I’ve read a lot of pieces about teens and sexting. Most begin with a warning to families that they should sit down, brace themselves or do whatever it is they do before someone hits them in the face with bad news. In keeping with convention, here are my words of caution before we delve into this topic:
Don’t freak out.
There are definitely some concerns around youth and sexting, and there are potentially negative consequences that families should be aware of. But sexting isn’t the epidemic some folks think it is. There are even some positive aspects. So let’s break it down and look at why youth are sexting and what we can do about it.
Yes, our kids are sexting... but probably not as much as we think.
If you’re not familiar with the term, “sexting” it’s when folks share sexual pictures of themselves with other people usually via text message or an app like Snapchat. There’s been big hype in the mainstream media about sexting the past couple of years and many that take the panicky stance we sometimes assume when talking about teens and sexual behaviour. (Does anyone remember the all the hoopla around youth and “rainbow parties” a few years back?)
There was never any compelling evidence of rainbow parties being a real thing that teens did. Conversely, there is research that tells us youth are sexting, though not as frequently as we might think. The Teen Health and Technology Survey from The Center For Innovative Health Research, revealed that approximately 7% of participants between 13-18 had sent or shown someone a nude or nearly nude photo. For youth under 15, slightly more than 2% reported sexting and the overwhelming majority of people who were sexting were 17 and 18 years old.
When new sexual practices emerge, especially amongst younger people, often our first reaction as a society is fear. We’re not comfortable with teen sexuality and we’re definitely not comfortable with teen sexuality that involves new technology that we didn’t experience when we were that age. So these stories that describe sexting as a dangerous or corrupting epidemic aren’t totally surprising, but a lot of the time, they aren’t painting an accurate picture of what youth are actually doing.
Although the evidence suggests mosts teens are sexting, some youth do share sexual images with romantic or sexual partners, their crushes and sometimes even friends. What’s behind that behaviour? According to KidsHealth.org, some of the most common reasons teen sext include wanting approval from their peers or attention from someone they like.
Sometimes when we hear that youth want to be noticed, or to be liked, we decide that these aren’t valid reasons to engage in sexual behaviour like sexting. But teens are human beings and humans are social animals. Most of us do all sorts of things to get attention. We seek approval all the time from our family, our friends, our employers, even our casual acquaintances. We do those things because it feels good and also because we’re pack animals. We need other people to like us and be with us to survive. Attention and approval are also important components of sexual relationships, as it’s pretty hard to enjoy sex with someone who doesn’t notice or like us on any level. What isn’t awesome is when we compromise our own needs and boundaries in order to make others happy. A snapshot of various surveys reveals that around 12% of youth who send sexual pictures feel pressure to do so.
But even then, all is not lost. Adolescence is a time of intense growth and social learning. Sexual relationships are new for youth and they aren’t always clear on what their needs and boundaries are. They’re trying to figure it all out... and sexting may be part of that process. Yep, teens can be overzealous, awkward and inappropriate as they sort out their social and sexual identities. But so are adults. Hell, it’s my job to know stuff about sex, and I still have some trainwreck moments.
Teens sexting is a new activity but it’s rooted in very old, familiar, normal human behaviour.
Believe or not, there can be some benefits to sexting. Learning to communicate with sexual partners about our desires, fantasies and boundaries is valuable and sexting is way that youth can develop some of those skills.
Researchers at the University of Drexel have noted a correlation between consensual sexting and an increase in relationship satisfaction.
Sexting can also be a potentially fun, pleasurable activity that doesn’t carry any risk of unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection.
Sexting can also be a safer way for some youth to connect sexually, especially marginalized youth who worry about facing bullying or violence if they express their attraction openly.
One of the biggest concern I hear from parents is about how vulnerable sexual can be once they’ve been shared. It’s a legit worry. Digital communications can be passed along easily and if they do go public, they’re very difficult, if not impossible to delete.
It’s also easy to send messages or create sexual photos on impulse. It can be done in seconds, without taking time to evaluate the benefits and consequences of that decision.
Social media and online culture mean that many teens have connections, relationships with people they’ve never met or seen real life. Online relationships can still involve real feelings and be intensely rewarding. But are also some folks online who are deceptive and dishonest about who they are and what their intentions are, so there’s additional risk if teens choose to send pictures to people they’ve only met in virtual space.
Finally, in many places, youth who send nude or semi-nude photos can be charged with distributing child pornography. If we’re ever at a party, let’s grab a drink and I’ll tell you my opinions about criminalizing teens who sext. But my feelings aside, teens should know that there can be legal consequences for sending sexy photos.
First: don’t freak out.
You can have a conversation with your teen about sexting. And by “a conversation”, I mean lots of conversations. Have short talks. Have long talks. Use humor. Get heavy, if you need to. Open with a nice, general question to get the discussion going. Asking “Are you sexting,” is very to the point, but it can put your teen on the defensive and shut down the conversation before it starts. Something like, “Is sexting really as big a deal as they say on the news,” gives youth the opportunity to share their opinion and show off a bit of their expertise. Teens have grown up with this technology and in many ways they know more about it than we do. Sometimes youth are more willing to listen to us, when we’re willing to learn from them as well.
We can talk about risk. Anytime we put trust in someone else, we’re making ourselves vulnerable and taking a risk. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s worth encouraging our kids to think about what trust means for them. Can they see themselves trusting someone else with a sexual photo? If so, how is that trust built or earned? How has trust happened in other relationships? What can we do if trust is broken or violated? (If anyone here is a fan of researcher Brené Brown, she has free course on The Anatomy Of Trust, that’s a great tool for families and teens alike)
We can talk about responsibility. There’s a lot of talk about protecting ourselves in the digital world. What’s missing are the lessons about how to care for others in digital spaces. Yes, there will always be those bastards, who use the convenience and anonymity of the Internet to do their hateful work. But the rest of us need to be clear that that behaviour isn’t acceptable. We need to be clear with our kids that they can the choice to be respectful, responsible digital citizens. That just because the nude photo someone sent to our phone *can* be shared, that doesn’t mean we should. That if someone shares a message, video or photo, we know wasn’t meant for public consumption, we can choose to delete or ignore it. That we shouldn’t mock or shame the subjects of that content, but call out the people who are passing it around. And we also need to be aware of what we’re modelling through our reactions and choices to things like nude photos, celebrity sex tapes and other leaked content that emerges.
Finally we can be supportive. Some teens will sext. And some of them will have their photos shared or posted with people who weren’t meant to see them. For some teens it’s a minor incident that blows over within a few days. For others, it’s devastating emotionally and socially. Seeing the children we love so dearly struggle through painful situations is brutal. Sometimes our impulse is to lecture, scold and do what we can to make sure they never, ever get hurt that way again. But if sexting has gone badly for your teen, trust when I say they’re obsessing about what went wrong and how to avoid having it happen again.
They don’t need to hear about what they could or should have done differently. They need their family to be on their side, to take care of them and to understand. We can help by reminding them that taking a sexual risk doesn’t change the fact that they’re a good, valuable person. We can reassure them that sexual desire is human, that wanting someone to like or desire us back is also human. And that choosing to trust someone takes a lot of guts. It’s not their fault if that someone proves themselves unworthy of that trust, that it’s absolutely okay to feel hurt, betrayed, angry or sad about it and that no matter what anyone else says or does, you’ve got their back.
Kids are sexting. Not that much. Talk to your teens, love them, support them, expect a few bumps along the road to sexual maturity and remember...don’t freak out.