(Part 1), Check out Part 2, What to Do If When Your Teen is Sexting

Maybe one of the biggest generational divides today is digital. Parents think it’s just a mobile phone that you can check email on and get driving directions. They can listen to music, shop, and keep up with friends on Facebook. For a parent, usually, their phone is just a part of their life.

But to kids, a smartphone IS their life. Online is where the action’s at—at least the action that matters. It’s where they “hang out” with their friends and flirt and gossip. It’s where they carry on their romantic relationships. It is also where they stand up for beliefs and express opinions. It’s not just a phone for them. It’s a passport to a world where their identity is fluid, time and space are more than relative, there are very few rules and often very little parental supervision.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that parents often seem in the dark about sexting. This is why so many parents can’t believe their shy, introverted, reserved daughter is sending nude pictures of herself to classmates or her boyfriend. “She’s not that kind of girl!” She probably isn’t—in the real world.

But it’s a whole different world online.

Get past the parental, “Why would they do that?

Keep in mind that to most teens, sexting has been normalized. Sexting is a “normal” way to interact with their peers. Many young people see nothing wrong with sexting, especially if “everyone is doing it,” or they are in a “committed” relationship. Meanwhile, some teens sext because they’ve been dared or they’re trying to entice someone. Some view it as a joke, and sadly, teens often feel pressured to sext. 

Think of the combination of being at an age when you are already curious about sex and also have all this technology at your disposal. Some teens find the combination irresistible.

1. What is “sexting?”

Sexting involves the exchange of sexually suggestive or explicit content, such as messages or photographs, between mobile devices. Interestingly enough, the word was first listed in the dictionary in 2012—around the time smartphones were gaining popularity among teens. (The good news is that actual sex among teens has been going down for the last 10 years according to the CDC. But the bad news is, many attribute this decrease in actual sex to increases in the use of pornography and sexting.)

A study in JAMA Pediatrics published in 2009 found that about 15% of those between the ages of 12 and 17 had sent sexts. And approximately, over 25% have received them. 

Almost 10 years later, according to research by JAMA in 2018, as many as 1 in 8 youth send or forward sexts without permission, which can devastate the subject or recipient of such messages. One report uncovered that some children as young as 10 years old are exposed to sexting. Unfortunately, 54% of teens under the age of 18 admit to having sent sexually-tinged messages or inappropriate pictures. 

So, sexting is on the rise.

We know that 53% of teens who sext are girls while 47% are boys. 1 in 5 teens has sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves. Almost 20% of teens have reported being forwarded a picture or video that was not intended for them, with over half of those teens admitting to forwarding it to more than one other person

As we try to get accurate information on a subject that depends on self-reporting, the bottom line is that sexting is a growing teen reality that’s here to stay.

2. When should I talk to my child about it?

As soon as they get a cellphone or smartphone. Don’t wait until there’s an issue or you find something on their phone. This is a conversation that comes with receiving a phone. HERE is a great article about when and how you should give your child a phone.

All they might need to know is that some people use their phones for inappropriate things. If they receive a text, a request, or a picture that makes them feel uncomfortable, they need to bring it to Mommy or Daddy right away. They aren’t in trouble, Mommy and Daddy just want to talk to them about how to handle it. Remember, your child can do NOTHING wrong and still accidentally come across inappropriate content or have it sent to them.

3. How do I talk with my child about sexting?

Don’t lecture. Do not freak out if you’ve found something on your teen’s phone or you hear what some of their friends are doing. ASK QUESTIONS—compassionately and empathetically. Be a good active listener. HERE is a great blog about talking to your teen in general. HERE & HERE are great blogs about talking to your teen about sensitive topics like pornography and sex. They have great principles that apply to talks with your teen about sexting, too.

Remember—this is an opportunity. You can have a tone and approach that opens the door for future conversations and draws your teen toward you OR you can have a tone and approach that slams this important door shut and pushes your teen away. (And they won’t be talking to you about anything personal for a long, long time.)

4. What topics should I cover?

  • When nude pictures or partially nude pictures involve minors, many states consider this child pornography. Although state laws vary, in some states exchanging nude photos of minors also is considered a felony—even when the photos taken and shared are consensual. (These are the sexting laws from state to state.)
  • Remind your kids that once an image is sent, it can never be retrieved and they will lose control of it—even if they “delete” it. The image is out there forever. Ask teens how they would feel if their teachers, parents, or the entire school saw the picture because that happens all the time. (Remember, the part of their brain that takes long-term consequences into account when decision-making, literally has not fully developed yet. Teens are stuck in a moment and they can’t get out of it.)
  • Talk about pressures to send revealing photos. Let teens know that you understand how they can be pushed or dared into sending something. Tell them that no matter how big the social pressure is, the potential social humiliation from the spread of the picture can be hundreds of times worse. Remind them that they are opening themselves up to blackmail or “sextortion.” (Someone with a picture of them may threaten to post it all over their social media if they don’t send more.) It’s a big deal. A number of teens have committed suicide because their picture went around school with the sexual bullying that goes with it. Over half of the kids who experience online bullying also experience bullying in the real world. 
  • Teach them that we live in a world where getting a scholarship, a job, or into the school of their choice, often depends on what comes up when someone Googles their name. They need to know that the internet is forever.
  •  Empower them. If someone sends them a photo, they should delete it immediately. It’s better to be part of the solution than the problem. Besides, if they do send it on, they’re distributing pornography—and again, that’s against the law. They should know they can say no.

Even if your teen decides they totally trust the person, or they’re dating the person, it’s worth it to think about a few “what ifs” before sexting.

What if…

  • The recipient loses his or her phone?
  • A friend scrolls through his or her messages and sees it?
  • A parent checks the recipient’s phone and sees it?
  • The recipient changes his or her mind about not sharing it?
  • The relationship circumstances change? (They break up. Photo(s) goes EVERYWHERE, even to sweet Nana. This is called revenge porn.)

Is your teen willing to take ALL those risks?

Talking to your teen about sexting can be awkward and uncomfortable (for both of you), but it also has the potential to strengthen the bond between you and your teen. Just like other uncomfortable topics, probe gently, be a good listener, be an “askable” parent, and remember these aren’t one-time talks; these are ongoing conversations. You can do it!


If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

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