Teenage Sexting: How to Respond?

With Rep. Weiner's texting incidents all over the news, how should I talk to my kids about it?

Susan, Washington

Susan, Great question. With politicians and teens alike making headline news for inappropriate and crude texting, the word "sexting" is fast becoming a critical part of the 21st century parenting lexicon. Sexting is exactly what it sounds like, sending or posting nude or sexually explicit messages or images. But like any hot issue making a big splash in the news, is sexting really happening and is it really a big deal?

Let's look to the research. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy:

  • 20% of all teens have sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves.
  • 40% of all teens have sent or posted sexually explicit messages.
  • Nearly 40% of teens have had sexually explicit messages originally meant for someone else shared with them.
  • 24% of teens say pressure from friends the reason they post incidents of sexting,
  • 51% percent of girls say they sext because of pressure from boy.

In many ways, we shouldn't be surprised by these statistics. Our understanding of and response to teenage sexting should not be driven by fears of "teens gone wild," but our evolving understanding of adolescent development in the digital age.

Young people are growing up in a world where they are negotiating many issues - from identity to make-ups and break-ups - online. When we look at statistics from Pew Internet, it is clear that cell phones are the new epicenters of young people's social and emotional lives

  •  75% of teens own cell phones and texting has become their preferred way to communicate. 
  • Boys typically send and receive 30 texts a day.
  • Girls typically send and receive 80 messages per day. 

Young people's brains are also wired to be thinking about sex and sexuality - this is a normal part of their development. Yet few are having good conversations with parents or other caring adults about sex, sexual decision-making, and health and high schools lack comprehensive sex education. In lieu of these important resources, too many turn to the Internet, Hollywood, or their peers for guidance on sexual relationships. Finally, teen brains are still undergoing development. While their brains are "under construction" many young people struggle with impulse control, the ability to weigh consequences, and erratic shifts in mood.

Once we connect all of these dots it is not surprising that teens are engaging in sexting. 'Sexting' is the 21st century digital manifestation of impulsive adolescent sexual exploration.

Just because teenage sexting is understandable though does not make it any less concerning. The aftermath of sexting can be devastating. I spoke with a young woman last week whose "sext," originally intended for her boyfriend's eyes only, made its way onto a public Web site for the whole world to see. Before she knew it, an image of her body was the center of a high profile police investigation on the possession and distribution of child pornography. In some states, sexting is considered a felony while in others it is a misdemeanor. In any state, sexting can have life altering consequences legally and emotionally.

Now that we've connected some of the dots, what does this mean for us as parents? While it may be tempting to simply throw out our kids' cell phones, this strategy alone isn't much help. Yes - let's address the tech side of this issue by monitoring young people's media use and setting clear limits and consequences about online and cell phone behavior. But let's couple this with important conversations we need to have with our kids about sex, relationships, respect, and sexual health. 

Here are some parent tips on sexting to get you started.

Thanks, 

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Erin Walsh, Mind Positive Speaker/Trainer