If your child has a smartphone or electronic device, they will likely encounter sexting, a slang term combining the words sex and texting, — if they haven’t already. The thought that your child sends or receives intimate texts or knows about sexting can distress parents. But talking to your kids about the dangers of sexting helps protect their mental and physical health.
What Is Sexting?
Sexting includes the sending, receiving, or sharing of texts, images, videos or other content of a sexual nature. And it’s becoming more common among youth, according to a report published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Here’s the breakdown of sexting among youth aged 12 to 17:
- Nearly 15% have sent sexts.
- More than 27% have received sexts.
- More than 8% have had a sexual message forwarded to them without consent.
- Twelve percent have shared someone else’s sext without consent.
Among older teens, sexting is often consensual. A survey of Pennsylvania high school students found that 29% engaged in consensual sexting. Only 3% experienced non-consensual sexting.
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What Are the Dangers of Sexting?
Children (and adults) often don’t think things through when interacting on their smartphones or social media. They may share sext messages or intimate images of themselves, not realizing how someone else may use their images.
Behavioral and mental health dangers
“There may be a coercive control behind sexting,” said Maya Ragavan, MD, MPH, MS, violence prevention researcher and pediatrician at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Sexts shared with others without the creator’s consent can lead to cyberbullying, public humiliation, and “sextortion.” Sextortion is using explicit images or videos to threaten, control, or blackmail, someone. Some teens have died by suicide due to explicit photographs forwarded without their consent.
Research has linked sexting to a range of behavioral and mental health problems. According to a meta-analysis in JAMA Pediatrics, youth who sext are:
- Four times more likely to have sex.
- Four times more likely to drink alcohol.
- Three times more likely to smoke or use drugs, such as marijuana.
- Twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Thinking that your child or teen is sexting might worry you, but context matters. When talking to your kids about sexting, it’s important to focus on setting up non-judgmental spaces to talk and on empowering adolescents with skills and strategies to have healthy relationships, said Dr. Ragavan.
Other consequences of sexting
Whether consensual and healthy or not, there can be repercussions to sexting. Many schools have policies against sexting. So, your child may receive a suspension if the school finds out.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, many states, including Pa., have sexting laws that address minors sending and receiving sexts.
It’s also against the law to send sexual images to minors, regardless of who is sending them. It can violate child pornography laws. Some states have prosecuted teens for sending sexting images or videos to other teens.
When Should You Talk to Your Kids About Sexting?
“Conversations about sexting can happen at the same time that you have conversations around healthy relationships,” Dr. Ragavan said. Ideally, long before your child or teen gets a smartphone. “The earlier you can start talking to your kids about healthy relationships, the better,” said Dr. Ragavan.
For elementary school-age children, talking about healthy friendships includes asking their thoughts on and helping them to define:
- What it means to be a good friend.
- What it looks and feels like when a friend isn’t treating you well.
- What’s not okay for a partner to ask you to do.
Middle school is a time when many young teens start discussing or thinking about dating. When kids reach this age, parents should begin discussing how healthy intimate relationships should look and feel. Ask your teens their thoughts on and help them define:
- What it means to be a good partner.
- What it looks and feels like if a partner isn’t treating you well.
- What’s not okay for a partner to ask you to do.
How Should You Talk About Sexting With Your Kids?
It’s normal to feel anxious to talk about sexting with your child. If your children don’t learn about sexting from you, someone else will teach them, or they may get caught breaking the rules.
By talking to your children about sexting, you can help them handle it should it arise. You can help them set boundaries with friends, romantic interests, and others they interact with online. Dr. Ragavan offers these tips for talking about sexting with your children:
Center yourself first
Sexting conversations can bring up many emotions in you. You can feel angry and scared if something happens to them or you see something on their phone.
If your heart rate rises, calm yourself before talking to your child, said Dr. Ragavan. “If you’re feeling panicky, that’s going to come across and potentially make the situation worse.”
Anchor the conversation in real life
Use TV, movies, or social media examples to bridge the communication gap with your teens, suggests Dr. Ragavan. “Finding an example from media can feel less intimidating to your child or teen than talking about their own friends or their own life.”
Ask what sexting means to them
Sexting can mean many things to different people at different ages. “Asking, ‘What does sexting mean to you?’ is helpful to understand what you need to explain or correct,” said Dr. Ragavan.
Engage in active listening
“Stop talking and hear what they have to say,” said Dr. Ragavan. Ask non-judgmental, open-ended questions, such as:
- What do you think will happen if you sext?
- What do you think it means to be in a healthy (or unhealthy) relationship?
Provide a safe space
If your child has received or sent sexts, they may feel ashamed or scared to talk to you. Your unconditional love and support are essential to keeping the lines of communication open, said Dr. Ragavan.
“Let your child know that no matter what, you are there for them. Set up that safe space,” she said. Safe space language includes phrases such as:
- No matter what happens, I’m here for you.
- You can talk to me if this is happening. I’m here to listen.
- I’m not going to judge you.
- We’ll get through this together.
- I’m here to support you.
Walk them through a scenario of a partner or friend asking them to sext. “Ask them how they would handle it. And help them think about how they would respond,” said Dr. Ragavan.
Your child’s pediatrician can help reinforce the conservations you have with your child. They can also provide additional resources and referrals if your teen needs mental and behavioral health help. School counselors, family, and friends can also offer support to you and your child.
Resources For Parents
Sexting is a complicated topic. It can be even more complicated and challenging to have these conversations if you, as a parent, are in or have been in an unhealthy relationship. If that is the case, or depending on your child or teen’s age and situation, you may also need help from outside resources. If you suspect someone is sexually exploiting your child, you should contact your local police.
Resources that can help include:
- love is respect.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline.
- Common Sense Media.
- Cyberbullying Research Center.
- PAAR (Pittsburgh Action Against Rape).
- Federal Trade Commission. Consumer Advice: Protecting Kids Online.
There’s no one size fits all approach or script to use when talking about sexting with your kids, said Dr. Ragavan. How you talk to your children about sexting will depend on what situation they are facing. The most important thing is to have a conversation.
Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behavior Among Youth. April 2018. JAMA Pediatrics. Link.
Association of Sexting With Sexual Behaviors and Mental Health Among Adolescents. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. June 2019. JAMA Pediatrics. Link.
Sexting Laws Across America. Cyberbullying Research Center. Link.
Sexting Laws in Pennsylvania. Cyberbullying Research Center. Link.
Sexting, Risk Behavior, and Mental Health in Adolescents: An Examination of 2015 Pennsylvania Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. February 2018. Journal of School Health. Link.
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.