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Have you had the “sexting” talk with your teen?

September 07, 2012

“Sexting” has probably turned up on one of those lists of new words for 2011 or 2012.  Since I work with young people and have a 20-year-old son, I try to keep up but the first time I heard this word, I did a double-take—sexting?!  However, in just the past couple of years I’ve heard a lot more and what I’ve learned kind of scares me.

“Sexting” is defined as sexually explicit content, primarily photos or videos, sent over the internet.  It usually refers to material sent via cell phone or IM (instant messaging).

When I think of the internet, I think of a lack of privacy. I think that whatever you put on the internet, you may as well put on a billboard. When my son thinks of the internet, he thinks of it as a way to keep up with his friends, see funny videos or hear new music on YouTube, and a great way to shop or learn how to do anything from repairing his car to cutting his own hair. He socializes on the internet and sends files or links to friends. I use the internet primarily for work or to look for a bed and breakfast or a recipe. I can forward an e-mail but that’s about it. Our different views create a dilemma that seems to keep growing and growing.

A recent study from the University of Michigan explored the impact of sexting and sexual behavior among youth ages 18-24. The study, “Sexting Among Young Adults” determined that young adults who sext as a part of dating did not engage in riskier sexual behaviors and did not report more depression, anxiety or low self-esteem than youth who didn’t engage in sexting. The study suggests that youth in this age group have grown up with electronic media and they see exchanging sexual content via electronic devices as an acceptable extension of flirting and dating.

While one could debate the maturity of the age group in the University of Michigan study, sexting among youth under age 18 is a very different issue. Multiple states, including Florida, have recently passed laws addressing sexting by teens and pre-teens. Sending sexually explicit or suggestive pictures of anyone under age 18 is a criminal offense under child pornography laws. As such, youth who have sent or received pictures of themselves or boyfriends/girlfriends have been charged with felony crimes and have in some cases become registered sex offenders. This designation can negatively impact college admission, employment and enlistment in the military not to mention a person’s general reputation in a community.

When adults are concerned about something our kids are doing, we often focus on warning them about the negative consequences of their behavior. Our messages are things like “Don’t drink and drive because you can get hurt, you can hurt someone else or you can get arrested and lose your driver’s license.”  But developmentally, teens are learning to question what they’ve been told. So when we say don’t drink and drive because of the consequences, they think about all the friends they know who have driven after drinking and not suffered any of those consequences.

Another developmental characteristic of adolescence is feeling indestructible. Teens really believe that a bad consequence just won’t happen to them. So while we are telling the truth when we say that you lose control of an explicit image once you send it to a girlfriend or boyfriend, our teens think that they know that boyfriend or girlfriend well and they don’t believe that person would do something to hurt them. Unfortunately, they also know other kids who have sent pictures and not had anything bad happen…yet.

But is fear of negative consequences the best way to influence a young person’s behavior? Research says it is not. Multiple studies have shown that children and youth continue to be influenced by their parents’ beliefs much longer than their loud sighs make us think. They are listening to what we say even as they roll their eyes. It’s very important to share your family’s values with your kids and to keep sharing those values in conversations about all kinds of topics.

What should a parent do about sexting?

Talk a little, then listen, listen, and listen some more. Ask your children what they know about sexting. Ask if any of their friends sext and ask how it has turned out.  Use articles or news stories as a way to begin the discussion. Ask them to explain to you how information travels over the internet. This is a great way to assess if they have an accurate picture of potential risks. Ask your kids if they know anyone who has lied about an “ex” once the relationship ended. This can lead to a discussion about rumors and what people do in anger. It then leads to an opportunity to discuss how the internet can play into these strong emotions. Ask your kids if they know if they have an “internet reputation.” Google their name and see if anything comes up. Google your own name—you may want to take this step on your own first so you’ll know what will come up!

Another way parents can help their kids is to practice what counselors call “refusal skills.” Some of the worst outcomes in sexting situations came as a result of a teen being pressured or harassed into sending a picture of themselves to someone else in an effort to please that person, try to get that person to be romantically interested or, in some cases, just to get the person to stop asking. One magazine article on sexting talked about a girl who received over 50 messages in less than an hour from a boy begging her to send a picture. She eventually sent it to get him to stop asking and then she faced criminal charges as a result. The same refusal skills you help your child develop to avoid sexting can help them say no to substance use, bullying and other risky behaviors.

Refusal skills include helping kids see that they have a right to choose the behaviors they believe are right for them. Helping kids learn to say things like “No, I don’t do that kind of thing,” “I don’t like to be pressured,” “If you were really my friend, you wouldn’t ask me to do something I don’t want to do,” and other assertive messages gives them confidence in their own ability to resist pressure. It really does help to have your kid practice saying the actual words.

Tell your kids what to do if they receive a sext or a request to send one—1.  Don’t respond;  2.  Don’t pass it on and 3. Tell a trusted adult right away. It’s helpful to discuss who your kids can go to if they run across a situation they don’t want to share with you right away.

There is literally no such think as safe sexting. An image sent over the internet can end up being forwarded over and over again. Some employers really do look at social networking sites when they make hiring decisions. Colleges sometimes look at Facebook and other sites as part of their admissions process. And in this political season, I can only imagine what we might see on negative TV ads today if the internet had been around during the poor-judgment-years of candidates now running for office!

While we know the risks are true, we need to guide our teens towards that understanding by listening and then talking. It’s our job to help them develop their own ability to assess risk. Resist your inner urge to lecture and start a dialogue that allows your teen to think things through with your guidance. My son sometimes complains that I “talk like a therapist.” However, when he had a friend who was wrestling with a dilemma and I overheard him say, “You should talk to my Mom; she’s a great listener,” it was music to my ears!