- Sexting in children and teens
- Talking to kids about the dangers of sexting
- What to do if you suspect your child is sexting
If you’re like most parents, your gut reaction to the information we just discussed is to sit your kids down for a long, stern lecture, so that you can put the fear of God into them and help them understand how horribly wrong and devious such behavior is. But while this might make you feel better, it probably isn’t the best approach, for two reasons:
- It goes against developmentally appropriate practices. American parents may be accustomed to sexually oppressive childrearing practices, but reinforcing sexual shame is its own type of psychological abuse. Kids shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of their body, or led to believe that sexuality is especially dangerous. These ideas are more likely to harm them than whatever sexual behavior adults are trying to suppress.
- Such an approach isn’t realistic. The truth is that sexting is common, and the internal and external motivations to engage in sexting are stronger than any admonishments adults could ever give. You can go ahead and be the typical parent and give your child an oppressive lecture about the evils of sexuality and how sexting is a nasty little habit that only sluts engage in. Let me know how that works out after the first instance comes along when an attractive boy your daughter feels she’s in love with is asking for a picture, or when body insecurities are eating her alive inside, and she desperately needs to feel se*y and attractive.
Raechel Moulton, a police detective and one of the many misguided anti-sexting advocates, says that after delivering a long sexting seminar on the dangers of sexting to a group of young students, “One girl told me, ‘What I got from your class is, as long as my head isn’t in the picture, it’s ok.” (Clifford, 2021, p. 84) I don’t think that’s the message she was hoping for, but it illustrates how persistent the inclination to engage in sexting is. Sexting fulfills an important niche in sexual psychology, and adults who hope to stop it outright are swimming against the tide of a tsunami.
You can certainly state your wish and expectation that they refrain from engaging in such activity. You can explain your reservations and talk about the inherent risks involved. But I would also strongly encourage you to discuss ways they can express themselves safely, so that if and when the situation gets the better of them, it doesn’t come back to haunt them later.
How to talk to teens about sexting
Discussions about sexting are best had in informal settings. Rather than sitting your kid down in a quiet room for an uncomfortable heart-to-heart talk, bring up the topic during a car ride, while watching TV, or in some other relaxed situation. Then follow these tips to help the conversation flow more smoothly:
1. The best way to broach this topic is to mention that you were reading an article on the subject or saw something on TV, and it’s an issue you want to discuss with them.
2. Ask if they know about other kids at school who are doing it. Don’t ask if they are doing it, or if their friends are doing it, which puts them on the defensive and shuts down all meaningful conversation. Even if they are, they’re going to lie to you, so it’s a useless inquiry that only raises their wall of defenses. Keep the conversation focused on anonymous others or the phenomenon in general. You can convey every message you want to convey without making it about them.
3. Get their thoughts on the subject. What motivates people to engage in sexting? Does it ever come back to haunt them? The answers they give will not be real; they’ll be in please-parent mode and tell you what they think you want to hear. But it allows a gateway into the things you want to discuss.
4. Be curious and non-judgmental. Watch your tone. Try to adopt the same inquisitive and judgment-free aura you would if you were talking about a new dance that all the kids were doing. Your children are experts at picking up nonverbal cues. If you approach it with a mentality of shame and judgment, they’ll be too busy maintaining defenses to listen to anything you have to say.
After using the aforementioned tips to get the conversation started, try to cover the following topics:
1. Discuss the potential unintended consequences
While you shouldn’t give kids a shame-soaked lecture about how sexting is wrong, you can and should talk to them about the inherent risks in sexting. Don’t assume kids already know what these are. There are 4 main risks you should talk about:
- The picture could get out and end up embarrassing you.
- Someone might trick you into sending a picture to extort or humiliate you.
- It might end up as “revenge porn” if you and your boyfriend/girlfriend have a falling out.
- You might end up in legal trouble.
Be sure to emphasize that it’s not their body or sexuality that’s wrong. It’s how other might exploit this vulnerability that’s the issue. Also don’t oversell any of these dangers. If, heaven forbid, a picture does get out, you don’t want your son or daughter feeling like her life is now over because she’s been shamed beyond redemption. If fact, it beneficial to say something like, “None of these things are the end of the world, and I’m sure you’d get through it, but it’s a hassle you don’t want to deal with.
2. If you feel you must do it, hide you face and other identifying features
Though adults may not like this compromise, the truth is that encouraging youth to hide their face, as well as other identifying features in the background, eliminates many of the dangers that come from sexting. It gives them plausible deniability if one of the pictures does get out: they can always tell their peers it isn’t them. It all-but eliminates the t*reat of l*gal trouble. and it makes it much harder for someone to use a picture to extort or humiliate them. If there’s no way to verify precisely who’s in the picture, then your child can’t be shamed to nearly the same degree, if at all.
So tell them: Crop out your head, hide your face, use a wig, or otherwise disguise your identity. By the same token, take the picture against a white wall or use a generic sheet as a backdrop so there is nothing else to identify you.
3) Sexy doesn’t have to mean nude
You can achieve the effect of erotic and sexy without having to take off all your clothes. You don’t need to be butt-ass n*ked and spread eagle in order to elicit desire. In fact, pictures that tease can often be every bit as provocative as those that are more revealing. So if you’re inclined to do it, go for s*xy, but leave some of the mystery.
4) Beware of catfishing ploys
Kids should understand that catfishing and bullying are prevalent things. So beware of those who ask you for a picture or seem especially persistent in getting you to send one, especially if they are a contact you only know online. When someone seems too obsessed with getting you to sext them, it’s likely they have ulterior motives in mind.
5) Respect the dignity of others
The other side of the se*ting phenomenon is that kids will often be exposed to pictures of their classmates. Boys are especially likely to pass around pictures of their female peers, and chances are your daughter will also be exposed to pictures that are being used to tease or gossip about another girl (or boy). Body shaming over leaked pictures is especially prevalent (and especially hurtful).
Remind them how they would want to be treated in such a situation, and that you expect them to act accordingly. No body shaming or bullying others, and never share a picture that was entrusted to you in privacy. Also remind them that they could be prosec*ted for distributing ‘child po*ography’ for sending such pictures, eve if they aren’t the original source.
6) They can come to you
Finally, let them know that they can come to you if they ever have a problem, and you won’t judge them for it. Though you want them to conduct themselves in a way that avoids these problems in the first place, you also understand that kids will be kids, and you’d rather they come to you for help than stay stuck in a miserable situation.