Many parents dread the day their kids get their first phone. Yes, devices are a vital and necessary link for social groups and school. But smartphones also open new worlds for preteens and teens, exposing them to territory that may make parents uncomfortable. The technology can leave kids vulnerable to bullying, harassment and other dangerous situations they might not otherwise experience. That includes sexting.
One New York mother learned firsthand the potentially devastating ramifications of teen phone use when she found out her 13-year-old daughter had been exchanging sexually explicit texts with a new boyfriend.
"We are very open and frank about sex in our house and have been very frank about sexting and the repercussions," said the girl's mother, who asked to have her name withheld to protect her daughter's privacy.
"She even specifically said to me that she'd told him up front that she would never send him a nude photo," the mom added. But about a week after her daughter started dating the boy, she came home very upset.
"Apparently, the two of them had been talking dirty to one another via text, and some girls in their class had read the texts on his phone and were making fun of her," the mom said. "She was both really hurt that he allowed them to see those texts and mortified that they'd been seen."
Sexting, in the form of shared photographs or explicit text messages, is becoming more common for teens and preteens. Research shows that 14.8 percent of kids ages 12-17 have sent explicit text messages while 24.8 percent have received them.
There are conflicting opinions, however, on what that means for kids, including the impact, both long and short term, on their mental health, and whether the risks involved are as serious as they've been portrayed. That leaves parents wondering: Should they try to actively restrict sexting, or accept it, when it's done consensually, as a normal part of growing up and becoming sexually active?
Jeff Temple, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch, recently published a commentary in the Lancet Child Adolescent Health arguing that sexting between teens is a normal and expected exploration of sexuality. He writes that as long as it's done consensually, it can be a part of a healthy sexual relationship. But other experts caution that it's not so simple.
Teens may understand the difference between sending or receiving explicit texts consensually and nonconsensually, but some experts argue that actual consent, especially within the nuanced confines of teenage digital interaction, may be more difficult to understand. Catherine Jackson, a Chicago-based licensed clinical psychologist and neurotherapist, explains that the brain does not fully develop until a person is in their 20s and that because of this, teenagers may not understand the implications of consent.
"Teens are capable of making logical, sound decisions for things they feel readily equipped for and that pose little to no pressure," Jackson said via email. Not riding with someone who's been drinking, or not drinking themselves, not cheating in school, avoiding physically dangerous situations, and similar choices teens make daily show us they are capable of using sound logic and judgment. "However, when they are unsure of what to do, are in a new situation, do not know how to handle an experience, there is peer pressure, or they have little time to think things through, teens are much more likely to act impulsively and make poorer decisions."
When faced with the new and exciting prospect of sexual communication, teens may not be capable of understanding all aspects of the situation, including potential for later harassment, legal ramifications, or the effect it can have on friendships or social standing within their peer group. And though consent may be given, it is, by nature of the not-fully-developed adolescent brain, not informed consent.
"When teens are faced with peer pressure or are involved in intense emotional situations, they are more likely to choose short-term rewards without considering long-term consequences," Jackson said in her email. "Therefore, they may not realize if they consent to sending nude or sexually suggestive pictures to their partner now that the pictures may be shared with others or resurface on the Internet later or after a breakup."
There are also legal ramifications to consider. Anyone who sends or possesses explicit photos of minors risks criminal charges of child pornography and could be required to register as a sex offender, even if those pictures were sent and received consensually. Inclusion on the sex-offender registry is lifelong and may need to be disclosed on college and job applications.
And a teen may consent to sending her boyfriend nude photos but what happens if that relationship ends? The photos or explicit messages might be seen by others or used as revenge. Inadvertent sharing is another risk. One teen using another's phone could see photos that were not meant to be shared. The result can be catastrophic, and even though there was consent involved in the initial exchange, bullying and harassment can occur.
Jackson advocates having a frank, open conversation with teens and tweens about this. The conversation around sexting, like the conversation around sex, is multifaceted. Here are her suggestions for some talking points in the discussion:
- Make sure your children know messages and pictures sent online or via cellphone are not private or anonymous. They should know anyone can and often will share their pictures or messages, by forwarding them or taking a screen shot and posting it on social media. Once a picture or message is sent, your children have no control over what happens to it, who sees it or where it goes.
- Talk about what your children think a partner will do with pictures in the event of a breakup.
- Discuss the consequences with your children, both legal and emotional, of sending and receiving inappropriate messages and images. Instruct your children to immediately delete any inappropriate or explicit images received, and make clear that just having them can lead to consequences.
- Tell your children never to distribute inappropriate or explicit messages or images. Ask how they'd feel if something they sent was passed around. Encourage them to treat others how they'd want to be treated. Ask them to make a rule to reject others' requests to send them inappropriate or explicit images, even if they trust the person. The potential consequences are simply too great to risk.
- Encourage your children to block or delete people who pressure them or make them feel uncomfortable around these decisions. And tell them that if they receive or see an inappropriate or explicit message or picture of someone, they should make that person aware of what is being sent around.
- Ask them to make a personal rule to send only pictures with all their private parts fully covered. Tell them not to pose for others, or photograph themselves, while doing suggestive acts. A rule of thumb is if they can't send a photo to their grandmother, then it's not a picture they should take or send.
- Tell them to enlist the help of an adult if they feel too much pressure to do anything they're uncomfortable with, or they are unsure of what to do.
According to the New York mother, her daughter's sexting experience opened the door for another in-depth talk on the ramifications of sexting, so they were able to turn it into a teaching moment.
"It prompted yet another discussion about what should and should not be shared via cellphone, as well as talking about sexuality in general and what she was and was not ready for," the mom said. "It actually helped cement why sending a photo is so dangerous because while some words were embarrassing, she said she realized just how bad it would have been if it had been a photo."