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If there is a generational divide today it is definitely digital. It’s not like parents don’t know how to use smartphones and understand how to use social media—they do (mostly). The generational divide is a mentality. Parents send texts and make posts on social, but they fail to realize that online, digital life is the main life that matters to their teens. What’s worse is, parents sometimes seem blissfully unaware of some of the dangers that left unchecked and unsupervised, can get their teen into serious trouble. And if they don’t understand the dangers, they can’t possibly be talking to their teens about them.

Dating Violence in the Digital Age Pop Quiz:

  1. You probably know what “sexting” is, but what is “sextortion?”
  2. How many clicks is PornHub, a porn site filled with often violent porn, from Snapchat?
  3. Define “sexual bullying.”
  4. What percent of teens who experienced digital abuse also experienced physical abuse?
  5. True or False: If you aren’t dating, you are less likely to be abused and harassed.

Answers:

  1. “Sextortion” is using threats or pictures already in your possession to get an individual to send more (often more explicit photos or videos) or sometimes even money to ensure you don’t send out pictures to the school or family members on social media.
  2. 5 clicks from one of the most popular teen apps. And pornography is often teaching boys (and girls) about human sexuality and what is acceptable and normal behavior—even if it is violent.
  3. “Sexual bullying” is the name-calling, psychological, and often physical abuse suffered by someone who has had a compromising photograph shared around the school. It has caused victims to have to switch schools and even commit suicide.
  4. 52% of teens who have experienced digital abuse will also experience physical abuse.
  5. False. Not being in a dating relationship does not spare someone from the potential abuse physically or online.

★ Here is one more sobering statistic—while 25% of teens are harassed or abused digitally, only about 9% seek out help. (And it is rarely from parents or teachers.)

Based on the data, if parents want to help guide and guard against things like this happening to their children, they really need to get educated and be willing to initiate conversations with their children. Otherwise, you’re leaving your teen to navigate a Digital City with creepy people and dangerous back alleys.

A. Be a parent that is approachable, askable, and relatable.

Don’t freak out over what you hear. Steer clear of interrogating your teen with a million questions. If you can’t keep your emotions in check, your teen won’t talk to you about the digital part of their lives for a really long time. (Also, realize your teen could do nothing wrong and something explicit could be sent to their phone.)

Smartphones, the internet, video games, and social media all have their benefits and their dangers. Fortunately, there are tons of resources available on the internet to educate yourself.

B. Be aware of the signs of dating abuse and harassment.

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. They have an excellent list on their website of warning signs.

Have you noticed any of these warning signs in your teen?

C. Help your teen be aware of the short-term consequences AND long-term.

Not only could your teen become the victim of mental, psychological, and physical abuse, but a simple nude photo sent to their boyfriend or girlfriend puts their future at significant risk. The internet is forever, no matter how much they may think something is deleted. When a future employer or the school of their choice Googles their name, what’s going to come up?

Use these resources below to help you start the conversation about dating violence in the digital age…

6 Tips for Teaching Your Teen Healthy Dating Habits

8 Warning Signs of Unhealthy Dating Relationships

10 Red Flags in a Dating Relationship

What to Do if Your Teen is Sexting

How to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting

What To Do If Your Teen Is Having Sex

How Do I Get My Teen To Talk To Me?    

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

(Part 2) – Check out Part 1, How to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting

In part one, we talked about giving your child a smartphone and what they need to know about sexting to protect themselves. Now, regardless of how you found out, you know your teenage son or daughter is sexting. Step #1, get a hold of your own emotions—embarrassment, guilt, disappointment, shock, anger—so you can have a productive conversation with your teen. If you need to go for a walk, phone a friend, talk to your spouse—whatever. It’s completely okay to tell your teen, “We’ll discuss this tomorrow.It’s not only okay, but it is also very wise. You have thoughts to get together.

Thought #1: What do I want to accomplish with this conversation—for my teen and for myself as a parent? Don’t rush thinking this through. Have goals.

Thought #2: This isn’t going to be a one-time talk. You want to open the door for an ongoing conversation about sexting as well as other difficult teen conversations—pornography, sex, drugs, alcohol, dating violence, etc. You want to be an empathetic, askable parent who your teen feels comfortable talking to about anything.

Thought #3: Try to find a time and place that allows for private undistracted, uninterrupted conversation. 

[Here’s an example of a real conversation about pornography. Notice the parent doesn’t lecture, doesn’t ask a million questions, doesn’t guilt-trip their child. The parent clearly doesn’t condone pornography but is more interested in gently probing their teen’s thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. This doesn’t mean there will be no consequences. But the parent is trying to build a relationship to keep these kinds of talks going.]

Step 1

In a calm, direct voice, ask your teen about the circumstances around the sexting. Then wait and really listen to them without judgmental faces or tones. Keep your mind and your body language open. You can disapprove of what your teen did but still be deeply concerned about them, validate their feelings, and the fallout of their choices. 

✦A word about punishments for sexting. The normal, obvious go-to is to take their phone away. Maybe you need to in their situation. This might be their 5th offense. They may not be ready for the responsibility that comes with a smartphone. Maybe they need an off-the-shelf phone that just allows them to talk and text. 

I don’t usually dabble in how parents punish their kids. Every kid and every family is different. I will say this: I’m a big fan of letting the universe handle some of the disciplining of my kids. I’m referring to natural and logical consequences. Sometimes the punishment is built into the poor choice. The choice to sext often has some built-in consequences like guilt, humiliation, a destroyed reputation, being bullied online and in real life, getting in trouble at school, the law getting involved, and on and on. You know your child better than anyone. How are they navigating these consequences? Do you need to drop the hammer on them or help them up? We’ve all done something we regretted. Making mistakes is a normal part of growing up. The important thing is to learn from it.

Step 2

Ask probing questions. NOTE: This is different than an interrogation. As you have a conversation, try to work in some of these questions.

  • What do you get out of sexting? How does it make you feel?
  • Did you feel pressured to do it?
  • Did the recipient promise not to show anyone?
  • What is considered “normal” about sexting among your peers?
  • Have you received sexts? What did you do with them?
  • Are there things on your phone you wouldn’t want me to see?
  • What has been the fallout of your sexting?
  • Do you think sexting is wrong? Why or why not?

Resist the urge to lecture or ask a million follow-up questions. Act comfortable and be direct. Show you’re really listening and trying to understand your teen and let them feel heard. You may not get to all this in one conversation. That’s okay. Know when to stop the conversation. You can always pick it back up. Let your teen know you love them no matter what.

Step 3

There are some things your teen needs to know about sexting. (They will roll their eyes. Ignore it.) You have a responsibility as a parent to make sure they know and understand certain things. So what are you supposed to do, whether you think your teen is sexting already or whether you’re worried they might start in the future? Believe it or not, you’re not completely powerless. So what can you do? Sheknows.com breaks it down.

  • Talk to your teen. A scary thought for many of us, but one of those unavoidable responsibilities of parenting. Talk to them about the possible long-term consequences of getting involved in sexting. Like the fact that nude images of kids under age 18 are child pornography, which is illegal. Talk about the short-term consequences, like the whole school getting a hold of a “private” photo shared with a former boyfriend or girlfriend. Talk about self-esteem and self-respect. Consider how you might be setting yourself up for a lot of drama.
  • Set rules. Do you let your kids drive drunk? Do you let them ride in the car with no seat belts? So why give them something as dangerous as a cell phone and not establish rules? Start random phone checks, and go through everything on it regularly.
  • Take away the cell phone. Drastic, yes, but sometimes necessary when nothing else is working. If you truly don’t trust your child, why would you trust them with a tool they can use to bully others? 

Resources:

Common Sense Media: Sexting Handbook

Amanda Todd Legacy Society

Amanda Todd YouTube Video (Some might find content disturbing.)

6 Things Every Teen Needs to Know About Sexting

Why Is Sexting a Problem for Teens?

The Consequences of Sexting for Teens

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.

(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.