Sexting among teens is a lot more common than any of us would like to believe. A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics tells us that one in seven teens report that they are sending sexts, and one in four are receiving them.
As a parent, this raises so many questions. How young is this happening? Is this already happening with your child? How can you know if your child is doing it? Can it lead to criminal charges?
The answers can be tough to hear. Researchers say it’s happening with kids as young as 12 — but parents are often in the dark. And yes, it can absolutely lead to criminal charges.
So how can we as parents have very difficult but very necessary conversations with our kids about sexting? First of all, figure out what's developmentally appropriate for your son or daughter. You don’t want to have a conversation with your 12-year-old that they’re not ready for, but you also don’t want to wait until it’s too late. You know your child best.
We pulled in the expertise of Leonie Smith for advice on how to tackle sexting with teens. She’s a leader in cyber safety education, known as The Cyber Safety Lady, and she offers some great advice on how to deal with this topic.
1. Remember: Phones are computers.
The devices in our purses and pockets are so powerful, and we sometimes forget all the things they can do. If you have rules related to your child’s media at all (TV, internet), then it’s good to have rules about phone usage, too.
“Parents need to be just as careful with giving their child a phone as they do a computer,” says Smith. “Probably even more so as phones are very portable and can be taken out of earshot and eyesight of a parent.”
If you haven’t had a conversation with your child about what they can and can’t view on their phone, then take this opportunity to do so. Also, if certain apps are constantly serving up inappropriate ads or information, maybe they shouldn’t have the app on their phone.
2. Privacy is a privilege and it needs to be earned.
“I encourage parent to build trust and to educate on responsible and trustworthy behavior before your child has their own phone,” Smith says. “Be clear on what a phone is to be used for, how it’s not to be used, and what will happen if it’s not used in a responsible way.”
If you haven’t had these conversations with your phone-carrying child, don’t worry; it’s never too late! Yes, habits might be established by now, but you can still start the conversation in a simple way by talking about what is and isn’t OK.
3. At the end of the day, try to keep it positive.
Sexting can be a really heavy and uncomfortable topic, so once you have the conversation with your child, be sure to bring it back to a positive place. Even if you find out that they have been involved in less-than-questionable choices, don’t harp on it.
“Don’t go overboard with any negative consequences for misuse,” Smith says. “Cutting a teen off from their friends online can be devastating.”
You can have consequences, though. For instance, if your teen was found with inappropriate messages, have a “no phones in the bedroom” rule until they earn back the trust. She says it’s important to clearly establish rules and consequences. Some parents even have luck with using rewards for good digital behavior. But don’t let it end on a negative note; tell your child that you trust him or her. Believe in your kids to help set them up for success instead of failure.
4. Use the parental controls on cell phones.
They’re there for a reason, especially for younger kids. Sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing where they are and what they do.
“Every mobile device now comes with parental controls,” Smith says. “It’s important parents learn about these and work out which controls need to be set so the child is safer on the device.”
She says mobile phone are set up for adults by default, so it’s up to the parents to go in and change those settings or restrictions.
5. Try to tackle the topic before it's an issue.
This one can be challenging, especially if you already suspect there’s been misuse, but it really is ideal. The best case scenario is to talk to kids about a device in details as soon as they are starting to use it. Even talking to kids at a young age about cameras and what is and isn’t OK to take pictures of—this is all good.
“Children as young as four have been know to share inappropriate photos with their parents’ phones because they didn’t’ know it was inappropriate and thought it was funny,” Smith says.
If we can start teaching kids at a young age about privacy, then it should be a much easier conversation to have with them later in life.
6. When you hear about it, take it seriously.
It’s important to remember that inappropriate messages and photos need to be dealt with. We shouldn’t look the other way or assume it’s just “kids being kids.”
“Children’s need to be educated that taking nude photos of themselves is actually against the law,” Smith says. “The laws around sexting differs in each country and state, but you can be charged.”
If you’re not sure what to do, reach out to counselors in your area or even at your school. They can help guide you in the right direction. If your child is willing to talk to you about it, this is a huge step, so make sure you do everything you can to take it seriously.
7. Don’t stop talking about it.
Concerns around cyber security is here to stay, and so we need to keep talking about it as parents.
“It needs to be an ongoing discussion, much like talking about anything else like friendships, school, or well-being,” Smith says. “The earlier you start, the easier it will be when they are teens.”
In addition, don't be afraid to ask your child to help keep you educated as he or she gets older. Teens are often more in tune with what’s going on with technology and trends, so keep an open dialogue so they know they can talk to you.
While these aren’t necessarily conversations we want to be having with our teens, they are really important to have. Photos and messages don’t ever really go away. Even with the “delete” button, there’s always a way to recover them. Make sure your teens know this, and encourage them to think before they send.
For me, I tell my kids not to send anything that they wouldn’t want their own grandma to read. It really helps put things into perspective on what is and isn’t appropriate.
Stacy Tornio is the author of The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book and the mom of two adventurous kids. Together, they like planning vacations centered around the national parks.