Sexting is a common enough term for the Oxford English Dictionary to officially add it to the lexicon. It’s defined as the act of sending a sexually explicit or suggestive digital photo or message, usually from one phone to another.
Sexting is a growing problem among teenagers, and one that is obviously fraught with risk. Apps like Snapchat only further this trend with the ability to send risque photos that self-destruct. Naturally, parents should be concerned and make an effort to educate or talk to their child about the inherent issues.
But how do you broach the subject? What information should a parent convey to their kid? Here’s the best advice from experts.
Learn the Apps
Before you talk to your child, you need to do a bit of homework. It might sound tedious, but parents and teens don’t understand each other’s Internets. By learning the apps kids use, it gives you credibility and will ensure that your kid doesn’t think they can pull a fast one on you.
“An overwhelmed and tech-anxious parent may want to avoid the Internet all together, figuring ‘what I don’t know won’t hurt me,’ but given the risks associated with constantly plugged-in teens, this is a dangerous position. These days, knowledge and support from tech savvy parents is power,” writes clinical psychologist Rachel Busman of the Child Mind Institute.
To begin, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that you download the apps your child doesn’t want you to know about. For sexting, Snapchat and Kik seem to be the most popular. Through the above article and a little bit of research, you’ll be able to figure out the right apps you should know about. Get familiar with the apps so that when you talk to your kid, they know you are using the same app.
We have a few tools to guide Snapchat beginners, and you’ll be able to get started with most of these apps easily.
Learn the Law
Child pornography is an unfortunate problem of the Internet, and sexting with minors is a criminal offense. Most countries across the world have laws in place that protect minors from sexually explicit content, so use Google search operators to find your country’s laws.
In the US, laws can vary by state. Mobile Media Guard has put together an interactive map of sexting laws, where you can hover over any state to see its laws. The site also explains civil liability for parents, as well as other useful information.
For a detailed explanation and comparison of state laws, check out CyberBullying.org’s PDF Guide to State Sexting Laws. A table compares the laws across states, while each state’s individual laws are written in full and cited with official sources.
How to Start a Conversation
Like with anything else, the most difficult step is starting. How you begin the conversation and the level of comfort you provide will set the tone for how freely your child will talk to you about sexting right now or in the future.
“Prepare yourself to talk about sex, intimacy, sexual intimacy, respect for yourself and for others, personal privacy, internet privacy, and dignity (an old fashioned concept that seems to get little attention these days),” writes Dr. James Wellborn, adolescent and family therapist, and author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century.
Dr. Busman advises having this talk before an incident occurs, rather than waiting for an incident to provide a segue into the conversation.
Once you sit your kid down, first understand how much they know about the concept. The AAP recommends questions like “Have you heard of sexting?” and “Tell me what you think it is.”
Encourage your kids to talk, don’t interrupt them, and make an effort not to judge them. “Hard as it may be, you want your tone to be open and concerned—not angry and blaming, or shocked and horrified,” Busman says.
No Exaggerations, No Anger
The clearer the communication at the start, the more your child will trust you to handle what they want to really say. To build that trust, you need to be honest and open, and not stand in judgement of them for whatever they say.
- It’s not the end of the world: Your child will probably fear your reaction, so put them at ease. Don’t get angry or resort to name-calling. This talk is a part of your child’s growth, so treat it as that. Making it seem like a life-or-death matter will only double their fear of approaching you about such topics in the future.
- Don’t exaggerate the dangers: Next, talk to them about the apps you have used and a brief overview of the laws. Stick to the facts you know. “They will know or find out if you are trying to scare them by making up stuff or distorting information. The facts are scary enough. Talk frankly with them about the risks and problems with sexting,” advises Dr. Wellborn.
- Share the Sexting Handbook: Common Sense Media, famous for telling parents which movies are age-appropriate for children, has created a guide for teens, which addresses most of their queries and propagates good practices. In case you think your child would respond better to a book than talking with you in detail about this topic, share The Sexting Handbook (PDF).
Gender Appropriate, Age Appropriate
Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, a.k.a. MediaSmarts, says their research shows that boys are just as likely to send sexts as girls. Parents shouldn’t just talk to their daughters, but sons as well. Here’s a pertinent excerpt:
Talk about gender roles: Explain how girls and boys may feel they have to act in certain ways because of established gender roles. For example, boys may feel pressured by friends prove their masculinity by sharing sexual photos that their partners have sent them.
Just like gender, you need to tailor your message according to your kid’s age. The AAP recommends:
- For younger children who don’t yet know about sex: Alert them that text messages should never contain pictures of people—kids or adults—without their clothes on, kissing or touching each other in ways that they’ve never seen before.
- For older children who already know about sex: Use the term “sexting” and give more specifics about sex acts they may know about. Make it clear that it’s considered child pornography, even if both parties consent.
For older children, Dr. Wellborn also recommends being positive about sex in your approach. Given the sexualized content they are bound to see around them, your children will have questions about various subjects. Make sure you differentiate between the risks of sexting and the positivity of a mature and intimate relationship.
“If all you do is talk about how horrible sexting (and sex) is and how bad they are for doing this, you will lose a crucial opportunity to help your kid start to figure out how to handle this crazy sexualized culture that surrounds them,” Wellborn says.
Deal with Peer Pressure
Sexting, more often than not, has its roots in peer pressure. A recent study by Michigan State University found that one in four children (aged 12 to 16) felt pressured by friends online to talk about sex. Several other studies back this up.
But sexting is not that prevalent. MediaSmarts’ research shows that fewer than one in 10 students with a phone said they had sent a sext. Another study found that 4% of adolescents said they have sent a sext, while 15% acknowledged receiving a sext either directly or when shared by a friend.
MediaSmarts says the first step to dealing with peer pressure is to talk about how uncommon sexting is. Break the “everybody is doing it” myth with facts and statistics to make them understand how rare it is.
Also discuss the value of free thinking and their choice to say no. It’s important to build your child’s self-esteem, especially around body issues at that awkward adolescent age, and teach them to have a healthy self-image.
Discuss the Permanent Record
Armed with the knowledge of the laws you read up on, make it clear that underage sexting constitutes child pornography, and then discuss the laws you read up on. If possible, go through the laws together and explain whatever your child can’t understand.
Explain to them that nothing gets deleted from the Internet, ever. Any photo or video they send electronically will probably be stored on some server somewhere, and can come back later to haunt them. A youthful discretion might cost them a college placement or a job in the future.
“If schools or prospective employers come across sexually explicit images of an applicant, see that the applicant was involved in the distribution of a naked photo of another teen, or the applicant was arrested, or charged with a misdemeanor or worse a felony, then chances are the applicant is not going to be accepted or offered the job regardless of the applicant’s grades, or qualifications,” says Mobile Media Guard. “The pictures show a lapse of judgement and the last thing a school wants or employer wants to see in an applicant is bad judgement.”
Guidelines for Your Children
It’s debatable whether you should snoop on your kids or not, so start with an open approach. While your children are under 18, all of the aforementioned experts advise a policy where you use the same apps and social networks, and your child has to add you on each network, so that you can monitor their usage. They will resist, but don’t make it an option and help them understand it isn’t a trust issue, but a safety issue.
In case they ever think of sexting or sharing a received sext, tell them to ask themselves MediaSmarts’ questions:
- Is this how I want people to see me?
- Could somebody use this to hurt me? Would I be upset if they shared it with others?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen if I shared this?
- How would I feel if somebody shared something like this with me in it?
Ask them to consider the recipient’s reaction. While they might want to send or share a sext out of peer pressure, to seek validation, or to attract attention, they may not get the desired reaction.
“The person who gets the sext can misunderstand why you are sending it,” says Dr. Wellborn. “They can actually think that you must not care much about whether other people see you naked since you sent it over the Internet. They may wonder if you send these to just anyone. It may start to seem less personal. They may think you are the kind of person who does sexual things with whoever.”
End with a Choice for Help
This entire conversation will hopefully make your child trust you more with the issue of sexting in the future, and understand that they can talk to you about it. But teenagers, eh? Just to be on the safe side, you should ensure they can turn to someone trustworthy for help if they don’t want to tell you.
Let them know they can go to Love Is Respect for counselling through calls, texts, or online chats. Research for child counselling helplines in your own area, like Kids Helpline in Australia or ChildLine in the UK. And just to be doubly sure, laminate that contact card and stick it on their desk.
So, now all that’s left is for us to ask you about your best strategies to deal with this universal problem? Have you ever had to confront your child with an uncomfortable conversation? What more can a parent do?
Image Credits:Mother giving warning to young boy by goodluz via Shutterstock