Today on Charlotte Today, I talked with Colleen and Eugene about a topic that strikes fear in the hearts of many parents: Sexting. Watch the video for my advice on how and when to talk with your kids about sexting and read below for more details on this topic.
Let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. What are we really talking about when we talk about teens or tweens sexting?
The legal definition is sending sexually explicit materials through mobile phones but that’s incredibly broad. Today I’m talking about text messages that include nude or partially nude photographs – meaning parts of the body a bathing suit should cover are exposed.
How common is it?
This is a point that is largely debated. I could find quite a few studies on high school teens sexting and the numbers range from 5 – 28% of teens sexting. That number can go up to 50% if not limited to nude photographs. The larger number encompasses texts that are verbally provocative.
There are not (yet) a lot of studies on middle schoolers and sexting; however, I found one study done in Los Angeles last June with almost 1200 respondents. That study found 74% had smart phones, 4.6% had sent sexts and 20.1% had received sexts. This may mean that less kids are willing to take photographs but plenty are willing to send out pictures of other people or perhaps that some students are receiving sexts from older students in high school.
It’s important to note that even among middle schoolers, those who sent sexts are more likely to be sexually active in real life, not just sexually provocative through technology.
In addition to this study, teachers and parents anecdotally report to me that sexting in middle school is on the rise.
When should parents start a conversation about sexting?
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises doctors to start talking to their patients about sexting as soon as they receive their first cell phone. So now.
Parents are sometimes afraid of putting these sorts of topics on their kids radar but by the time your kid is 5th or 6th grade I say it’s time. You don’t have to be graphic but you should be honest and open.
HOW do you bring such a sensitive subject up and what kinds of things can parents say?
It’s definitely not a one-and-done conversation. When you give your child their first phone, it should come with rules and guidelines for use. Cover your expectations around sexting during this first conversation and continue to bring the topic up occasionally. During your first conversation, parents should hit on these topics:
- Define sexting
- Let kids know anyone can keep or forward that picture
- Talk about how the sender – or forwarder – might get immediate attention but it will quickly turn bad
- Respect for your own body and others
- Legal consequences
For future conversations, if you can relate the conversation to something topical – a new research study or news story – that will help you bring it up more naturally,
Parents can use this Charlotte Today interview today as a jumping off point. Instead of laying down all the scary things this conversation might make you think about (“it’s terrible, it’s gross, it’s illegal”) try this: ASK QUESTIONS or ponder out loud. “I wonder why that study showed 20% of kids receive sexts and only 4% send them…”
Most important, don’t rely on technology to curb bad behavior. Talk is much more effective.
If you could tell parents some things to avoid during this conversation, what are the pitfalls?
A lot of parents try to frighten their kids with the legal consequences. You should absolutely explain the ramifications of sexting from a legal perspective but don’t rely on that to be your strongest deterrent. You should talk about how sending sexts is distribution of child pornography and receiving them is possession of child pornography, but the reality is that most teens will know or have heard of other kids who sext and who have never been punished by the law. This means legal consequences will feel like an empty threat. If that’s the beginning and end of your case against sexting you’re not going to get anywhere. Make sure you expand the conversation to talk about values, self-esteem and most important to ANY middle schooler, the reality of what others will think of someone who does this. Sharing a story about someone who did it and ended up being ostracized will have a bigger impact than anything else.
Final thought: Kids are impulsive and make mistakes. Remember not to exploit other kids’ pain or to sound judgmental about other kids’ mistakes. Just share information and let your child come to a conclusion.