Teenage Sexting: How to Respond?

Teenage sexting dominates media headlines, but like any hot issue making a big splash in the news, is sexting really happening and is it really a big deal? There is a huge range in the research because the data depends upon how you define and measure sexting. In one recent study, about 12% of teens had sent a sext while 19% reported receiving one. This means that the vast majority of young people do not engage in sexting. It also means that enough teens are negotiating these dynamics that we can’t afford to avoid the conversation either. Young people are growing up in a world where they are negotiating many issues – from identity to make-ups and break-ups – online. It is clear that cell phones are the new epicenters of young people’s social and emotional lives. Our understanding of and response to teenage sexting should not be driven by fears of “teens gone wild,” but our evolving understanding of adolescent development in the digital age.

Teenager looking at cell phone.

Teens need us to talk to them about sexuality and consent

Young people’s brains are also wired to be thinking about sex and sexuality – this is a normal part of their development. Yet this doesn’t mean that teenagers have good resources for understanding what a healthy relationship looks like. “Pressure from a partner” is one of the main reasons that young people report sexting. This indicates that we need to have conversations not only about not sending a sext but not asking for one as well. Yet few are having good conversations with parents or other caring adults about sex, sexual decision-making, and health and many high schools lack comprehensive sex education. In lieu of these important resources, too many turn to the Internet, Hollywood, or their peers for guidance on sexual relationships. Finally, teen brains are still undergoing development. While their brains are “under construction” many young people struggle with impulse control, the ability to weigh consequences, and erratic shifts in mood.

Once we connect all of these dots it is not surprising that teens are engaging in sexting. ‘Sexting’ is the 21st century digital manifestation adolescent sexual exploration.

Just because teenage sexting is understandable though does not make it any less concerning. The aftermath of sexting can be devastating. I spoke with a young woman last week whose “sext,” originally intended for her boyfriend’s eyes only, made its way onto a public Web site for the whole world to see. Before she knew it, an image of her body was the center of a high profile police investigation on the possession and distribution of child pornography. In some states, sexting is considered a felony while in others it is a misdemeanor. In any state, sexting can have life altering consequences legally and emotionally.

Now that we’ve connected some of the dots, what does this mean for us as parents? While it may be tempting to simply throw out our kids’ cell phones, this strategy alone isn’t much help. Yes – let’s address the tech side of this issue by monitoring young people’s media use and setting clear limits and consequences about online and cell phone behavior. But let’s couple this with important conversations we need to have with our kids about sex, relationships, respect, and sexual health.

Tips for talking to your teen about sexting:

  • Ask your child if they have ever asked for, received or seen a sext. Is it common at their school? Do they think it is a big deal? Why or why not?
  • Set clear expectations and consequences for online behavior. Include expectations about both posting, forwarding/sharing sexts, and pressuring others to send a sext.
  • Remind your child that you are happy to be the “out” of an uncomfortable situation for them – “I can’t do that, my parents would kill me if they found out! And they always find out!”
  • Discuss alternative, healthy ways to show a significant other that they care about them.
  • Talk through strategies for resisting pressure to send a sext.
  • Don’t duck the hard conversations (note plural). Talk to your kids regularly about sex, sexual risks, sexuality, and decision-making.
  • Discuss ways to communicate with their significant other about expectations, pressure, and consent.
  • Make sure that your teen knows that they have have multiple caring and trustworthy adults they can go to if they need to talk.
  • Model healthy appropriate behavior. Adults engage in sexting more than teenagers do!