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How to Talk to Your Kids About Sexting

Sexting is a relationship, identity, and body image issue.

Key points

  • Sexting is common among teens, with research suggesting the majority of youth may sext.
  • Young people understand the risks associated with sexting but may also see benefits.
  • Sexting may provide a "safe" way to explore sexuality, boundaries, and consent.
Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

As a parent, I’ve been fairly liberal in letting my kids use technology. When they were in their early teens, I did monitor their use somewhat, but now that they are nearly adults, I hardly think about their technology use. Yes, they are on their phones too much, but we all are.

One thing I’ve never been liberal about is the possibility of them sexting. I’ve had no problem telling my kids that I thought this was a bad idea and that they should basically never send any sort of risqué picture to anyone—ever. (And they should never request anyone send anything to them, either.)

It turns out that sexting may be a more complicated topic than I realized. In fact, telling a teen to never sext may be analogous to telling them to never have sex or never drink alcohol. In one recent study, over 70% of 18- to 25-year-olds had ever sent a sext. In other words, the odds of one of these risk behaviors never happening during our kids’ teen years are low, so whereas we don’t need to condone these behaviors, it’s probably wise to address them with care and nuance.

(For comparison, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 65% of 18-year-olds have ever had sex and 93% of 25-year-olds have. According to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 14% of 16- to 17-year-olds have used alcohol in the past month.)

I suppose it’s important to consider what parents likely find so problematic about the prospect of our kids sexting. Is it our teens becoming sexual beings? Is it young people’s inability to know when to keep something private? Is it the possibility of a nude image of our kid being passed around to anyone and everyone? If you’re like me, you worry about all of these things to varying degrees.

I spoke with Devorah Heitner, author of the new book, Growing Up in Public, about how to approach the topic of sexting with our teens. She recommends a harm-reduction approach because, “Sexting can be one way that teens explore their sexuality; it comes with risks just as physical, sexual intimacy does but is not necessarily problematic when consensual and private.” A recent study found sexting to be a precursor to having sex, but what the authors fail to mention is that their study design can’t prove that sending a sext is going to lead to any given teen actually having sex. In fact, according to Heitner, because sexting is so commonplace, it can provide a context for practicing consent. Teens can learn to set boundaries, to advocate for themselves, and to explore who they want to connect with in an intimate way.

Heitner also warned that scare tactics are unlikely to work in deterring sexting because teens know the risks associated with sexting. They still will have crushes, want to be liked and admired, want their appearance validated, and are curious about sex. Teens may behave impulsively, but they are often weighing the perceived risks against the benefits of sexting; it’s not a lack of understanding driving their behavior.

One of the primary motives for sexting is teens’ need for approval. As kids start to explore romantic relationships, they want to have a (potential) partner tell them they’re attractive. Kids know that their parents are biased and their compliments will never go as far or keep them from seeking this external validation. However, parents can explain to their teens that this is not necessarily a safe approach to securing that validation we all desire. Further, Heitner suggests that, “The better kids feel about themselves, the easier it is for them to enforce boundaries with others and insist they are treated with respect and they treat others with respect as well.”

Of course, sexting is a gendered issue in that girls are often slut-shamed if they share a nude picture and others find out; boys share a nude picture and the response is more likely to be laughter or a “boys will be boys” response. In one study of over 5,500 participants in the U.S., nearly half of men admitted to having sent a “dick pic,” with women reporting that about half the time when they receive these sorts of pictures, they are unsolicited. Other research suggests—shocker—that men who send unsolicited "dick pics" tend to be both more narcissistic and sexist than those who don’t. I know of no campaigns in the works to combat this behavior among boys and men. In contrast, girls and women have been punished for having bodies and revealing their bodies—while simultaneously encouraged to share their bodies—since the beginning time. Related is the somewhat greater likelihood for girls and women to be dissatisfied with their bodies.

Heitner/used w permission
Source: Heitner/used w permission

A recent study of nearly 1,000 young adults suggests that body dissatisfaction is related to the likelihood of ever sexting, feeling pressure to send a sext, and sending a sext as a result of pressure. In this study, young women were more likely to engage in all of these sexting behaviors than men. The study’s authors point out that their analyses do not suggest that women are unaware of the double standard pertaining to sexting, just that the negative potential consequences of sexting became less significant when they perceived benefits. It appears that choosing not to sext can require what they refer to as “sexting agency” or an ability to conduct oneself in digital spaces that requires a secure sense of self and the establishment of personal boundaries.

When I went in search of my own teens in the hopes of approaching the topic of sexting with more curiosity and less judgment—and to instill some sexting agency—I was met with the sort of confusion and disinterest that often accompanies these types of conversations. As in, “Mom, do we really have to talk about this? I already know all of this.” I’m embarrassed to admit that their unwillingness to engage in conversation with me about sexting led me to my former refrain of, “Well, it’s probably best if you just don’t do it.” But, it’s a start. At least I’ve raised the issue and reminded them that there are other options for flirting, seeking validation, and boosting their body image than sexting.

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