How to Understand and Address Adolescent Sexting

Teenage boy lying on his bed at home using a smartphone to textOne of the most difficult issues I see today for parents is sexting—the sending of sexually explicit messages, pictures, or videos via text message. Texting in general has only existed for the past 15 to 20 years, and because it is still so new, parents usually don’t have a reference for it from their own childhoods.

Children are using devices more than ever to connect with one another. Some studies indicate that almost 80% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 own a cell phone, and almost 50% own a smartphone. Many of the apps that children use to communicate are rapidly changing and unfamiliar to adults. The lack of familiarity can create a sense of helplessness for many parents, which may make this issue a particularly difficult and scary one. To help with this, I’ve created a guide to hopefully make the issue of sexting less overwhelming for parents.

Understanding the Risks

To begin with, one should consider why children sext. Studies show most children say sexual messages are initially sent as a sign of love. For many teenagers, sexting can act as a courtship and even as a replacement for sex itself. These messages can be a way to express and gain admiration from a crush. Sometimes peer pressure plays a role, as children are pressured into sending a message they are not completely comfortable with.

The risk of sending a sexual message is that once it goes out, the sender has little to no control over who sees it. In 2009, there was a case in Pennsylvania in which a high school girl’s phone was confiscated by a teacher who found semi-nude photos stored in the phone and turned it over to authorities.

Instances such as this teach us that even if a message is intended to be private, there is no guarantee it will stay that way. Children and teens should understand that anything they send into the digital world—a text, a message on social media, or even an email—might be seen by others. Teaching children about the risks also sends the message that the adults in their lives are available and willing to help.

Here are five steps parents can take when dealing with children or teens who are sexting.

1. Acknowledge Difficult Feelings

I think it is completely understandable and natural for parents to be deeply disturbed when their children send these types of messages, and acknowledging these feelings is often a good place to start. At times, the anxiety around this issue can become so overwhelming that it is difficult to see any ways to help. I encourage parents to discuss their children’s use of technology and the feelings surrounding it. Therapy can also provide an outlet to process some of the difficult reactions this issue brings up.

2. Recognize Core Issues Have Not Changed

Once parents have processed their initial reactions, I encourage them to try to see these messages as an expression of feelings that function similar to love letters from earlier times. As discussed earlier, the factors that generally cause adolescents to sext—teenagers in relationships, seeking approval from peers, and peer pressure—are hardly new. Most parents have vivid memories of grappling with these issues as adolescents, and recognizing those reference points can be empowering. This can help parents to relate more to their children and make the issue less foreign.

3. Realize What Will Not Solve the Problem

It is important to remember that children often get a lot of benefits from connecting with peers through their devices. These connections serve an important developmental purpose, and simply taking away a child’s phone or shutting down their social media accounts often does more harm than good. Children are surprisingly adept at getting around these types of limitations as well. Don’t assume the problem is fixed by trying to restrict their communication avenues.

4. Help Children Process Feelings

For many teenagers, sexting can act as a courtship and even as a replacement for sex itself. These messages can be a way to express and gain admiration from a crush.While children are well versed in technology, they often lack the emotional maturity to process the potentially negative things that can happen in the digital world. This is an area where parents can be enormously helpful. I encourage parents to make themselves available to process the difficult feelings and reactions their children have related to their online experience. The more children perceive their parents as available to talk about these feelings with them, the more resilient they will be when they are exposed to something negative.

5. Encourage Other Avenues of Self-Expression

The last step is to help children find other avenues to connect with their peers. Steering a child toward a club, activity, or sport enables them to connect with friends, and freeing up time in their schedule to spend with kids their age may make them less likely to seek connections online. The more children are allowed to connect to others face to face, the less likely they will be to try and fill a void in the digital world.

Because technology has changed so dramatically in the past several years, parents and children are at risk of becoming disconnected. If parents are able to reflect on this issue, understand the reasons their children use devices, and come to see how children may be struggling with many of the issues their parents dealt with in childhood, they may be able to help their children find healthier and more productive ways of meeting their emotional needs.

References:

  1. A common sense research study. (2011).  Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/zero-to-eight-childrens-media-use-in-america
  2. Guzzardo, J. (2010). School violated student’s privacy in ‘sexting’ case, lawsuit says. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/05/21/pennsylvania.racy.photos
  3. Rosin, H. (2014). Why kids sext. Fresh Air Podcast.  Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2014/10/15/356393531/why-kids-sext-describes-nude-photos-as-social-currency-among-teens
  4. Teens and technology. (2013, March 13). Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/files/old-media/Files/Reports/2013/PIP_TeensandTechnology2013.pdf

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by James Wells, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Shay

    Shay

    November 14th, 2015 at 9:20 AM

    I understand that things have changed over the years and the way that these girls and guys interact with each other today is a whole lot different than it was when I was their age. But what I fail to understand is why they do not see the inherent danger that can arise when you are so explicit with members of the opposite sex. I think that it is so important to stress to them that look, you can date and even kiss a little but this is going way too far and if you don’t stop then someone is going to get hurt in some way.

  • warren

    warren

    November 16th, 2015 at 6:34 AM

    It’s just one of those things we as parents are going to have to get used to. It isn’t that you want your children misbehaving but these are the way things are today, and we either bury our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t know anything about it or we at least educate ourselves about the dangers that are ot there.

  • Margie

    Margie

    November 16th, 2015 at 3:39 PM

    Kids today are just so much more explicit and provocative than they used to be and they don’t see that there is anything wrong with that. They only think about what is going on right here and right now, but they do not consider the consequences that this can have later on down the road.

  • laura b

    laura b

    November 17th, 2015 at 8:48 AM

    For their own protection and safety you have to make that kind of behavior unacceptable. They do not have any idea when or how things like this could later on come back and haunt them so it is up to the adults in charge to make this unacceptable. It might be the way they communicate but that doesn’t ,make it right nor does it mean that I will accept it.

  • Donnan

    Donnan

    November 19th, 2015 at 12:42 PM

    I see a lot of parents who want to ignore this and mistakenly believe that their child would never do anything like this.
    truthfully they probably already have

  • mom39

    mom39

    November 20th, 2015 at 12:32 PM

    Good points here by author.
    For me it’s simple: don’t let my kids have cell phones until 16 and monitor the texts always.

  • Tina

    Tina

    November 21st, 2015 at 1:46 PM

    mom39 I applaud you for your efforts but please understand that it i not just about the cell phones. Most kids are online all the time and they will find a way to hook up with their peers even when you think that you are preventing it.

  • Daniel

    Daniel

    November 23rd, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    There is a natural tendency within all of us as parents to hold onto the mistaken belief that our kids would never do this, but I think that you are living beneath a rock if you think that is true. What is true more than ever is that there are so many different avenues within which our kids can communicate and not all of them are always going to be the healthiest choices. But at some point they have to live and learn and yelling and screaming won’t do the trick. I think that it is important that you just keep coming at them from every angle to show them how this can be a poor choice and maybe eventually it will all sink in.

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