Now For Another Topic You Won’t Want to Talk to Your Children About: Sexting

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Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels
Dr. Corinne Masur
On this blog we try to provide guidance for parents on how to talk about difficult topics with children– sex, death, and now, sexting.

You might think that talking to your children about sexting isn’t necessary, but it’s a fact that by middle school, most kids know what sexting is and they probably know who in their class has done it.  They may have seen photos that kids they know have sent out of themselves – or parts of themselves – unclothed.

And this isn’t the only reason to talk with your children about sexting. It’s a conversation that can open the door to many subjects: How can we communicate our interest in someone? How can we communicate in a healthy way once we are in a relationship? How can we set limits on what we are comfortable with and not comfortable with in a relationship – any relationship – including friendships, relationships with people of the opposite sex, etc.

Parents need to be aware that the majority of contact between kids happens online, and much if not most flirtation occurs online via texts and photos.  In fact, most relationships between kids who are romantically interested in each other often start out via text and often continue that way.

Kids have no idea how to go about relationships.  They learn what they know mostly from their peers, online, and in TV and movies. Kids may think that sexting is a part of what’s expected of them when they start to be interested in someone OR they may feel pressured to sext by their peers (who may egg them on) or by the person they’re interested in. They may be intrigued by the possibility – OR they may not know how to say no when they are asked to send a sexy text or photo.

Michelle Drovin, a psychology professor at Purdue University and Nicole Cushman, Executive Director of Answer at Rutgers University, appeared on Radio Times with Marty Moss Cohane to talk about just this subject.

Michelle Drovin said that among young adults, 80% say they have sent sexy texts made up of words and 50% say they have sent sexy photos. And 25% report that their texts were shared with others WITHOUT their consent.

We don’t know what the numbers look like for tweens and teens, but we can guess that while the number of kids sending sexts may be lower than that of young adults, the number of sexts shared without the permission of the sender is probably much much higher.

And this is one of the things we need to talk with our kids about.

Beginning in 5th or 6th grades, it’s important to have conversations about texting and sexting.  And notice, I did not say A conversation.  I said conversationS.  It’s important to raise the subject – perhaps just to ask – Do you know anyone who is sexting? And to talk with your child about what they say about this. And to keep talking about the subject over time.

Young people have become habituated to texting.  This is how they communicate with each other.  They may not think too much about what they text, just like in a conversation with friends we may not think too much before we say something.

However, what is important to say, eventually, in the conversation with our kids, is that they need to remember that once they have sent a text out, they lose control of it.  It can be shared.  Even on Instagram and Snapchat and other temporary sites, screen shots can be taken of a sext or text and shared widely.

In these conversations, it’s important not to lecture or to fear monger.  Both will turn kids off and they will stop listening. However, it’s important to mention the risks and to allow kids to think about the potential consequences of sending out texts or photos for themselves.

OK, so what should you say and what should you not say when talking with your tweens, teens, and college-aged children about sexting?

Do tell them:

  • What sexting is.  For example, you can say to your younger teens and tween, “You may already know this but I just want to tell your about sexting.  This is when people send each other text messages about sex or photos of their bodies or parts of their bodies”.
  • You may know people already who do this. Someone might already have sent you a sext and you might have thought about sending one to someone else – – – or you might already have done this.
  • But I want you to think about something that not everybody thinks about, and this includes adults (politicians, even!). Once you have sent out a text or a sext, it’s out there forever.  Even on Instagram.  Even on Snapchat. People can share it, people can screenshot it.  And you may not like what happens when other people see your text or photo.  You need to think about this every time you send out a text – before you hit send. Before you send the text ask yourself, “how will I feel if people other than the person I’m sending this to see it?”
  • What I want you to know is that once you send out a text, you lose control over it. At least one fourth of all sexts get shared without the senders permission.
Don’t tell them:
  •     You can get in legal trouble for sending out photos of your body.
  •     Your relationship with your boyfriend/girlfriend is going to end some day and then your ex may share what you have sent to him/her.
Generally, these sorts of admonitions turn kids off. They’ll think, “Oh, that won’t happen to me,” and they may stop listening to the conversation at that point.

But don’t be afraid that your children will not be interested in talking about the topic of texting and sexting.  This is a subject which is extremely relevant to their lives.  If you do not come on as sanctimonious or judgmental, they’ll probably want to talk about it – or at least to HEAR about it from you. If we can let go of old models and accept that many relationships – friendships as well as romantic relationships – start online and continue there, we are in a good position to talk with our children about relationship skills as they apply to this new world of relationships.  Kids need help learning how to communicate.  They need help learning how to set limits, how to talk about what they’re comfortable with and uncomfortable with, and that they have a right to tell anyone in any kind of relationship what their comfort levels are.

So you can help your child know that if they’re going to send a confidential text of ANY kind to someone, they can actually say upfront, “This is for your eyes only.” or “I am trusting you not to share this with anyone else” and to understand that if their trust is violated once by that person they can then say “I am not going to trust you any more because you shared my text.”

You can help your child know that they don’t have to give in to pressure to send any text or photo that they don’t want to, that they can say to friends or potential romantic partners, “I don’t feel comfortable doing that” and stick to it.

Having these conversations with your kids will help them build the capacity to reflect on what they do and don’t want in friendships and romantic relationships, and to think about what their boundaries and limits are and how to set these clearly with others– all of which are such important relationship skills for life from here on out.

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