Having “The Talk” has never been easy. Conversations about sexual relationships have plagued parents for generations, and with all the technologies available now, it’s even more difficult in some ways.
One of the main things to consider in today’s rapidly changing landscape is sexting. Sexting—the practice of exchanging sexually explicit messages, images, or videos—has been on the rise over the past decade. Recent data show that over a quarter of youth under 18 have received a sext, and about one in seven has sent one. The increase in sexting correlates to the increasing availability of cell phones. With 92 percent of teenagers owning a cell phone, it’s a problem that needs addressing.
Filtering software and monitored use can help tremendously, but talking about sexting can go a long way towards helping your child(ren) stay safe. If you’re looking for a place to start, here are a few ways to talk about sexting.
The most important thing when it comes to talking about sexting is starting the conversation before it happens. By the time a child starts sexting, their safety is already compromised. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends bringing up sexting when your child(ren) are old enough to have a cell phone. They say starting with “Have you heard of sexting?” is a good place to start with older children. With younger children, make sure they know they should never send or receive content that involves people without clothes on, or kissing or touching in ways they don’t recognize.
A key message to emphasize is that once a sext is sent, it’s out there forever. It only takes a second to make a decision that could last a lifetime. Make sure your child(ren) knows that even if they trust the person they’re sending a sext to, they can never guarantee that person won’t share it, and that they could even be hacked or otherwise compromised. There’s no such thing as “safe sexting.”
Knowing more about the platforms used for sexting can make talking about it easier. If your child(ren) are active on a certain platform like Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram, consider getting an account to familiarize yourself with it. Discuss your usage regularly to create an atmosphere in which your family’s social media habits are open for discussion.
As with a lot of other risky behavior, sexting is often the result of peer pressure. Sometimes, the pressure might be direct—someone in your child(ren)’s life pressuring them to share or receive content—while other times the pressure can be more subtle—like when sexting is so normalized a child thinks it’s expected of them. Make sure to talk about the reality of peer pressure with your child(ren): that anyone who pressures them is not a good friend, and not everyone is sexting, even if it might seem like it.
It’s not just important to discuss the sending of sexts with your child(ren); It’s also important to discuss the receiving of sexts. More youth actually receive sexts than send them. The key thing to communicate about receiving sexts is the importance of “deleting not repeating.” Sharing sexually explicit content beyond the person it was intended for can be a form of bullying and harassment. Encourage your child(ren) to do the kind and responsible thing, if and when they receive a sext: delete it immediately.
Last, but certainly not least, make sure to cover the consequences in your discussions about sexting. In fact, you will probably want to cover consequences right off the bat since they can be permanent and severe.
To begin with, sexting can result in embarrassment, lost friendships, and bullying. It’s common for youth who sext to feel anxiety, guilt, and shame. When discussing these consequences, make sure your child(ren) know they can always talk to you before things get out of control.
On a more legal note, when it comes to sexting that involves sharing images of anyone under 18: it is illegal. Creating or sharing images of youth is classified as producing or sharing child pornography, which is punishable by federal law. Make sure your child(ren) know that youth who share images of other youth—even if it’s of themselves!—risk fines, probation, and even incarceration.
The serious consequences of sexting and the increasing accessibility of technology for youth make it more important than ever to start talking about sexting with your child(ren).
If you’re uncomfortable talking about sexting with your children, an excellent place to start is the Common Sense sexting handbook. Their handbook is just one of the resources out there that can help you keep your child(ren) safe when it comes to sexting.