Advice & Features Articles

How to Talk to Your Kids About Sexting

cell phone in hand

By Christy Monson and Heather Boynton; Authors of Stand Up to Sexting as featured in goodLIFEfamilymag.com

Experts estimate that at least 40 percent of teens are involved in sexting in some way. [1]

Wait, so this is an article about . . . sexting?

Absolutely! And if you have kids or work with kids, you probably aren’t all that surprised. According to a recent survey[2], parents now rank sexting among their top-ten parenting concerns—and some years, even higher than smoking, teen pregnancy, or school violence. When we told one parent we were writing a book about sexting, she said, “YES! I’ve been wanting to talk to my daughter about that, but it’s just so hard to talk about. I need this book.”

If that sounds familiar to you, welcome! Whether you’re a parent, teacher, grandparent, faith leader, or mentor, you’re in good company.

Sexting is linked with anxiety, depression, and even teen suicide. [3]

The problem with sexting

Before we go on, let’s get something straight: yes, sexting really is a problem. Experts estimate that at least 40 percent of teens are involved in sexting in some way[4]. Some say that sexting is just innocent sexual exploration by teens. Normal adolescent stuff, right? Unfortunately, wrong. Sexting is fraught with emotional, mental, social, and even legal consequences. Consider these:

  • Sexting is linked with anxiety, depression, and even teen suicide.[5]
  • Sexting reduces security and commitment and increases conflict in relationships.[6]
  • Sexting triggers the same addiction-forming release of dopamine as other addictions like drugs and pornography.[7]
  • Sexting can be illegal and, depending on the state, bring criminal charges of child pornography.
  • Sexting has become a new form of cyberbullying and even blackmail.
  • Sexting can begin as early as twelve years old, according to recent estimates.[8]

Parents now rank sexting among their top-ten parenting concerns—and some years, even higher than smoking, teen pregnancy, or school violence.

Why we need to talk about it with our kids

Simple: because no one is. Thanks to school programs and government initiatives, kids are well-versed in the perils of drugs and alcohol. But sexting? It’s the elephant in the room that everyone—especially parents—are uncomfortable talking about. But it’s precisely us parents and those who work with kids who need to take the lead on such an important topic. That’s what this article will help you do.

Beginning the conversation

When it comes to Internet safety, it’s important to talk early and often. According to one survey, the average age that kids receive their first Internet-enabled smartphone is ten years old.[9] And the average age of first exposure to pornography? Somewhere between eight and eleven years old, by the most common figures. So if you want to wait until your kids are in high school to talk about sexting, you’re too late. We recommend beginning between ages ten and thirteen, depending on your child. Here are some tips to starting the conversation:

  • First, make sure you’re in a comfortable, private place where your child will feel safe to ask questions.
  • Be open, sincere, and honest, and work to make the conversation as comfortable as possible. The more uptight you are about it, the more your child will be, too. Consider watching your body language so you are relaxed and open instead of closed off with folded arms.
  • Express love for your child and confidence in his or her ability to make good choices. Help them understand that your desire to talk with them isn’t because you think they’ll do the wrong thing, but because you want to empower them to do the right thing. “Landon, we’re so proud of you and the good choices you make. Remember when you put your cereal bowl in the sink this morning? That was so helpful to me! You have such a good heart. I wanted to talk to you about something that you might come across. I know you’ll make the right choice, but I don’t want you to be surprised if it comes up.”
  • Be positive. Help them know that their smartphone can be a wonderful tool instead of a source of conflict. “Brooklyn, we’re so excited for your new smartphone. Isn’t it wonderful that you can call us anytime? And I just love the meme you sent me yesterday! That made me laugh so hard. I want to make sure that you’re able to feel safe while you enjoy using your phone. Something you might come across is . . .”
  • Help them know ahead of time that mistakes can happen, and that you’ll be there to help them through with love. The reality is that even the most well-meaning kids (and adults!) don’t make perfect choices. Emphasize often that you’re available to talk anytime, and that no matter what happens, you will help your child through any situation with love and compassion. “And Mark, I want you to know something else. If something does happen—maybe someone sends you a picture or even asks you for one—I want you to know that you can talk to me about it. You might feel embarrassed or worried about what I’ll think, but I want to reassure you that my deepest desire is to help you, especially through the hard, embarrassing things. I’ve got your back.”

Use stories

One of the easiest ways to talk about sexting and the different forms it can take is using stories. Reading stories together allows you and your child to enter a judgment-free zone where, instead of having to discuss your child’s actions directly—which can be uncomfortable or feel judgmental to a child—you can discuss the actions of an unrelated person. We’ve filled our book, Stand Up to Sexting, with many such stories. Here is one that might help you:

  • Story: Vanishing Trick

In Luis’s second-period leadership class, students were asked to compile pictures from the school year to create an end-of-the-year slideshow. As the students talked and shared their pictures, several were busy talking about the new social media app that promised to delete pictures just moments after they posted. While the teacher was busy writing on the board, several of the students sent messages to each other, testing out the new app. Luis sent a selfie to Abby across the room. Carson sent him a picture of Carlos breakdancing at the school dance, and in seconds, the picture was gone. Luis was amazed! He tried to look for the picture, but it seemed to have disappeared.

At lunch, Luis and several kids from his leadership class thought they’d try something a little more daring. Devin, Luis’s best friend, had recently been sent a sext from a girl in his English class in hopes of starting a relationship. Devin quickly posted the picture to the guys in the group, and again, within seconds, the picture seemed to vanish. The boys laughed in disbelief when they saw the picture, but Luis took a screenshot and saved it to his phone before the picture disappeared.

The next day in leadership, each student met with the teacher to share their photo contributions for the slideshow. Luis sat by his teacher, pulled up his photo album, and scrolled through his photos. As he swiped his finger to the right, the nude picture Devin had posted was exposed. Luis and Devin were horrified. Devin didn’t realize anyone had saved the picture. Luis’s teacher took Luis’s phone and walked him and Devin to the main office. Luis, Devin, and the girl in the photo were all expelled and local authorities were called in to review the content.

Q&A Prompts:

  • What is a digital footprint and how do you make one?
  • Can pictures and messages you send ever fully be removed from the Internet? What about apps that promise to erase them?
  • What could Devin and Luis have done to avoid this situation? What about the girl in the photo?

More stories and resources

We’ve included many more stories, questions, and journaling pages in our book, Stand Up to Sexting. We applaud you for wanting to safeguard your children. The fact that you’ve made it to the end of this article is a good sign of things to come. These conversations might seem daunting to you, but you can do it! We have complete confidence in you and your kids. Because of parents and teachers like you, it really is possible to stand up to sexting!

 

ABOUT CHRISTY MONSON:

As a marriage and family therapist, Christy Monson spent years helping clients heal and reframe their lives in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. She received her BA degree from Utah State University and her MS from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The mother of six children and the grandmother of many grandchildren, Christy is now retired and lives in northern Utah. She is the author of several books, including 50 Real Heroes for Boys (Bushel & Peck), Love, Hugs, and Hope: When Scary Things Happen (Familius), Family Talk (Familius), and Becoming Free (Familius).

 

ABOUT HEATHER BOYNTON:

Heather is a member of the Child Development Department at Clovis Community College. She received her MA in early childhood education from California State University. Before becoming a full-time professor, Heather worked as a preschool teacher and Programs for Infants and Toddlers (PITC) trainer. She was also a California Early Childhood Mentor Teacher. Heather lives in California with her husband, Dave, and their four kids, several of which are teenagers.

 

[1] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-sexting

[2] “Top 10 Child Health Problems: More Concern for Sexting, Internet Safety.” National Poll on Children’s Health. https://mottpoll.org/reports-surveys/top-10-child-health-problems-more-concern-sexting-internet-safety.

[3] Gassó, Klettke, Agustina, and Montiel. “Sexting, Mental Health, and Victimization Among Adolescents: A Literature Review.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16, no. 13 (March 2019): 2364. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16132364.

[4] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-sexting

[5] Gassó, Klettke, Agustina, and Montiel. “Sexting, Mental Health, and Victimization Among Adolescents: A Literature Review.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16, no. 13 (March 2019): 2364. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16132364.

[6] Galovan, Adam M., Michelle Drouin, and Brandon T. Mcdaniel. “Sexting Profiles in the United States and Canada: Implications for Individual and Relationship Well-Being.” Computers in Human Behavior 79 (2018): 19–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.10.017.

[7] Hilton, Donald L. “Pornography Addiction – a Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity.” Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3, no. 1 (2013): 20767. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767.

[8] Madigan, Sheri, Anh Ly, Christina L. Rash, Joris Van Ouytsel, and Jeff R. Temple. “Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behavior Among Youth.” JAMA Pediatrics 172, no. 4 (January 2018): 327. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314.

[9] https://www.pandasecurity.com/mediacenter/panda-security/when-should-kids-get-smartphones

Editor’s Note: All information provided herein is the opinion of the authors, and not intended to imply endorsement by GLF or its editorial team. This is an unpaid submission and GLF is grateful to Christy Monson and Heather Boynton for offering their expertise on this important topic.

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