We Need to Talk to Kids About Sexting -- Because It Starts Earlier Than We Think


As a mom raising three kids in the smartphone era, I knew I would have to talk to them about sexting someday. But, to be perfectly honest, it wasn't a conversation I was looking forward to having -- so I put it off like (I would assume) plenty of other parents do. And then, suddenly, I didn't have a choice anymore. When my son was in sixth grade, he got into the car after school one day and made a disturbing confession: A girl in his class had been sending some of the boys nude pics, and the boys were calling her terrible names as a result. "I feel bad, because she's my friend," my son, who was 11 at the time, told me. "But I don't get why she did that."


I took a deep breath and tried to improvise some sort of explanation: She was probably doing it for attention, maybe she didn't understand the risks (such as, how those pictures could end up on the Internet for all the world to see and stay there forever). All the while, I was grateful that my son was in the backseat and I was up front driving so I didn't have to make eye contact. Clearly, I'd waited too long to bring this up. But when is the right time to bring up sexting, and how do we do it in a way that's not going to make our kids immediately tune us out?

More from CafeMom: 16 Moms Reveal What They Wish They Knew Before Their Kids Started Middle School

While the problem might not be as widespread as we were led to believe a few years ago -- when a small study estimated that 40-50 percent of teens and tweens were sending nude pics -- there's still cause for the average parent to be concerned. A recent survey of 5,500 US middle and high school students by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that 12 percent of kids surveyed said they had sent an explicit image of themselves to another person at some point in their lifetime (4 percent said they had done it within the last month!), and approximately 19 percent said they'd received a sexually explicit image from someone else at some point.

"I can't tell you how frequently this issue is brought up in my office," family therapist Tory L. Eletto, LMFT, tells CafeMom. "It seems also to be younger and younger, even as young as 10."

And whereas our parents could justify not having "the talk" with us until we hit puberty, Eletto explains that now, we really need to base the timing of when we discuss sexting with our kids on a totally different measure. "The right age is when you decide to give your child a cell phone," she says. "Of course, these discussions should be age appropriate, but nonetheless they should occur with the responsibility of having a phone."

The key word here is "responsibility." Because not only is having a phone a responsibility in the sense that it's an expensive piece of technology and kids have to be careful with it, but having a phone is also a responsibility because it has the power to store and share content that could potentially destroy lives. And even a seemingly harmless "sexy" message to a supposedly trustworthy friend could have devastating implications.

As Mark Sherman, a top Connecticut criminal lawyer and publisher of the Connecticut Criminal Lawyers Blog, tells CafeMom in an email, he's seen a surge of sexting arrests and criminal juvenile investigations over the past year. "Teenagers need to understand that there are both criminal and school discipline consequences for violating sexting laws," he says. "Not only can you get arrested and have your arrest and mug shot posted on the Internet if you're 18 or over, but you can also get suspended and expelled."

More from CafeMom: Parents Are Taking Sex Ed Into Their Own Hands With Puberty Parties

Since the 1970s, Title IX has outlawed sexual harassment and discrimination in any school or educational program that receives federal funding, but as Sherman explains on his blog, it's only been in recent years that many schools have begun seriously enforcing this policy. An exchange that started out as benign (say, a series of photos that accidentally fell into the wrong hands) can trigger a Title IX investigation -- which "can be intrusive, embarrassing and also lead to criminal charges," warns Sherman. "This includes complaints of improper sexting and allows schools to pull students into closed door interviews, without a parent present. Students need to be aware of their right to have their parents or a lawyer in the room during any Title IX or accusatory interview.”

Take, for example, the recent case of a 14-year-old girl in Minnesota who was charged with felony distribution of child pornography simply because she sent a revealing Snapchat to a boy (who then, predictably, showed it to some other kids without her permission). A conviction or guilty plea to a lesser charge would put this girl on the sex offender registry for 10 years, which could essentially destroy her future, affecting her chances of getting into college, obtaining housing, and being hired for certain jobs. All because she sent a sexy Snapchat to her crush. 

It's worth mentioning that straight-up risqué text messages without images aren't subject to the same child pornography laws that can get kids into legal sexting trouble, but there's always the potential for humiliation should those sentiments get forwarded to the wrong person. In other words, this stuff is no joke -- so your best bet is to keep your kids from getting into trouble in the first place. But as any parent of a tween or teen knows, initiating a discussion like this one is no easy task. Remember, this is an age when even a question like "What should we have for dinner?" can be met with an incoherent, disinterested mumble or an inexplicably slammed door -- so you can only imagine how a query like "Hey, do you or your friends ever send or receive nude pics?" would be received.

That's why, personally, I love Eletto's suggestion of using current events as a way in to this conversational minefield. "For instance, share with them a story (you can easily Google them) about sexting, and ask your child's opinion on it," she says. "Ask them why they think this goes on, give your opinion, etc. Ask them what they would do if they were in these scenarios, basically just allowing an open, non-judgmental conversation to be had about the entire topic."

Family therapist Dr. Lisa Moses, Psy.D., agrees with this approach. "I always counsel parents to focus on 'nonjudgmental reality' instead of personal feelings," she tells CafeMom. "Saying to a kid, 'I don't know how you can engage in that behavior! It's so wrong!' is really different from 'I can see why you might want to do this, but I'm not sure you've thought through all the potential consequences.' As hard as it is, I encourage parents to try to validate children's feelings and wishes to engage in certain behaviors, even when our reactions are really negative."

And, let's face it: As evolved and open-minded as you might consider yourself to be as a parent, your reaction to finding out your child has been engaging in some form of sexting is bound to be "really negative." So reining in that initial horror/fury/gut-churning nausea is going to be a challenge, but it's absolutely crucial in having a successful dialogue with your child -- as well as ensuring that he or she will feel comfortable coming to you about difficult issues in the future.

"If you find out your kid has engaged in something like this, take time to manage your own emotional reaction as a parent first," advises Eletto. "Once you are in the space to do so, start by explaining what you found. Allow your child to have an emotional reaction to this, and when they are ready, have a deeper discussion."

Eletto recommends asking questions, not necessarily for the answers themselves but "to guide your child into understanding why they made the choices they did." 

"Don’t shame or use language that puts your child down. Create a space where your child can openly discuss this and learn from it."

More from CafeMom: 15 Totally Cool Gifts for Teens Under $20

Hopefully, through the process of talking about it, both you and your child can come to understand what led to the behavior. You can also talk about why it can't happen again, and discuss what guidelines need to be put in place as a precaution. "Explain to them the reason for these guidelines is to protect them, and that it is a responsibility to have a phone," says Eletto. "If they cannot handle this responsibility yet, you can either become more actively involved in your child's phone, remove it for a while, or monitor until you feel they are managing situations appropriately."

In the end, as scary and scandalous as sexting sounds to us as parents, we have to remember that for our kids, sexting might just be a completely normal symptom of pubsecent sexual curiosity, ableit adapted for the digital age.

"The conversation about sexting is part of a larger conversation we should all be having with our kids about technology, at any age," says Moses. "It's normal for kids to be curious about their sexuality and to start exploring in late elementary or middle school. Sexting is one form of that exploration, but because it has fewer boundaries and can become public, we need to protect our kids from those risks."

Almost makes you nostagic for the times when all parents had to worry about was their making out in the backseat of a car ... until you realize we still have to worry about that, too. Sigh.

Read More >