Unrecognizable young girl using a touch phone modern gadget.In a recent issue of Pediatrics, researchers studied a group of seventh-graders to see how prevalent sexting was in that age group (ages 12-14), as well as whether sexting is associated with sexual activity.

The answer for what percentage were sexting is 22%, which is good news or bad news depending on how pessimistic you are. They did find that those young teens who were sexting were more likely to be sexually active. (This makes sense to me; teens who are exploring their sexuality would be more likely to use different methods of sexual expression.)

The movie Parenthood, which came out in 1989, depicts a young woman who uses a traditional camera to take pictures of her and her boyfriend having sex. The photos are returned from the lab and her mother opens them. Cringe-inducing as the scene was at the time, nowadays it seems quaint. The photos are on paper! The only ones who can see them are people actually holding photographs! How safe and nonthreatening!

Sexting, like social media, is fairly new to all of us. In fact, it’s so new that our laws haven’t caught up with it. We’ve been left with a somewhat absurd situation: a fourteen-year-old sending their boyfriend a suggestive picture could technically be guilty of distributing child pornography, and the recipient could be guilty of possessing it.

The problem with sexting, unlike the sexual notes, phone calls, and photographs of an earlier generation, is that the messages and images don’t exist in 3-D space. You rip up a sexually explicit letter or picture, and it’s ripped up. Electronic messages and images can propagate like wildfire. It’s like a chain-letter on overdrive; it takes minutes to reach the entire school as opposed to months. And this chain letter is very, very damaging to one or two people.

A generation that is receiving a cell phone in childhood often takes it for granted. A cell phone, a Tumblr account, Snapchat- these are all tools.  Like all tools, they can be useful (communication, entertainment, creativity) and they can be abused (bullying, procrastinating, sending naked pictures). Teens need to be educated about the benefits and risks of the tools they’re using.

Talk with your teen about sexting in a way that empowers them to make good decisions. Ask them if their friends are sexting, or what they’ve heard about it. Ask why they think people send sexually explicit messages and texts. Give examples of your own, like:

  • They were hoping to get one back from someone they like.
  • Their boyfriend or girlfriend really wanted one.
  • They were feeling sexy and wanted to express themselves.
  • Their friends were doing it and dared them to do it.
  • They were flirting.
  • They had had sexual contact with someone so it seemed natural.

Then talk about the downsides, particularly that texts and pictures can get out of control quickly. A nice way to illustrate your point is to get the pen and paper, and draw it out. “Let’s say you sext Jim (or whoever). Someone lies to Jim and says you called him a loser and you’re cheating on him. Jim gets mad, and sends your picture/ message to three people before he can think about what he’s doing. Who are three of his friends? They each send it to two friends- who are two friends they might send it to?” Draw out a map (you’ll have to stop using names at some point) until the text or pictures is sent to dozens of people. Figure out how long this might reasonably take (answer: under an hour, or at least less than a day.) How would your teen feel with all these people having their message or picture?

Remind your teen that they are smart enough to follow a “no sexting” rule, and that this is what you expect from them. Remind them of the possible legal issues. Together, come up with consequences for breaking this rule. If you have a younger teen and want to monitor their texts, be open about what your plan is. And remind your teen to never, ever pass save or pass on sexual messages or pictures they might receive.

If you discover that your teen is sexting, find out if they understand the risks involved. Educate them. Start a discussion. Ask them if they are having “real-life” sexual activity. Remember that it takes a lot of guidance and support for teens to refrain from doing something that feels good at the time.

Take note of this study, and start talking about this early. From these results, I’d say start talking with your teen about this issue- at least in general terms- around age 10 or 11.

How have you dealt with this emerging problems, and what do you think is the best way for parents to educate teens?