How to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting

In 2009, it is estimated that 1 in 5 teens and tweens will send a sexually explicit text message via a mobile phone. This phenomenon is called “sexting” (an amalgam of “sex” and “texting”) and, as studies and the talk show circuit have recently pointed out, it is becoming a pandemic among young people.

Why sexting? Why now? First of all, the “sexting” generation grew up in a world where the internet had always been around, where instant gratification is a way of life, and where the dangers of sending sexually explicit messages and images have been sanitized by the distance. After all, how can typing on a small electronic device hurt me, teens and tweens might ask.

But a cell phone is such a personal item. As a parent, you may wonder how, besides trusting your child’s sense of propriety and responsibility, you can recognize the signs of sexting and prevent this destructive and potentially extremely dangerous behavior.

First, you can watch for the signs:

1.) Texting while alone or in the dark – Parents are generally able to spot guilty behavior. If you see your child attempting to text while alone or staying up after everyone else is in bed to text, you may have a problem.
2.) Texting for long periods of time – Some teens text like crazy, but if you notice your child spending an inordinate amount of time with the phone, check up on the situation.
3.) Changes in behavior – For some teens and tweens, sexting could be their first encounter with explicitly sexual imagery or behavior. In that case, they may show signs of discomfort or changes in normal behavior.

Even if you haven’t noticed any warning signs, keep lines of communication open to nip sexting in the bud. Possible conversation starters include:

1.) “Have you ever received a sexual picture or message on your cell phone?”
2.) “Do you think its okay to send sexy messages on your phone? Why?”
3.) “Has anybody ever pressured you to send a sexy message or picture on your phone?”
4.) “What consequences could occur if you were to send or forward a sexually explicit message or picture on your phone?”
5.) “How likely is it that cell phone messages intended for one person will remain private? How likely is it that they will be seen by other, unintended, recipients?”

The fact is that many teens and tweens do not understand the consequences of sending sexually explicit messages or images. They may not understand that electronic images are forever, or that the people they trust with their messages and images may not be equally trustworthy. They also may not understand the social and personal consequences of sexting. Teens found engaging in indecent behavior can lose scholarships, sports team membership, and face humiliation. Sexually explicit pictures can also follow them throughout their lives. A teen who fully understands these consequences will be less likely to engage in risky sexting behavior.

When talking to your teens and tweens about sexting, bring up the following consequences:

1.) Sending sexual images, even forwards, can get you in trouble with the law – Some teens have been prosecuted and forced to register as lifelong sex offenders due to sexting incidents.
2.) Anybody could see a sexually explicit picture or message, deliberately or by mistake – Mention parents, teachers, friends at school, and enemies. Teens and tweens will think twice about sending a picture that might fall into the wrong hands
3.) Sexting can hurt others – Forwarding sexually explicit materials can hurt others, causing them humiliation or other negative social consequences. Explain that many sexually explicit pictures result from exploitation and encourage your child to report any sexually explicit images or messages they receive

Have you ever found out about a sexting incident involving your teen or tween? How did you respond? Do you have any tips for parents who want to prevent sexting or believe that sexting might already be going on? I’d appreciate hearing from you in the comments.