The thought of your teen sexting is terrifying, but it doesn't have to be.
When my friend found out her 14-year-old son was sexting, she flipped out.
It sounds like an all-too-familiar scene for many parents: Her kid left his cellphone unattended. When she heard that "ping," she thoughtlessly grabbed the phone and saw something she now can't unsee: an explicit photo of his girlfriend, who's the same age as he is.
She said she immediately became angry. She was mad at the girl who had sent the photo, she was mad at her son for possibly asking for the picture, and I suspect she was also mad at herself for not having an honest, preemptive conversation with her kid about this rather new phenomenon.
My friend immediately confronted her son, whom she says was upset, embarrassed, and mortified all at once.
He didn't want to talk about it, was angry that she had looked at a message on his phone, and stormed into his room. And after such an intense and uncomfortable — albeit brief — confrontation, my friend backed off. They haven't talked about it since.
When I heard this story, I thought, there has to be a better way.
It's important to note there can be legal ramifications for sexting among teens who are not yet legal adults, but the reality is that it might still happen and parents need to be able to discuss it with them.
So I reached out to Nicole Cushman, MPH. She's the executive director at Answer and co-chair of the Sexuality Task Force at the American Public Health Association. Basically, she knows all about sexting, and her goal is to empower young people through honest, relevant, and effective sexuality education. And boy, did she have some things to teach me.
Sexting occurs when someone sends or receives a sexually explicit text, image, or video on their cellphone.
How many teens nowadays do you see without smartphones? Not very many, right? So while a lot of people sext (I see you, adults), it is also a highly accessible habit for kids who choose to engage. Sexting feels like it was born out of the need for teens to express themselves sexually, merged with all the incredible advances in technology (hello, Snapchat!) over the past 15 years or so.
But for a parent, those sexting waters can be tough to navigate. It's basically the "new" sex talk: How do you talk to your kids about sexting without shaming them? How can you give them some good info (that they'll actually listen to) before they start sexting?
Cushman has some ideas. Here are five small ways to teach your kids about safe sexting:
1. Acknowledge not just the cons, but also the pros of sexting.
Usually, teens who sext are trying to flirt or somehow feel closer to the person they're communicating with, Cushman says. So it's important to first acknowledge that they're exploring their sexuality by expressing sexual feelings, which is totally normal.
Also, consider that sexting is actually completely safe when it comes to physical risks like pregnancy or contracting STDs ... so that's good!
2. It's about educating not just the sender, but also the person on the receiving end.
You know what they say: With great power, comes great responsibility. Cushman advises parents and educators to discuss what's expected from both the sender and the receiver when it comes to sexting.
It's as simple as making it clear that, "Hey, if you're sharing intimate photos or texts with someone, make sure there's an understanding between the both of you that you want to keep those messages private."
Cushman points out that we tend to focus more on the individuals who send the sexts, though, and we pay a lot less attention to those who are receiving the explicit messages. When you really think about it, it is entirely up to them whether a sext goes any further than their phone, so we should be giving kids real talk about what happens on both sides of the phones.
When it comes to talking to your kid who may be receiving sexts, it could be as easy as saying, "Hey, if you're getting explicit texts, it's important you understand this is something very delicate that you've been entrusted with. Make sure you take that responsibility seriously."
3. Teach them how to make expectations clear.
This one is important: Talk to your kids about how to have a conversation about privacy. Encourage them to establish expectations of privacy with whoever they're communicating with, and don't be afraid to ask some tough questions while you're at it.
Cushman suggests first asking your teens to think through their relationships and whether or not they can fully trust the other person.
"Many young people might assume that if they send a message to someone they’re in a relationship with or someone they’re flirting with that it’s somehow implied that the message was meant to be private, but we know from the limited research that is out there that that’s often not what happens," Cushman says.
While there should be no shame in sexting, it's incredibly important to help your teens establish expectations too, offering up ways to frame the conversation with their partner, like: “I know this is something you might want and that you think is fun and sexy, but I wanna make sure that you understand before I do this that I’m expecting you to keep this between the two of us.”
4. If sexting goes wrong with your teen, what are some of the repercussions you can expect — both physically and emotionally?
Well, that depends. Certainly there are feelings of embarrassment, shame, and regret. That's understandable. But there can be an added layer of trauma to the teen if he or she starts to get bullied or harassed.
The internet is unpredictable, so if a sext meant to be kept private is somehow shared online, the emotional effects can be devastating. In the most extreme cases, Cushman says some young people have committed suicide after experiencing persistent harassment over photos that were distributed.
5. What should you do if things go wrong and your kid's explicit photos end up going to unintended places?
First things first — support them. Do not assume that it is their fault. Make sure your son or daughter knows you love them.
Sure, you may be angry, disappointed ... all those things a parent would naturally feel in that tricky situation. But don't let it define your kid, and Cushman says, by all means, it's important not to blame them. Do you remember what it was like being young and sexually curious?
The key here is communication and support. Tomorrow is another day and things will get better.
Let's face it: It's probably going to be a little awkward discussing sexting with your kid.
But that's OK. Better to be open and candid with your teens than to let them walk through this unchartered territory alone. Technology is only going to get more sophisticated, so it might even be important to have the "digital sex talk" before your kid starts engaging in this new world on their own.
Take the time to have an open and realistic conversation. Understand that they're sexually curious and now have all this technology to experiment with. Parents are their kids' first teachers, so talk to them about sexting: the good, the bad, and the ugly. That way, if they choose to engage, they have all the information they need to help keep them safe.