Many parents are unsure how to talk to a child about the potential consequences and dangers of “sexting,” that is, using a cell phone or computer to send naked pictures or videos. Sexting is a growing phenomenon among teenagers (and sometimes even younger children). Many kids do not understand the potential harm in sending revealing pictures to boyfriends and girlfriends. For many parents, approaching the topic of sexting is difficult, especially if it’s hard to believe a child would even be exposed to this.
The dangers of sexting are clear. The practice has become popular in a relatively short period of time and the reaction to the cultural explosion has been mixed, and sometimes extreme. In some cases, children who have been caught sexting have been charged under child pornography laws. In other cases, the teenage humiliation of enduring naked pictures being spread around has lead to violence and suicide.
Children who have access to a cell phone or computer must understand the consequences of what seems to them to be private and innocuous communication.
Talking about sexting with a child may be more challenging than talking about sex, drugs or any other difficult topic. Many times parents may be unaware of what sexting actually is and how prevalent it may be. As teenagers are generally more knowledgeable and savvy than adults about cell phones and computers, it adds an additional challenge for parents just to keep up with the latest technology and uses. And it’s certainly not something a child will be eager to discuss.
Just like with other difficult conversations, the time to talk with your child about sexting is way before you suspect he or she may be exposed to it. Many times a child will hear of someone else who has done it first and values can begin to be formed early as an outside observer. Or a child may be pulled into it unexpectedly, as perhaps it begins as an innocent cell phone or computer exchange, or private “joke,” and escalates from there. A child needs to hear the consequences of sexting, and be given the opportunity to process some feelings about it.
Using the “indirect” approach may be effective for the initial conversation. Citing a news story about sexting from TV, the Internet or the newspaper may be the best way to “break the ice.” Using this vicarious experience will allow both parent and child to comment on the story without “personalizing” it. Directly asking a child whether he or she has ever done this or know someone who has, only puts the child in a position to lie or get secretive (even subversive) with this topic and possibly others. The indirect approach will hopefully keep the lines of communication open.
If a child is ready to talk about sexting with a parent, then healthy active listening skillswill help provide the safety for the child to process. Despite the surprise and confusion about this new phenomenon, a parent can accept what a child is saying (“everyone does it” or “it was supposed to be just her belly button”) without expressing judgement or disagreement. After a child has had the chance to emote without judgement, then a parent can begin to explain consequences of sexting, perhaps again using indirect examples to help explain. Ultimately, loss of cell phone or computer priveleges may need to be discussed, as a consequence of misuse.
Parents should learn about sexting (try Googling it, for example) and then devise a plan to talk about it. Provide the information early to a child; that way, there’s a much better chance of seeing responsible behavior.