If you have a middle schooler or high schooler, NOW is a perfect time to have or update your Sexting Talk. Even if you think you’ve had this chat, feel free to bring it up again, because once is never enough when it comes to adolescents learning important lessons.
First, let me acknowledge that this can be a scary topic for any parent, but I’m here to confirm that it definitely falls under your job description as Chief Safety Officer 👩🏼✈️ and Queen of Damage Control.👸🏽
For middle schoolers, who are typically just coming into sexual curiosity yet lack the confidence to explore it face to face, cell phones provide a way to test the waters. It’s not hard for their curiosity and impulsivity to overpower their common sense. As teens and their relationships mature, they may use sexting as part of consensual sharing of affection and “spice.” It’s not that different than the way their parents may have whispered sexy secrets or explored naked skin with curious eyes and wandering hands – except it’s virtual (which may seem less risky, but actually introduces a whole new frontier of risks😱).
Regardless of age, sexting is a confusing reality for young people because sexting as sexual exploration can be a pretty normal developmental curiosity, but it can also be abusive and carry significant legal risks.
For parents, it’s a complicated discussion because research indicates that kids who both send and receive sexts are more popular. Furthermore, many young people believe that a “nude” sent without a face is no big deal. Yikes and yikes.
And then there are the legalities. Yes, it’s true that anyone under the age of 18 who takes a nude or partially nude selfie has produced child pornography according to the law. Similarly, anyone who sends or shares that photo is distributing child porn. States vary in how strict they pursue these cases, but there are definitely cases of minors being charged and required to register as sex crime offenders. Finally, there are also legal issues related to sending unrequested nudes or sending nudes that were consensually obtained, but without consent to distribute. It’s definitely complicated, and mistakes can be devastating.
See? There’s so much to talk about! But let’s simplify.
Let me address the knee-jerk response first: “Just say no,” and “Just don’t do it,” JUST DON’T WORK. There’s plenty of research to confirm that. Besides, by the time a child is in middle school, she is old enough to deserve honest answers and a more helpful conversation that will allow her successfully navigate challenges ahead.
So what’s the best tactic to help your child avoid the risks associated with sexting?
Turn it into a WHAT’S-YOUR-PLAN Talk.
Assume your daughter is likely to receive a request to “send nudes,” and she’s likely to receive unrequested nudes (the dreaded “dick pic”). Based on current statistics of high school students, these are both accurate assumptions. Ask her to come up with a plan for both situations. Let her propose one solution, then ask for others. Add a complicating factor, then have her come up with an alternate response.
We know from adolescent brain development that young people are not great at thinking fast on their feet – especially in emotionally charged situations (“send nudes” carries a boatload of emotional charge related to social status and desirability).
HOWEVER, when given time to think about and process challenging scenarios, they are brilliantly creative problem-solvers. This type of discussion is actually exercising her brain and preparing her to make decisions that are more in line with her values and goals for her own behavior.
Here’s one way how:
Start with a story or propose a realistic challenge. Don’t just ask, “Would you ever send a nude?” Make it real and relevant. Include a crush, or a popular student, or her best friend’s older brother, or the preacher’s kid.
If her first replies are simple, like “I’d just say no,” or “I’d block him,” push her a little further. What if there are repeated requests? Promises to keep it private? Persuasive arguments about why it’s no big deal or it will assure a relationship?
Once she imagines herself in a real-world scenario (especially if it’s one that is appealing to her), that’s when the magic happens. That’s when she'll put a lot more thought into her responses, and come up with creative and brilliant solutions.
Sometimes she'll come up with a funny or snarky response that shows humor yet lets the requestor know she's not participating (one 8th grader told me she was asked to send a nude, and she sent a black screen with the comment “it's dark in here, but this is all you get”). She might come up with a sincere reply like, “I can’t believe you’d ask for that. You seem like a nice person, but that’s just not appropriate.” And sometimes, a girl just has to make it stop with direct language like “STOP ASKING. I will report you.”
Most of all, once she’s thought through possible responses, remind her that she should ALWAYS tell you or another trusted adult if she EVER feels threatened, harassed, or simply doesn’t know how to handle unwanted requests or unrequested sexts. And if she knows the requestor, and especially if it’s someone young, telling an adult can also help that person learn that unwanted sexting is no joke and that harassment and coercion are never appropriate. We all make mistakes, but when we learn from them, we do better.
In addition to the tip above, check out our Girlology TV episode with Girlology's expert Dr. Megan Maas: Protecting Her From Sexy Selfies and Sexting.
And as always, don't forget, with a Girlology membership, you get over 500 grade-by-grade videos and resources to support you and the girls you care for through every age and stage. Learn more HERE.