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I teach sex education and personal development to groups of teenagers and work with a lot of teenagers in my private practice as a psychologist and psychotherapist. Sexting has gradually become a common theme in my work. It’s something teenagers actually do want to talk about, but feel they can’t. And sexting is here to stay folks!

Image source via Shutterstock
Image source via Shutterstock

What is Sexting?

Sexting is the sending of a sexually revealing image of oneself or an explicit text using a phone, or other device that is connected to the internet. You will have heard about the celebrity photo leaks, most notably the Jennifer Lawrence leaks. And today we are hearing about SnapChat pictures being leaked.

What’s particularly bad about the SnapChat debacle is that most users are teenagers, and so a lot of the “sensitive” material being spread now, was put there by teenagers.
Teenagers who believed that this would never happen.

A study on sexting published this week had commentators ominously stating “Even Your Child” and concluding that “Sexting is the new first base“.

In other words, sexting might be leading to “full blown” sex earlier than not sexting. And to be fair, the headline is true, even your child may be sexting. You can’t know everything.

OK, so I know that trawling through academic papers isn’t on your list of fun things to do and you’ve probably already skipped those links so let’s get straight to the point:

Sexting happens. Maybe you do it yourself. It’s new, because the technology is new. But what’s behind it is not new, and that’s the point.

Why is this such a frightening prospect? What’s so scary about sex? I’m all for sexual expression in its many wonderful forms but what appears to be happening is uninformed and coerced sexual expression. Extra alarming is the fact that these images or texts often don’t remain private. They can be shared and used to ridicule the teen or worse, or worse, to shame them.

I’ve been shown sext images and conversations that would probably shock you into a coma. But this is the reality. If your daughter for example, is on SnapChat, Instagram or AskFm, it is probable that she has posted pictures of herself and or received pictures or (very) sexually explicit questions. It’s probable that she’s unaware of the consequences- like not noticing that the amount of “followers” she has explodes with each new picture. It is probable that you’d be shocked by these pictures. It’s probable that she hasn’t made the connection between how she presents herself in these pictures and how people perceive her. And it’s probable that she is doing what a lot of teenaged girls do – posting pictures of her body in various poses to intentionally copy different “models”.

Chillingly a boy said to me last week – “It’s fine if you can’t see the face though right?? Like girls’ bodies are just hot bodies”. Erm….

Also likely is that your children and their peers believe that it’s normal to send and receive sexualized pictures of themselves and say sexual things to the object(s) of their desire. It’s even possible that they are being coerced into doing these things even though it makes them feel embarrassed. Teens sext to express commitment, maturity, to get attention, to keep attention. All the normal stuff teenagers have always wanted. When things like sexting are normalized, teenagers are vulnerable to feeling cast out, and being cast out, if they don’t join in.

And believe me, sexting has become normalized.

So we need to have conversations about it to keep them safe.

Teenagers have been interested in sex since forever. Under the right circumstances sex is normal and healthy and fun. I understand that adults can be squeamish about sex themselves, and so talking to teenagers about sex is not something a lot of us relish. But here’s the thing – we are the grown ups and it’s our job to do this.

Unless you want porn and misinformation about sex online to step in and do your parenting for you? And boy there is a lot of misinformation out there. Your child has probably already accessed it. I’ll just give you a moment to think about that…

At the risk of being alarmist, what I’m seeing (literally, as in I’m not making this up), are girls posting sexualized pictures of themselves on various apps and sites and then genuinely wondering why they’ve so many followers (followers that they don’t personally know but might agree to meet). Also, they are in competition regarding amount of followers, so it’s a ‘good’ thing to accumulate them. It’s a confusing time. They know what to do, but are unaware of the connection between what they do and the risks attached. Risks like men ‘following’ them, knowing their routine, what their school bathroom looks like, what their bedroom looks like, or their underwear, or Pj’s. For them this might feel flattering, whereas you? You might feel sick. Maybe this is already making you feel a bit nauseous but please, read on.

Is Sexting Like Sex?

Many people believe so. A lot of kids know the basics, from biology and so on, but they don’t know how to talk about it, or negotiate it, or figure out what’s appropriate. And this is because not many of us are willing to teach them.

Or maybe not ‘able’. A lot of us grown ups, whatever THAT means, can’t talk about sex with each other, never mind to a wide eyed innocent or rolling eyed innocent who’s pretending they don’t need to know.

Let me ask – is your child on Instagram? Twitter? AskFM? Have you seen their profile? Are you familiar with the tech? The privacy settings? Who are they texting?
Are they sexting? What are they being asked to do and by whom? Are they sexually active?

You may not know. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It just means they are good at concealing, and they don’t yet feel able to discuss sexual matters with you.

We cannot expect our kids to not do what adults do. Everywhere they look, they are bombarded by sexualized imagery. Everywhere. Just look around you the next time you are in a supermarket, a newsagent, online.

We cannot assume they know what to do with this new information. We didn’t have to sift through all that crap but they do, and they need us to show them what’s healthy and what isn’t. Like I said, it’s our job.

How to talk about sexting:

*Familiarise yourself with the technologies that your child uses. Some experts advise that you ‘friend’ them and in that way you can monitor what happens. But I would advise, with FB for example that you put them on a limited friend access to your account. Otherwise they will be privy to adult conversations that you are having, your friends’ opinions, comments etc, Some of which you might find inappropriate. Here’s a video on how to do this:

Don’t be afraid to ask your teens what they’re doing online

Who are they connecting with? What’s “the news”? Teenagers will be using social networking sites more than younger kids. Ask to have a look at what they’re doing, check their phones, their photographs etc. You have a right to their passwords. Again, it’s your job to keep them safe until they can prove to you that they are capable of doing that themselves. Make sure you explain this to them, don’t just force it. This helps establish trust. Their claim to privacy from you is a separate issue. Don’t be distracted by this red herring!!

Use your own social networking sites in their presence

Have chats about it, show them things that interest you. This normalizes healthy use of tech. and having open conversations about it.

Keep reminding them that everything that goes online stays online

Even Snapchat images and text. If you don’t know what Snapchat is you should look it up. You’ll be told that images last only a short time, but everything is vulnerable to the good ol’ screenshot. Screenshot means taking a photograph of whatever appears on your screen, so that even temporary images can be stored, forever.

Discuss the consequences of poor privacy settings, know what their settings are. Talk about responsibility, discourage bullying, gossiping etc. Ask them to ask themselves if they would still post that pic or say that thing if you were there watching? If the person they were talking about was watching? If not, then is it wise to press on?

Ask their opinion on sexting

So if you see something on their phone, page or their friend’s, it’s an ideal chance to ask: Why do you think she posted that pic? Why is she posing like that? Would you do that? I wonder how I’d feel about doing that… How many people can see that? What happens if someone she doesn’t like sees it? Could I screenshot that and send it to whoever I want now? (Not that you would, I know, but you want him/her to think about this).

Insist that they use social media in a family room where you are present and can keep an eye on things

Allow it to be a normal part of conversation, what site they’re on etc. If you don’t know how to use a particular site, research it, but also, ask them to show you. If they know you’re able to see and that you will check regularly, then they will feel safer.

Know how to check chat logs and history for inappropriate content and let them know you’re doing it

Doing this behind their backs, like reading their private diary, rarely ends well. If you learn something then it’s hard to talk about it because first you have to admit where you learned it! Then you’ll be having a whole other struggle..

Set and adhere to strict rules about how much time is spent online by everyone, including you

Teenagers that I know will revolt if they see me write this but: don’t let them take the phone to bed. It’s such a distraction. It interferes with sleep. Conversations can start at 11pm and go on to 3am. And because it’s so late, these conversations aren’t always rational and can get emotional. Be aware that teenagers are afraid to miss anything! But if you take charge, at least they can blame you for being “left out”. Being annoyed at you is normal and part of their job. Your job is to do your best to not take that personally.

As I always say, communicate, talk, share. Let them know that you understand the pressure involved here. Kids are under pressure, make no mistake.

Talk about sex to your kids. They need to know the difference between being sexual, enjoying pressure-free sexual expression and feeling coerced into sharing photos, experiences and so on. Avoid lecturing. Ask them questions, ask for their opinions about sex, what their friends’ opinions are – they may surprise you! There are a lot of very wise and mature teens out there. They need to know that they have a right to pace themselves, and they need to be safe from sexual predators. Remember that sexual predators aren’t always dirty old men, they can be young men, sometimes teenaged boys, sometimes girls and women.

What we do understand is that parenting effects child safety. I suppose it’s obvious, but here’s one of many articles available online at Pediatrics (free subscription) you may be interested in around internet safety and parenting controls online:

In other words, we must do both real life monitoring as well as relying on software to do it for us. Here’s a website you will find helpful: http://www.thatsnotcool.com/

It’s never too late to start this. Think of it as an investment! We are adaptable creatures and will get used to new routines as long as there is consistency.