When you think of activities you don’t want your child doing on his or her mobile device, sexting is probably pretty high up on that list. The implications and risks go far beyond a private exchange within a relationship.
Unfortunately, teens are sexting, and there’s a lot of pressure to sext as well.
Sexting: A Definition
You might have an idea that sexting is only messages or only explicit photos. Merriam-Webster makes it pretty clear: sexting is “the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone,” or, of course, any electronic device. This includes nude or suggestive photos and videos, including those depicting sexual acts, and text messages that mention sexual activity.
Sexting can be consensual or not.
Not My Teen…Right?
Take a look at the research published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal:
“Among 39 studies (with 110 380 participants) in this meta-analysis, the mean prevalences for sending and receiving sexts were 14.8% and 27.4%, respectively, with prevalence rates increasing in recent years and as youth age.”
And it’s not just boys.
Girls and boys are equal participants when it comes to sexting.
The Pressure to Sext
Some teens start sexting because they want to. Others feel pressured to participate.
- It’s what all her friends are doing.
- His girlfriend is asking him for nude photos or sending her own nude photos without being asked to do so.
- She wants to fit in and is having trouble finding a social circle at school. Sexting becomes an effort to gain popularity.
- His friends are making fun of him for not sexting with his girlfriend.
The author shares her personal findings from an unofficial experiment where she created social media profiles and stated that she was bored and wanted someone to talk to. “96% of all people that responded to my posts asked or initiated sexting within the first 5 sent messages.” Some sent explicit photos without even greeting her. And after she refused to participate? Many got dismissive and aggressive; ultimately, “87% of all respondents blocked me or stopped messaging me altogether.”
This shows a certain demand or expectation for young girls to participate in sexting.
It’s easy to see how a vulnerable teenager who wants to be liked would cave into those expectations, particularly if the pressure is from people he or she has to see at school every day.
The Problem With Sexting
In the best scenario, the sexting occurs between two young people within a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. It’s part of their personal exploration of their sexual identities and relationship. When the relationship ends, those messages disappear.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Even secret sexts can be accidentally shared or maybe glimpsed by a friend who borrows the phone. And the situation is often more dire.
Sometimes, those messages and images are used against the sender to blackmail or humiliate him or her. The images may be shared, and they end up spreading quickly within your teen’s peer group and to the online world at large.
What Can You Do?
To start with, we have to recognize this new norm.
This New York Times article acknowledges that sexting among teens is on the rise, and notes that “…experts say that rather than being shocked to find that kids are sexting, we should instead be talking about it from an early age, just as we should about other aspects of their developing sense of their sexual identities.”
It’s not all bad: the uptick in sexting has corresponded with a downturn in sexual activity rates among high school students.
Talk to your teens honestly about the implications of sexting:
- Explain that images spread quickly over the internet. Even someone you love and trust might accidentally share the photo with a friend or intentionally share it with a trusted friend who’s maybe not so trustworthy, after all. “…help them think about what it might feel like to have intimate photos of themselves forwarded to any number of peers by someone they thought they liked or trusted.“
- Bring up the potential legal issues. Many teens aren’t aware of that when they start sharing photos and messages with friends.
- Talk about respect. That’s a conversation that helps your child manage online discussions, as well, and could make him think twice before sending an image that wasn’t requested.
- Teach your teen about consent. This important topic goes beyond real-life scenarios and into the digital world, as well. If she is uncomfortable about anything that happens online, she needs to know she can come to you for help.
- Talk about strangers. Not everyone is who they appear to be online. Sexting with someone you know carries some risks, but sexting with a stranger could be something else altogether. Insist that your child not give any personal information to anyone they don’t know.
- Set internet guidelines. Set rules about when your teen can use the internet and what he can do while he’s online. Trustworthy parental controls can help you enforce those rules because you’re able to disable the internet on the device and block specific sites and apps (or entire categories of sites!). You might also let them know from the start that you will be making regular phone checks and social media reviews. All the rules in the world might not prevent your teenager from sexting, but you can eliminate some of the time and temptation by insisting upon no specific app usage or internet after your teen goes to bed, for example.
Like it or not, sexting is a part of life for many teenagers today. Instead of fighting it, let’s learn how we can manage it to keep our kids safe, happy, and healthy. Like many internet issues, it all starts with keeping an open dialogue with your teenager. If parental controls can make it easier, use them. Navigating this ever-changing landscape is challenging enough!