Talking to your children about sex raises the anxiety level for many parents. Now add on how they are expressing themselves sexually online. Many parents say "my child wouldn't do that." The challenge is that according to a study done by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20% of teens admit that they are. One way to look at it is that 80% of teens are not sexting. Since there is no easy way to tell which teen falls into the 20% bucket vs. the 80% bucket, here are some tips on broaching the topic:
- Know that "sexting" is a term that the media has placed on the act of sending sexually explicit texts and photos via cell phones or online. Because it's been in the media so much, teens probably know what it means, but it probably isn't (or at least wasn't) the word they use. This might be a good way to bring it up with your teen. Ask him/her what students in their class call it. I have heard terms such as "hooking up", "phone sex", "booty call". Some don't have a name for it at all; they just know it when they see it.
- Use articles or news stories to spark the conversation. In recent months, there have been many articles about teens who were arrested for sexting. Ask your teen his/her opinion about if it is actually child pornography? What should the punishment be? Should it even be a crime?
- If your teen is going to start looking at colleges, let them know that schools (as well as employers) are looking online to find exactly who they are accepting/hiring. Without being accusatory, ask if there is anything on their profiles that they wouldn't want Grandma to know about. Normally the answer is yes, but normally the "embarrassing" thing is something benign such as a silly outfit or harsh language intended to be seen only by friends. Using these kinds of examples is an easy way to say "be careful what you post, it is not private" without directly asking if your child posted sexually explicit content.
- Encourage your teen to respect him/herself and encourage them to have healthy relationships. No one expects a 16 year old to marry the person they are dating, but they are learning a lot about what they should expect out of future relationships. Everyone should expect to be listened to, cared for, never hurt (physically or emotionally) and never taunted to do things they know are wrong. A lot of teens who do post inappropriate images are doing it out of pressure from friends or significant others.
At the end of the day, you may not find out definitively if your teen has been sexting. Hopefully these tips will help you open communication lines and let them know the dangers if they are.