Is sexting really harmful to teens?

Today’s adolescents live between the real and digital world. Access to the Internet from computers, laptops, tablets, and telephones allows them to easily plug into and move around the digital realm. Due to generational differences, most parents are unaware of the vastness of information on the Internet, how easy it is for their children to access it, and how socialization has been affected by the use of social networks.

When the developmental norms of adolescence, such as impulsivity, feelings of invincibility, and lack of life experience, are mixed with the vast, uncontrolled environment of the Internet, some adolescents find themselves in situations that are unsafe, scary, and unhealthy. Digital technology, including text, images, video, and real-time interaction of voice and video, means that anyone on the Internet potentially has access to anyone else who is on the internet. Moreover, due to the facelessness of the Internet, social predators may pretend to be someone they are not to gain access to their targets.

Parents should be aware that the Internet is not a safe-zone. Even if parents use parental control settings on their computers and devices to try to put limits on their teens’ browsing, there are dangers for teens.

The majority (66%) of teens who sext do so because their partner or friend asks for it. This obviously leads to the question of coercion, especially among girls. Additionally, teens report sexting to increase their popularity, as a form of flirtation, attract the attention of someone, or due to peer pressure. Parents may struggle to understand why teens would participate so freely in a risky behavior, but teens themselves do not perceive sexting as dangerous in the moment. Many teens (65%) see sexting as a way to attract the attention of someone they are interested in.

There are differences between teens who engage in sexting and those who don’t. Adolescents who sext are more likely to also receive nude photos, be sexually active in high school, and use drugs or alcohol. Each of these issues, due to their independently risky natures, may create situations where sexting becomes easier to engage in. Teens who send nude photos or videos may be perceived as wanting to receive them also. Being sexually active in high school may create situations where being nude and posing for another person is perceived as desirable. And the use of drugs or alcohol may influence thought processes and reasoning skills that influence a teen’s ability to think about the consequences of their actions.

It should be noted that the majority (79%) of teens who sext do not perceive that the photos created any problems for them. When problems arise, they are usually with other teens rather than parents or adults. This may be true because so many teens are engaging in this behavior or they are unaware of the consequences that may arise in the future from their actions.

So what can parents do to help teens make good decisions about sexting?

  • Talk to teens about resisting coercion to sext. The data is clear that most teens are pressured to engage in sending nude photos. Having open, clear conversations with teens about what to do when this happens, how to handle the situation, and what actions support the family’s values can give teens the tools they need to resist sexting when pressured to do so.
  • Reassure teens that they can speak to you about their sexuality and substance use. Since sexting is correlated with sexual activity and drug and alcohol use, parents should try to keep communication open with their children on these issues. The discussion of one topic may lead to further discussion about the others.
  • Emphasize the easiness that photos and videos can be shared in an online environment. Talking with teens to help them think through the possible outcomes of their actions can help them make more informed decisions. Being clear that once photos or videos are sent or posted, the teen loses control of the information.
  • Encourage teens to support other teens in resisting coercion to sext. Teens can help other teens avoid being pressured to engage in sexting. Since most sexting happens after a request for a nude photo is received, helping teens, especially girls, support each other in not responding to the request while managing the social situation positively may help reduce coercion levels.

Most importantly, parents should not over-react. Engaging with criminal charges against other teens that request photos may be counterproductive by frightening victims of coerced sexting away from reporting to adults. If there is obvious coercion of a violent or destructive nature, it may be appropriate to involve police. However if the sexting is not of this nature, contacting the other children’s parents to discuss what is happening to educate and redirect the children’s online activities is a positive intervention.

Additionally, parents should always be monitoring their child’s online activities by looking at their phones and computers. And finally, parents must educate their child that everything they post online via social media sites, texts, and emails is both public and permanent. In total, keeping kids safe comes down to being aware of the risk and educating youth about both the dangers and consequences.

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