"Dear Dr Justin, I have a teenage daughter who has been sending inappropriate photos to boys, and one has been shared around amongst her peer group. We’ve raised her to know that’s wrong, but she still doesn’t seem to get it. What should we do?"
Sexting (or ‘sex texting’) has become increasingly common in the past five years. Kids don’t call it that though. They just call it “sending nudes”. A recent study, which analysed the sexting behaviours of over 10,300 teens, found that approximately one in six teens are sending nude photos, and over one in four are receiving them. In fact, it’s becoming so prevalent that some experts are starting to accept it as just a normal part of adolescent sexuality. But there is no such thing as ‘safe sexting’. This behaviour poses substantial risks to our teens’ safety, health and wellbeing, as well as the possibility of humiliation, legal ramifications, and even extortion. The risks are real, and the impact can be devastating.
First, stay calm
OK, so you know your teen has been sexting, and images are out there. It’s important to stay calm and be reassuring. This is not the time to criticise or punish. Threatening to remove the child’s device is only going to make things worse at this point. Instead, we need to be calm enough to enter into dialogue with our child so we can work out the best action to take.
Second, explore the issue with your teen
What’s going on that is making your teen want to do this? Is someone pressuring her? Does she think it will make her popular? Or is there an emotional reason behind it? If it’s a boy, why is he sending images and who to? Or who is he receiving them from? Are the sexts consensual? If another teen has been pressuring your teen, you’ll need to gently let the parents know what has happened. In most situations, the parents will be mortified and the behaviour will end there. However, if the behaviour is predatory, your child is being sexually harassed or the parents are unhelpful, speak to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner or even the police immediately.
Third, discuss the ramifications
Once you understand why your teen has been sexting, talk to her (or him) gently about the possible consequences of those actions. In responding to the question asked above, your daughter has already experienced the first consequence. The image has been shared. Some data suggests that 12% of teens who receive a sext will forward it without consent. But this is just one of many possible ramifications.
Digital media lasts forever. It can affect her reputation into adulthood. It also leads to negative feelings, such as humiliation, insecurity, stress, and anxiety. And there are legal ramifications. Teens need to understand that taking, sending or forwarding nude photos of anyone under the age of 18, including the teen herself, is illegal and could lead to serious legal consequences. In most Australian states it can lead to being labelled a sex offender.
Fourth, establish some ground rules
With your teen’s input, brainstorm simple black-and-white rules about sexting and digital safety in general. While rules can be broken, knowing exactly where the line is makes it much easier for our teens to comply. Whether your teens are boys or girls, make rules around both sending and requesting sexts. Laying out equal expectations for our teens sets the groundwork for the development of healthy, equitable relationships.
Fifth, keep talking
Our teens need us, whether they admit it or not. Keep a dialogue open. Talk to them about resisting peer pressure and about healthy relationships (both sexual and otherwise). Be empathetic and understanding. But most of all, be available.
Should you talk to the other parents?
Some experts advise taking immediate action by involving the parents of other kids involved. This is so that you can ask them to delete any images from all devices and social media platforms their child may have posted them on. This may work in some instances, but it requires parents to be confident, calm, and kind. Barging through a conversation and making accusations about a person’s teenager followed by demands can sometimes take a turn for the worst. While most parents will want to help you, the way you approach them is important.
Involving the school and police
This material is illegal. It can lead to lifelong challenges, or tragic endings. I suggest that you nip these problems in the bud by alerting your child’s school and the schools of any students involved. Finally, if the images have been shared on social media, contact the platform and ask for them to be removed. If coercion or other illegal activity occurred around the production or dissemination of the pictures or video, you might also contact the police and the eSafety commissioner.
The key issue, however, is the conversation that happens with your child. Teens hate talking about these things. Tread sensitively. Explore. Take your time. Build your relationship. Encourage and love her. And invite wise decision making. If you’re struggling with the hard conversations, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner has some great resources available.