It’s a generational rite of passage. As a parent you feel (more or less) like you can manage your kids because you feel (more or less) in control of their lives. And then that feeling slips away. You begin to worry and wonder what kids are up to these days. You realize that “kids” is now a category that feels inaccessible. Even when you have one living in your home. Panic, fear, and defensiveness sets in.
Technology is a big part of this generational panic. From the printing press to the VCR we experience new technologies as distancing us from the next generation and as a threat to our control, especially over the sexual development of our kids.
Which brings us to the newest apparent cause for panic, sexting.
Sexting – which describes using digital devices, primarily smart phones, to make and share sexy messages or images — often nude or semi-nude selfies - is a media term used almost exclusively by adults. Kids, who have less interest in studying or legislating their own behavior, just describe what they’re doing (e.g. taking selfies, sharing pictures, etc).
We don’t really know how many kids are sexting. Surveys have found anywhere from 1% to 22% of kids sexting, depending on who is sending or receiving and how sexting gets defined.
We do know, anecdotally, that the consequences of sexting range from non-existent or positive to severely negative and life long.
We also know that when it comes to talking with our kids about sexting, just saying “no” just doesn’t work.
If you’re not sure how to start a conversation that doesn’t end with your kid walking away or turning back to the screen, here are five tips talking about sexting.
If You Don’t Find an Opportunity to Talk, Make One
You won’t know if sexting is a topic relevant to your child’s life without asking. You may need to be the one to bring it up, and even though it may result in groaning and eye rolling, it’s worth it. If you get nowhere don’t keep pushing. Let them know if they do want to talk, you’re interested, and come back to it in a few weeks. After a few efforts you’ll usually have some idea whether sexting is something going on among their friends, and if it’s something they do have questions about.
Your Child Is Not a Statistic
Don’t assume that your child would (or wouldn’t) sext just because some survey or news item says they might. Kids know when they are being treated disrespectfully and they know when they aren’t being seen for who they are and instead are being treated as the “teenager” or the “problem child.”
Start Specific, but Get Broad
Whenever we talk with our kids about sex it's an opportunity to share not only rules about what is and isn't okay for them to do, but the values and beliefs that we hold that inform how we act in the world.
Talking about sexting means talking about who we are, our values and beliefs, our boundaries, our community, culture, and laws.
Two big sex related topics that a conversation about sexting opens up are privacy and trust. You might say something like:
“talking about this makes me think about how I figure out who is someone I can trust”
or ask a question like:
“how much do you think you control your privacy online?”
When you can, it’s helpful to share stories from your own life. That might be a time when you trusted someone and later found out they weren't deserving of your trust. Or another time when you realized how to figure out who is trustworthy. It might be a story about how privacy was dealt with in your home when you grew up, and what you liked or didn't like about that.
These comments and questions can open up a dialogue about any number of things your kid has wanted to talk about but didn’t know how to ask.
Be Direct, But Don’t Be Scary
When it comes to sexting there are a few things kids need to know that might not be on their radar.
First is the fact that nothing online ever completely disappears. The pace of growing up, especially around puberty, is so fast that it can feel like everything in the past stays there. When it comes to the Internet there’s no such thing as the past.
Next is the law. Whether or not it’s likely to happen, your kids should know that in the U.S. a child can be arrested and charged for sharing nude and semi nude photos online under child pornography law.
It can be tricky, but try not to use fear as a motivator. If you don’t believe all the research that tells us that fear doesn’t work so well long term, think about how often in your own childhood being told not to do something resulted in you not doing it.
Talk About the Why of Sexting
Like it or not part of healthy sexual development requires risk taking. And for those of us who go on to engage in healthy sexual relationships part of development include learning that feeling sexy or sexual can feel good., It can feel powerful and good to take a risk and share a picture or text that is sexually provocative (as many adults know!).
Acknowledging this isn’t the same as signing off on sexting as a great thing to do. Let them know that the feeling and desire to share something intimate of themselves with someone they care about isn’t necessarily a problem, but you’re role is to help them figure out how to make the best decisions not only in the moment but in the long term.
When we talk about sex and only focus on negative consequences, without also saying why people choose to be sexual with each other, we leave our kids unprepared whenever they do decide to start being sexual with others.