“What If?” … talking to your kids about sexting

Research published this month in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics reports that the percentage of pre-teens and teens who have sent a sext has been increasing in recent years–which is not surprising since sexts happen much more over cell phones than other types of screens.

The research, which comes from 39 combined studies, shows that almost 15 percent of teens report having sent explicit images of themselves and just about a third of them receive them. The research also found that 12 percent of teens have forwarded a sext without consent.

Now that digital devices are a larger part of our teen’s activities, it’s not surprising to see them experimenting more with sexts than ever before. It is natural for them to seek attention and to be intrigued by bodies and sexuality. With all this exploratory sexual behavior, there are risks – and parents, like me, often find ourselves asking “What if?”

“What if their picture is shared without consent? What if their picture ends up in the wrong hands or the authorities find out?” These are questions we want our kids to ask themselves when presented with the decision to sext.

Sending naked pictures of children is considered child pornography. It is illegal, even when the photos are sent with consent. Dr. Elizabeth Englander, a researcher who examines digital behaviors, points out, however, that emphasizing the legal consequences to kids may not be the most effective strategy to prevent sexting. "Most kids have friends who have sexted but legal consequences are so rare that it's likely this will strike them as a scare tactic. Instead, parents can emphasize that kids who send these photos often regret it, feeling scared, depressed or even traumatized. That's more likely to ring a bell and feel truthful to them."

For this TTT, bring up the subject of risky image sharing online. For younger teens, let them know that they should never send naked pictures of themselves. For older kids, help them understand the consequences of such behavior. Here are some questions to help the conversation get started.

  • Do you know anyone who has sent revealing pictures of themselves?
  • What level of revealing seems appropriate vs. inappropriate?
  • Why do you think someone would want to send photos that reveal a lot of skin? What about very suggestive photos?
  • What should you do if you receive a sext type of photo from someone?
  • What should you do if someone asks you to send a sext type of photo of yourself?