Sexting: What Parents Need to Know

Every year a new generation of children and teenagers get their own smartphone or tablet. Their parents might not have had the same technology, but it's always been true that every generation of teenagers finds a way to explore and express their developing sexuality. For some young people today, this means "sexting" -- sending or receiving sexually explicit images or messages. As a parent, you need to understand what sexting is, what the consequences could be and how to prevent it or deal with it.

What does sexting include?

Sexting can include a whole variety of different online activity. It ranges from suggestive chat to explicit video. It can be on a variety of platforms, from old-style SMS, through instant messaging services to photo and video sharing apps. It can be a one-off activity, or part of a whole series of different exchanges with one or more people. Young people can feel coerced or pressured into any sexual activity, but sexting may be voluntary and even seen as "normal".

How common is sexting?

Estimates vary as to how common sexting actually is. Part of the problem is that teenagers may believe that everyone else is doing it, but may not want to talk to parents or other adults about it. Certainly it's an activity that is reported or referred to more often now by mainstream media; adult lifestyle magazines increasingly have articles giving advice on the best "steamy sexts" to send to a partner. Given that it's portrayed as an ordinary part of relationships, it's likely to be increasing among teens.

Is it illegal?

If a child or young person takes a nude or sexually suggestive picture, or if they download a picture from another under-18 year old, they have broken the law. Most police forces see young people as victims, particularly if they have been coerced or pressured into taking a picture or creating a video, but some young people have been prosecuted, and registered as sex offenders. If a picture of an under-18 is shared, the person who shared it could be charged with distributing child pornography.

Is sexting harmful?

Whether parents like it or not, young people are going to explore and experiment with their sexuality. In many cases this causes no problems, and in many more there may nothing worse than a few moments of regret. In general, first sexual experiences are with one other person (or maybe even alone), so the potential for harm isn't great. Sexting is different. Messages and images can be stored and shared. When teenage relationships end, there may be intense feelings of abandonment or anger. It's easy in these circumstances for private images to be used as "revenge porn" - maliciously shared online, or among a group of friends. This can lead to shaming, bullying, or being targeted for more pictures. So while sexting itself may be relatively harmless, the consequences can be very harmful indeed.

What can parents do?

The best thing is to talk to your child about the dangers involved in sharing anything online. Help them to understand that once an image has been shared, they have no control over it. Ask if they would be happy for family members, teachers, or strangers to see an image or video? If they wouldn't, then the best advice is not to share it at all. Don't threaten to take their phone away: this will make them much less likely to tell you if there is a problem. If your child has been coerced into sexting, or if an image has been shared without their consent, then talk with them about involving teachers or police. If they're being bullied, or being pressured by people they don't know to send more images, report it immediately.

Rapid advances in technology are changing the way that people work, play and relate to each other. Sometimes parents can feel like they're being left behind in a world that is changing too fast. But it's important to remember that the basic skills of parenting are still the same: want the best for your child, try to understand his or her point of view, bring an adult perspective to the situation, and never forget to let them know that you care.