Consensual teen sexting is on the rise. A shame-free talk about safe sexting can protect your teen from legal and reputational harm.
Teens commonly feel like they might die of embarrassment when you have your first sex talk with them.
But just wait: The talk about sexting may bring new levels of mortification.
As parents, it’s important to push through these awkward feelings for the sake of protecting and guiding your children.
Before you broach the sexting discussion, though, understanding why teens are sexting and the potential ramifications are turnkey to navigating conversations about healthy sexual development and technology.
You might feel blindsided when the child you’ve raised since infancy reaches an age of sexual curiosity. But take solace that sexting is a normal and common part of sexual development these days, especially as your teen spends more time in digital spaces than any generation before.
A 2019 review of the research also found that more often than not, sexting is consensual.
Your surprised reaction to this seemingly sudden evolution in your child is a normal part of the process, too, so don’t be too hard on yourself for being caught off guard.
If you’re from a pre-smartphone era, you may be wondering why on earth your teen would send nudes and put themselves in such a vulnerable position. There are several reasons, including:
- increased physical isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic
- not fully developed prefrontal cortex, which navigates decision making and internalizing long-term consequences
- not fully developed limbic system, which manages impulsiveness
- natural drive to separate themselves from parents
- drive to experiment and seek attention from peers
False security from apps that delete messages
Most teenagers don’t know life without the internet, apps, and smartphones, and that ultra familiarity can cause them to act recklessly without fully comprehending the risks of sexting — particularly with apps that claim to “erase” messages after they’ve been viewed by the recipient.
“With the development of software like Snapchat, many teens feel a sense of invisibility about their actions online,” says Kristen Adams, a licensed clinical social worker and the founder of GTX Teen Therapy.
The familiarity paired with the false sense of security while using these apps might encourage teens to send a photo or message they otherwise wouldn’t. This is where you, the parent, come in to help your teen safely navigate technology and sexuality.
Maybe you happened to be holding your teen’s phone when an erotic text message popped up.
Or maybe you were innocently scrolling through your teen’s phone looking for the family picture that they forgot to message you, and you stumbled upon a nude photo.
Whether you were actually snooping or not is beside the point. Your immediate reaction to seeing sexually explicit content on your teen’s smartphone might elicit strong, panicked feelings.
If at all possible, wait until this shock wears off before you say one word about it to your child.
Then take a deep breath and start a thoughtful, two-way conversation following the tips below.
Avoid shaming your teen
Going straight to punishment and forbidding communication using a smartphone is probably not the best course of action. Your teen may simply shut you out and seek sexual exploration elsewhere.
When Erik Pham, parent and managing editor of Health Canal, discovered inappropriate messages in his teen daughter’s TikTok account, he was careful to open a dialogue instead of shaming her.
“One mistake [caregivers make] is ordering their teens to do what they want in a specific way,” he says. “Although there are times when this is needed, convincing them about the dangers of sexting isn’t one of them.”
Pham adds that, in his opinion, “what your teen does in their private time is their own business, and you won’t be able to check on them all of the time. They might even rebel and do the exact opposite just to spite you.”
Instead, you might consider normalizing their curiosity. Your teen may be using different methods to explore their sexuality, and many people go through this phase into sexual maturity by interacting with the world around them.
Discuss possible complications
Not shaming your teen does not mean completely supporting their actions. Just as you listen to their perspective, it’s necessary to communicate the potential harm that could result from sexting, which include:
- legal ramifications
- stalking from a stranger
- state child pornography laws
Establish safe sexting practices
Digital and real life are only becoming more enmeshed. It may not be possible to completely eliminate sexting as a form of flirting among teens, but as a parent you can educate your teenager about safe sexting.
“This starts with looking at privacy settings in social media accounts and being aware of how location-based services work,” Adams says.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that an app permanently deletes images and messages. Once it’s out there, it’s out of your control. You might be surprised how many apps have a way for a third party to screengrab.
“Talk with them about the illusion of privacy online and how easy it is to identify someone in a photo by looking at items in their bedroom, posting a picture with school colors, or wearing a shirt that has your school or city’s name,” Adams recommends.
Familiarize yourself with your state’s laws regarding the transmission of sexually explicit images of a minor. Some states have prosecuted teens for consensually sexting other teens.
Keep the conversation going
Mentioning the sexting thing once is not going to create healthy and safe sexting boundaries.
Aim to create an open environment where anything — including sexting — can organically come up. This lets you have more insight into your teen’s life and behavior.
“A conversation goes both ways, which is why it’s better to take a diplomatic approach to this,” Pham recounts from his personal experience. “It’s also much healthier, and you won’t damage or strain your relationship with your teenage child.”
While sexting might be a healthy part of the sexual development landscape in the 2020s and beyond, that’s not to say it’s without risk and potential damage to your teen.
Your thoughtful approach is key to understanding your teen’s motivations as well as providing them with the tools and knowledge to stay safe.
“Needless to say, I trust my daughter to be smart about it, and so far she’s doing great,” Pham concludes.