Remind them that once images are sent, they leave a digital footprint that can never be fully retrieved.
6. Use It As a Teaching Moment
Use this time as a teaching moment with your teen. Discuss real stories about teens who overshared online and how it impacted their life. Share that colleges and employers often look at social profiles of both them and their online connections before accepting or hiring students. And make sure your teen understands the legal consequences of sexting.
Whether your teen was caught engaging in sexting, or you’re trying to prevent it from happening by having a frank conversation, the most important thing you can do is demonstrate your love for your teen. Let them know that they can come to you about anything and that they are always worthy of your understanding and respect.
Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.