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  • Narda Skov

The Sexting Talk

What is Sexting? Sending or getting sexually explicit photos, videos, or messages through your cellphone or online.

If you have a middle schooler or high schooler, NOW is a perfect time to have the Sexting Talk or update it with new information. Even if you think you’ve had this chat, it is important to bring it up again (or on numerous occasions), because once is never enough when it comes to adolescents learning important lessons.

This can be a daunting topic for any parent, but I am sure they will appreciate your help in setting boundaries and knowing you are simply trying to keep them safe.

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 exploration of romance/crushes.

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! This could be considered Harm Reduction and as an educator have said "If you really must .... please do NOT put your face or any identifying features in the photo!" (Though this can be a tricky message).

It is 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. There are also legal issues related to sending unrequested nudes or sending nudes that were consensually obtained, but without consent to distribute. It is very complicated, and mistakes can be devastating.

It is not best practice, or the most effective, to simply say "Just say no," or "Just don't do it,"....these strategies rarely work. There’s plenty of research to confirm that. Besides, by the time a child is in middle school, they are old enough to deserve honest answers and a more helpful conversation that will allow them to successfully navigate challenges ahead.

So what’s the best way to help your child avoid the risks associated with sexting? Here are some great tips from an amazing expert, Dr. Megan Maas:

Think of it as a WHAT’S-YOUR-PLAN Talk:

Assume your child is likely to receive a request to “send nudes,” and they are likely to receive unrequested nudes (the dreaded “dick pic”). Based on current statistics of high school students, these are both accurate assumptions. Ask them to come up with a plan for both situations. Let your child propose one solution, then ask for others. Add a complicating factor, then have them come up with an alternate response.

Here’s why:

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 their brain and preparing them to make decisions that are more in line with their values and goals for their 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 their best friend’s older brother, or the friend of the family's kid.

If their first replies is simple, like “I’d just say no,” or “I’d block him,” push them 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 they imagine themselves in a real-world scenario (especially if it’s one that is appealing to them), that’s when the magic happens. That’s when they might put a little more thought into their responses, and come up with creative and brilliant solutions.

Sometimes they'll come up with a funny or snarky response that shows humor yet lets the requestor know they are not participating (one middle schooler told me they were asked to send a nude, and they sent a black screen with the comment “it's dark in here, but this is all you get”). They 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, they have to just have make it stop with direct language like “STOP ASKING. I will report you.”

Once they have thought through possible responses, remind them that they should ALWAYS tell you or another trusted adult if they EVER feels threatened, harassed, or simply doesn’t know how to handle unwanted requests or unrequested sexts. And if they know the requestor, and especially if it is a young person, 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.

Bottom line, sexting among teens is complicated. As parents, it’s difficult to know what exactly we can do about it. Being open and listening to your children is always the best place to start!

But the next steps should be to do what most of us don’t think to do:

  • Empower our young people to support one another and not bring other people (girls or boys) down and

  • Make it clear to anyone that requesting and posting sexts are both unacceptable acts of sexual harassment.

Some other concrete information can be found on the Health and Human Services Think Twice Resource.

Other specific information is:

Q: I received or sent a sext. Now what?

  • Delete the picture or video

  • Share your concerns with a parent or trusted adult.

  • Report a sext that was sent to you or shared without your consent to the Cyber Tip Line.

To report an explicit image or video:

To remove sexual pictures and videos from the internet:

To learn more about your safety and how to deal with sexting:

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