Like it or not, teen sexting has slithered into our world and our vocabulary. While the definitions of this term vary, they all boil down to this: sexting is the sharing and receiving of sexually explicit messages and nude or partially nude images.
As a parent of 2 teenagers and someone who has worked for many years in high schools, I can tell you that sexting terrifies me. I’ve seen the absolute carnage that can follow a sext shared between teens. And believe you me—they do go wrong and often so. Before you delve into this article, I ask you to check your local laws around sexting.
Here in Western Australia, we have very strict laws that govern the production and distribution of sexually explicit images. It’s crucial to understand the laws in your part of the world. If you don’t know the laws, you won’t be able to have the serious conversations with your teens about sexting.
How many teens sext?
The statistics are alarming, and what’s even more frightening is the prediction that they will get worse. Sadly, sexting is a part of the mainstream culture among many teenagers. What’s worse is that children are sexting now. Yes, you read it correctly—children—and quite a lot of them, too. I do recognize that the vast majority of those who sext are teens or adolescents. But in the eyes of the law, they are still children.
A recent meta-analysis of 39 studies on sexting found that 1 in 4 adolescents are receiving sexts. And, 1 in 7 are sending them.
If we look at that in another way, a basketball team will have 1 player who has received sexts. If we include the opposing team, we will have 2 children who have received sexts and at least 1 who has sent them. How many school basketball teams are there in the USA?
Before we dive into the potential dangers of sexting, we need to understand who is sexting and why our teens and children are doing it.
The developing adolescent
It’s generally undisputed that, to varying degrees, most adolescents are risk-takers and boundary testers. Essentially, they explore and discover the world on a whole new level. Research confirms that this period is characterized by growth and change across the physical, psychological, and social domains.
With all these changes going on, your young person may at times:
- Act on impulse
- Get into accidents and situations of all kinds
- Misinterpret or misread social and emotional cues
- Engage in dangerous or risky behavior
And while all this is going on, we also understand that adolescents become increasingly interested in and aware of their sexuality and that of their peers. They are curious. We now have risk-taking adolescents with an increasing interest in sexual activity (and often extensive misinformation about it). When we throw in unfettered and unmonitored internet access, we realize we have a problem on our hands.
Why do teens sext?
To our teens, sexting seems like their answer to modern-day flirting or a romantic gesture. To us more mature folk, this seems quite unbelievable. Last week, a friend of mine had a conversation about sexting with her 14-year-old daughter, that left us both aghast.
The girl just couldn’t seem to fathom that she shouldn’t have naked photos of herelf. My friend went to great lengths to explain why this was wrong. There was no need to record this anywhere. Her daughter just didn’t seem to grasp it.
On the day my friend told me about this conversation, my 15-year-old daughter came home from school and said that a peer had accessed one of her friend’s private accounts, found a naked image of her, and shared it far and wide. My heart broke for the poor young girl who had been so wickedly violated and for her family, who had to pick up the pieces.
My heart broke again for the girl who distributed the material and her family. The collective shame and damage this will have on their immediate lives are unthinkable. I can’t help but wonder, “Why, oh why does any 15-year-old girl have a photo of herself naked on her device?”
So, why are our teens and tweens sexting? Essentially, it is developmental, and much of what we blame on poor decision-making is actually about development in the frontal lobe, where impulsivity, self-control, and self-monitoring all occur in a fully developed brain. If we understand this and look at the reasons addressed below, it will enable us to provide support and preventative measures to help our young person when they receive their 1st mobile device.
The reasons why teens sext are quite as disturbing as one would imagine, but, unfortunately, so are the consequences.
- Curiosity. They are curious about their bodies and sex. Sadly, the research tells us that teens who sext are more likely to become sexually active within the following 12 months.
- Peer pressure. The scourge of adolescence! As with all risk-taking behavior teens embark on, sexting is no different. If their friends are doing it, and they want to remain in the social group, the pressure is on to join in and do it, too. In their world, friendships are often fickle, and they would rather take huge risks than be without friends. Sad, but very true.
- Expressions of love. As youngsters, we all did crazy things to express our love and undying commitment to the flame of the day. I can certainly remember a few of my disastrous decisions, none of which, thankfully, involved my naked self shared electronically (or in any other way, for that matter!). Sadly, in the heat of the moment, some of our teens make disastrous decisions without thinking about the very real consequences.
- Teens are oblivious to the consequences. Remember what I said about brain development? This is where it matters. We expect them to understand the consequences and make good choices, but their brains aren’t yet done with the wiring in that department. Their impulsivity kicks in, and yes, they’ve pouted, leaned in, taken the picture, and hit send.
- Sexting feels safer than sex. Yes, it can be safer than sex, insofar as you can’t have a baby and get a sexually transmitted disease. However, it does promote earlier experimentation with sex and, of course, the dreaded outcomes of a sext leak.
- Communication. Our teens see it as a reciprocal way of having a private conversation that is free from adult intervention.
- It’s a way to seek attention and affirmation. My friend’s daughter clearly falls into this category. She wanted to be noticed. Other teens get into sexting because they seek affirmation of their sexuality or attractiveness. Sadly, celebrity culture reinforces this behavior, with famous people leaking sex tapes and getting attention for them.
- Coercion, blackmail, and revenge. A perfect way to destroy someone who broke your heart or someone you just don’t like. Mobile devices in the hands of teens have raised the stakes in so many areas of life and have the capacity to do so much damage. The sharing of sexts is just 1 more thing.
Those of us with teenagers will all have sexting battle stories to tell. These stories don’t explain why they are sexting; rather, they confirm that a connected device in the hands of teens will place them at risk of receiving sexts.
There are strong correlations between poor mental health and being sexually active. Apparently, the younger a sexting child, the more likely they are to struggle with emotional issues and engage in early and unsafe sexual behavior.
Sexting and consent
Sexting falls into 3 categories, and it’s important for us as adults to fully understand the implications of each type of sexting.
1. Consensual sexting
As the name implies, this happens when an image or sexual text has been sent or received with the permission and agreement of the individuals involved.
A recent study of high-school students revealed that almost 30% of sexts were consensual. I’m not sure whether to be concerned about this figure. On the one hand, this is an alarmingly large percentage of young people who willingly exchange explicit images and texts, but on the other, consider what it means for the remaining 70% of sexts.
2. Nonconsensual sexting
This is how many issues begin for our young people. What starts off as a consensual text between 2 individuals can sometimes result in catastrophic consequences. Nonconsensual sexts fall into 3 distinct categories:
- Sometimes known as revenge porn, this involves the original recipient forwarding the sext without the consent of the sender.
- Sextortion is an emerging phenomenon where the sender is threatened for money, sex, or more explicit images. The studies in this particular area are limited. However, the emerging pattern is that our non-heterosexual youth and boys are more likely to be the victims, with boys also being more commonly identified as perpetrators.
- Sexts are requested by an adult from a minor.
3. Coercive sexting
While the individuals involved may believe this form of sexting is consensual, like some adolescent sexual encounters, there is often a degree of coercion involved.
So, what are our teens doing?
For all the lectures our offspring must have received about how unsafe sexting is, they seem to remain unfazed and unaffected. A large portion of the sexting teens engage in is done consensually. It’s when these partnerships fall apart that trouble really hits. A sext sent to a trusted partner can all too quickly be used as a powerful weapon, having the potential to completely destroy the emotional well-being of the sender.
I remember running a class for 16-year-olds where sexting was our topic for the day. I called for a volunteer and handed the enthusiastic young man a large sealed envelope, explaining that it contained naked images (which it didn’t, of course). Then, I advised the now less-than-enthusiastic young man that at lunchtime, he was going to stand at the cafeteria door and hand everyone a sheet of paper from the envelope.
The color drained from his face. I was feeling smug because my lesson was going according to plan. I went on to explain that having a naked image on your phone was like my sealed envelope. The class was quietly thoughtful. I gave them a situation where they’d been in the most perfect relationship ever, and then their girlfriend cheated on them with their best friend. The horror was almost palpable. I had them!
I asked the class what they would do with the photo. A moment of silence was then followed by, “I’d send it to her mother.” Now it was my turn to be shocked. These young men completely understood the power of that picture and the damage it could cause, but they still thought it was okay to share sexts between trusted people.
How to deal with teen sexting
We can’t bury our heads in the sand on teen sexting. Parents can’t leave it to their children’s schools or other organizations to address the issue. And, we absolutely can’t wait for our children to fall victim to a sext leak because the fallout is catastrophic.
If you’re the parent of a teen or a tween, now is the time to start having deep conversations about the challenges of being a young person. Talk openly about the new expectations you observe and discuss ways to manage difficult situations. Ask them to explain what sexting means to them. Give them parallel examples of how this would have happened when we were young. As much as we think they roll their eyes at these stories, it’s quite surprising how curious they are and envious of the lack of pitfalls to negotiate.
Remember when I asked you to check the laws around sexting in your state? This is where it matters—with your child. A poor decision today could have long-standing and serious implications in the future. Your child needs to know that you have their back, even when they make a poor decision.
Be clear that if they make an error of judgment, your role is to protect and support them in finding a way forward. It’s a conversation I often have with my daughter, and it seems to be sinking in. The other day, she shared with me that a friend from some years ago had shared a nude of a friend as a way to garner attention. She was mortified for the victim, and we used this as an opportunity to share with her how we would handle it if she found herself in that situation. We also took the opportunity to go through her phone and review all images in her photos, ensuring we also checked the ones she had hidden.
Sexting is yet another recent addition to the ever-growing list of new normals that we as parents have to come to grips with. Yes, it can be catastrophic if not dealt with properly, but first and foremost, we must show our young people that we love them and have their backs, that we understand the issues and are here to support them, regardless of their mistakes.