How to Talk to Your Kids About Sexting

Feb 11, 2019

Teen girl smiling and using smartphone in bed

Talking to your kids about sexting can feel awkward for all involved but it’s an important conversation to have especially since teen sexting is on the rise. According to a JAMA Pediatrics 2018 study, 15% of teens have sent a sext and 27% have received one; aside from the obvious dangers in sexting, these stats further emphasize the significance of talking about sexting with your kids.

Why You Should Talk About Sexting Online

“Sexting sounds harmless; after all, they are not doing ‘it’” says many parents. Actually, sexting is a form of “it” – the electronic sending and receiving of photos and videos that are sexually suggestive or explicit which often contain nudity, sex acts, texted sexual messages, or sexting emojis.

Sexting online often starts as a solicited request from one teen to another, containing promises of privacy, true love, or popularity. Instead, many teens find that the content becomes public, love is equated with sexual activity, and popularity comes at the teen’s expense.

Not only can kids be subject to heartbreak, humiliation, and cyberbullying from their peers, but there are also some very serious legal repercussions that can result from teen sexting. Numerous states have enacted and are proposing sexting laws for minors to prevent sexting conversations and media. In many cases minors can be charged with child pornography or risk having to register as a sex offender. Parents who know that a child might be sexting and do nothing may be at risk of their own legal issues and having their child removed from their home.

Learn more about the long term consequences of sexting.

How to Talk About Teen Sexting

Talking with your teens about sexting can be a tricky conversation. The goal is to create an environment where teens feel they can be open with you about sexting but also make them aware of the serious consequences that can be a result.

Trying to reason with an adolescent can feel like a losing battle for most parents on many issues. Teens feel invincible, act impulsively, and are craving attention but they can be dangerously in denial of real consequences, often experiencing a questioning parent as a nag assuring them that they “don’t need to worry about it.”

In reality, you do need to worry about it and these are some ways to address sexting in a way your teen might actually hear:

  1. Ask What They Think

    Before jumping into a conversation about what you think about sexting, ask them if they’ve heard of it and what they think about it. After the eye-rolling and one syllable utterance, you might get some kind of response and if you’re lucky, they’ll talk openly about it, letting you know what they know. It’s sometimes helpful if parents “play dumb” and let the child educate you on something in their life.

    Use empathy in your response before jumping into a cautionary lecture. Saying something like “wow, that sounds like somebody’s feelings could get hurt. What happens if someone else sees it?” or “I’ll bet it would feel really humiliating if someone sent something very private about you to someone else” can begin to make your child aware of some of the bad things that can happen as a result.

  2. Create an Open Door

    Sadly, there are many examples in the media where images and videos went viral only to ruin a career, a relationship, or a reputation and these stories can be a great opportunity to talk with your teen about sexting.

    Wonder out loud with them about what would possess someone to take a picture of their private parts and send it. Wonder what kind of hollow promises were offered by the person soliciting the picture and how sad it is that people think that this is what a relationship is all about.

    Talk about safety in relationships and discuss how you and your family work to develop trust with each other— what topics get discussed in front of company and what things need to be saved for private times. Then connect it back to the examples you’ve been hearing in the media and maybe even from other parents.

  3. Stay Connected and Informed

    Schools typically discuss the problem of sexting in connection with cyberbullying. Teens who sext often feel mocked, coerced, or solicited— bullied into the behavior and bullied because of the behavior. Take advantage of any parent and school meetings around these subjects and use the information at home to broach a conversation.

    Schools will often bring up incidents where students have been caught sending inappropriate information from inappropriate circumstances and gatherings. This is a great time to reach out and talk to other parents about how they encourage their teens to learn social media etiquette.

  4. Help Them Create Healthy Boundaries

    There are opportune times to discuss boundaries— putting some distance between them and everything else. When they are small, we teach them about closing the door when they use the bathroom, we talk about good touching, bad touching and “stranger danger.” When they begin to grow up we help with things like appropriate content on TV, bedtimes, and how much money to spend on things they want. We teach them about looking both ways when they cross the street and putting on their seatbelt.

    And when they approach puberty, we talk about changes in their body, relationships, and sexuality— teaching them about risks and how to avoid them. Talking with your kids about sexting is another important facet of these conversations. Your kids will need to be taught why it isn’t a good idea to engage in sexting and what to do if they feel that someone is pressuring them into it.

    Even if the image, video, or text was only meant for one person, once it's been sent or posted, it's out of their control. It could be seen by lots of people and may very well be impossible to erase from the Internet even after your teen thinks it has been deleted.

  5. Have Small Conversations

    I once had a child tell me that listening to his parents lecture him was like trying to take a drink from a firehose, too much all at once. Frequent conversations in small doses are far more effective that just one long, boring, threatening lecture about not sexting and staying safe on the Internet.

    When cell phone plans change, talk about safety, appropriate use, and texting boundaries. When new relationships develop, talk about respect and spending face to face time with their friends. These small, innocuous conversations can begin laying a good foundation for those healthy boundaries, self-respect, and safety you are trying to instill in them.

    Be curious about what could compel them to offer sexual content or to ask for it. Are they being pressured from friends? Do they feel like they need attention and is that attention healthy?

    Brainstorm how they can resist peer pressure for many kinds of negative activities. Ask about their day, their friends, and their school in a curious and caring way rather than making it feel like an interrogation. Conversations like this should occur throughout kids' lives, not just when problems arise.

Persistence Pays Off

It might be pretty tempting to just shut down your teen’s accounts or to lock up their phones when they come home from school but this can backfire pretty severely. Doing so could end in mistrust and result in your teen hiding more from you than before.

Parental control software can be a very valuable tool that allows you monitor and limit when and what websites or apps your child can access on their computer or mobile devices. Keeping up with what your child is doing online and setting some of your own boundaries with them can set the entire family up for success and safety. Learn about all of the ways that Net Nanny can help keep your family safe.

Before engaging in lengthy lectures and power struggles about sexting that feel more like talking at your child, rather than with them, try some of these tips to help prevent it before it happens. Teach your teens about respect and boundaries and let those values begin with you.

Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD

Dr Charlene Underhill Miller, a psychotherapist in Southern California, working with parents, couples and families. She is a frequent and popular speaker to community groups, a professor, a wife and mother. www.underhillmiller.com