Back in the day, flirting was in person or via passed notes. Or maybe you slipped a message into someone’s locker. Or asked your friend to ask their friend if, you know, they kinda liked you….
For teens and tweens today, it’s the same, except with technology thrown in. Teens’ communication, including flirting, is mostly done on their cell phones. Which is fine…until it’s not. When text flirting gets downright sexy, things can get more complicated—especially when sexual images get into the mix.
Sexting can easily get out of control in ways old-fashioned flirting didn’t. That’s why it’s so important for parents to talk about sexting with teens and tweens, as well as set up some common sense technology rules.
“But how do I do that?” you’re probably asking. And when.. and what about exactly?
This is all so new and no other generation of parents has had to deal with this. Aren’t we the lucky ones. But just like some of those other awkward conversations we have with our teens and tweens, you simply take a deep breath and begin.
Here are some tips and talking points to help get you started:
What you need to know about sexting
Sexting Starts Earlier Than You Think
You might think that sexting is a big deal among high schoolers. But actually, it often starts in middle school. Preteens may have plenty of hormones going but not so much judgment.
They quickly learn that sending and especially receiving sexy texts is not only exciting but may have social benefits. The risks and possible long-term consequences aren’t even on their radar. That’s why it’s important that parents start talking about sexting while kids are quite young.
Why Kids Sext
Sexts can be sent to and from people of any gender. But by far the most common situation among young people is a girl sending a sext to a boy, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.
These are the main reasons kids sext:
Personal – Let’s be honest: It feels powerful and exciting to feel sexy. That’s as true for teens as it is for any adult. Kids may want to experiment with taking sexy selfies. If it never leaves their phone, that’s not such a bad thing.
Relational – When two teens are dating, one may send the other a sexy image as a personal gift.
Social status – Girls sometimes send a sext to an older or cooler guy she’s trying to impress. Maybe she’s hoping to date him, or to improve her social status by being “hot” enough to merit his attention. Sometimes a girl or her trying-to-be-helpful friends may initiate this. Sometimes girls are cajoled or pressured to send sexts.
How Sexting Can Go Wrong
The problem with sexting is that once a picture leaves someone’s phone, she loses control of it. It can be shared among a group of guys, around the whole school, or out in the wide world. You could be making other people deal with unwanted sexual content as well.
How an image intended for one person can get into the wrong hands depends on whom the sext is sent to:
A sexual predator – The most frightening scenario is when a teen or preteen sends a sexual image to someone they haven’t met in real life. Sexual predators often pretend to be close to the target’s age. They work slowly to win the kid’s trust and then start to ask for relatively small sexy favors, like a photo showing part of her bra. From there, the requests escalate. Any sexts received by a sexual predator have a good chance of being shared with other kiddie-porn users—including internationally, where they’re beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. It’s a horrible situation.
A cool guy she knows – The problem with sending a sext to impress someone is that for the recipient, the sext is likely to be a trophy—which has value only when he shows it off or shares it with other guys. The image she intended for his eyes only may be on dozens of guys’ phones by lunchtime.
A boyfriend – There are risks sexting even to someone you trust. Even a decent guy may get upset if the relationship ends and lash out impulsively by sharing a sext. Or one of his friends may stumble across the image and pass it along.
Make sure your teens understand: Once an image leaves their phone, they have no control over who might see it. It might go to every kid at their school or to creeps around the world.
Know the legal risks of sexting
Yes, there are laws on sending inappropriate pictures via text.
In some states, a young teen sending a sext could be charged with creating child pornography and the recipient can be charged with possession of child porn (even if they didn’t request the picture). Yes, really.
Some states are starting to change these laws so that misguided teens don’t get charged with felonies and labeled sex offenders. But teens should be told that there can be real, serious consequences of sending inappropriate pictures (Try explaining the images or the charges to a college admissions officer, for instance.)
If your child receives a sext, my law-enforcement sources tell me, their safest move legally is to immediately contact the authorities. The image might be needed to investigate criminal activity or protect someone who’s being mistreated. Hiding and especially sharing images increases the risk of your child getting in trouble. This is not a situation that kids can handle on their own.
It’s Not OK to Pressure Someone
This should be obvious, but make sure your kid knows it’s not okay to pressure someone to send a sext. Just as with any form of sexual activity, the other person must be fully willing to consent. If they’re not, back off.
Tell them that for you, it’s a matter of respect. And if they’re old enough to have technology, they must show they’re old enough to use it responsibly.
Not Just Scare Tactics
So, there are real risks to sexting. It’s scary to think about your kid doing something impulsive and paying a high price later. But if you freak out about sexting and come on too strong about the risks, kids may tune you out.
Instead, ask what they know about sexting and what they’ve seen at school. Do they know of guys who show off sexts? Have they heard about girls getting embarrassed because a sext was shared? If any towns near you have had a sexting scandal, show kids news articles to bring home that yes, this really does happen.
Also, acknowledge the fun, flirty aspect of sexting. Because it is pretty exciting. Then point out that this particular form of flirting has risks that, on balance, just aren’t worth it.
This post was contributed by Jill Whitney, LMFT. She is the mom of two twenty-somethings and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut. In addition to her clinical work, she conducts workshops on talking about sexuality, writes at KeepTheTalkGoing.com, and has been quoted in dozens of articles on relationships and sexuality. She’s passionate about improving communication about sexuality, especially between parents and kids.