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How to Discuss Sexting with Teenagers

Expert Advice

How to Discuss Sexting with Teenagers

A Mass General psychologist says sexting has become so common among teenagers, that parents should start the conversation rather than waiting for their child to bring it up.

Ellen Braaten, PhD
October 20, 2018

Previous research has found that about 1 in 4 young teens admits to “sexting” — the sending of nude or semi-nude images or sexually explicit messages over an electronic device such as a mobile phone.

It’s not a topic most parents feel comfortable discussing . . . but it is one we need to learn to broach.

A study from Rhode Island Hospital’s Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center examined these behaviors in younger adolescents aged 12 to 14 years. The findings were troubling: 17% of the participants admitted to sending a sexually explicit text message in the past six months. Another 5% admitted to sending both a sexually explicit message, and a nude or semi-nude photo. Taken together, this means that nearly 1 in 4 teens surveyed had sexted in the past six months.

If you’re the parent or grandparent of a middle school student, this might be hard to believe. One caveat to keep in mind with regard to this study is that the participants surveyed were identified as having behavioral or emotional problems, meaning these results may not be applicable to the population at large. But regardless, it’s a large number of kids, and we don’t know if the number is lower—or even higher—in kids who don’t exhibit behavior problems.

This brings home the point that sexting is something we all need to be talking about, and by “we” I mean not just parents, but also teachers, pediatricians and mental health professionals. It’s not a topic most parents feel comfortable discussing — particularly with their preteens — but it is one we need to learn to broach.

Remind your children that once an image is sent, it’s out of their control forever.

Leading the Sexting Discussion

We shouldn’t wait for our child to bring it up; we need to be leading the discussions, because most likely our kids will not. In terms of what to touch upon, there are a number of things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t wait for an incident to happen before you bring up the topic of sexting.
  • Remind your children that once an image is sent, it’s out of their control forever. It’s hard for preteens to believe in a concept like “forever,” so it’s up to you to give them concrete examples of what that means. They might disagree or tell you that you don’t understand how technology works, but be clear in expressing your opinions regardless.
  • Help them to think about the consequences of their actions by asking questions such as, “How would you feel if your teachers saw these pictures of you?” Get them to talk hypothetically about various
    scenarios, as it’s often easier for them to talk about someone else rather than themselves.
  • Help your child understand that the buck stops with them. If someone forwards something inappropriate to them, they should delete it. Forwarding nude pictures of minors is a potential crime, and they need to know that there are big consequences if they choose to engage in these types of behaviors.
  • Limit the number of texts. Your child doesn’t need to have unlimited texts, and if they don’t, they may be more choosy about what they send. In fact, there is research data that supports that assumption.
  • Educate yourself about social media. Stay current on social media so that you can engage your kids in conversations such as, “What do you think about ‘Snapchat?’”
  • Explore ways to control your child’s social media presence. Apps such as “Zipit” can help you monitor your child’s chats in a way that isn’t too intrusive.
  • Take away the phone. Don’t be afraid to tell you kids that they can’t use their phone after 10 pm (a time of day when these types of behaviors are more likely to occur). If they’ve really abused the privilege of phone, don’t be afraid to take it away permanently. And, if you think your child “has” to have a phone, buy the most basic model possible—even better if it doesn’t include the ability to take or send pictures of texts.

Let them know you realize that it’s hard being a teen these days …

Support Throughout the Process

Above all, don’t be afraid to talk to your children. These topics are uncomfortable for all of us, and unlike topics such as drinking and drug use, most of us didn’t experience this during our own adolescences. We can’t tell them what we did or didn’t do because we never had to negotiate this complicated social network. It might be helpful for them to hear that, too.

Let them know you realize that it’s hard being a teen these days — much harder that it was for us in many ways—and that you’re there to support them throughout the process.

To make a donation to support the work of Dr. Braaten and the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, please contact us.

This article first appeared on the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds website.

Ellen Braaten, PhD, is executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Mass General, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and former co-director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. She is a psychologist, teacher, and researcher whose career has focused on improving the understanding and treatment of children with learning and attention issues, particularly ADHD, learning disabilities, dyslexia, autism spectrum, and processing speed.