Is Your Teen Sexting?
Sending sexual images and messages is increasingly common among teens and tweens. What can parents do about it?
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What to do if You Discover Your Teen is Sexting
First of all, don’t panic. “It’s really important to remember that these behaviors don’t mean your child is disturbed, depressed, or has poor self-esteem,” Dr. Englander says. “By age nineteen or twenty, about half of kids will have engaged in sexting. It’s not something that is done by a small, deeply disturbed group of kids.”
She does, however, note that sexting varies with age. “Younger kids are usually compelled by negative pressures, such as people making fun of them or threatening them if they don’t do it. For kids over 14, it’s less about pressure and more likely to involve someone they are dating, sexually active with, or someone ‘nicely’ asking for a photo.”
Talk to Your Kids About Sexting
The biggest concern, Dr. Englander says, are the circumstances that lead kids to sext. She suggests parents ask: “‘Are people pressuring you to do this? Do you feel like you’re going to get something out of this? Can you tell me what’s going on with you and this person? Who are they (maybe you know them)?’ Listen to them and make sure they understand the risks.”
Stephen Balkam, founder of Family Online Safety Institute, says “the number one step [in good digital parenting] is to talk early, talk often about how to stay safe online, including what to send, what not to send to friends, to relatives, and particularly what not to send to strangers…it’s a difficult and awkward conversation but one that has to happen.”
Kids are using smart phones at increasingly younger ages. “These incredibly powerful devices are finding their way into the hands and pockets of elementary school kids, never mind middle school, so the conversations that go with those powerful devices have to happen at an earlier and earlier age,” he says.
Balkam cautions against a cookie-cutter approach and recognizes that values vary from family to family. Conversations about safe sexting are similar to conversations about safe sex. “Only, only send an image to someone you know and that you trust. Do not show your face or any other obvious physical mark, like a tattoo…and that’s ONLY if they’re in a family that would be okay with that.”
Yaelle Yoran, LMSW, a trauma therapist and a Brooklyn mom, sees kids who would have benefited from parental talks about sexting. Many of them were wounded by the process and believed at the time that they were merely flirting by sending “cute” pictures. These kids need to understand that this isn’t a normal romantic process, she says. Sexting can, in fact, contaminate the concept of love and intimacy—which should come first in a healthy relationship. Not the other way around.
*Names and location changed for privacy