Note: For the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to use the term “sexting” to include any way that people privately communicate their desires via technology, including sharing explicit photos or words.
The nation gasped when we learned about the Colorado “sexting scandal” that’s all over the news. Parents everywhere were shocked to learn that students, primarily members of the football team, were trading more than 300 explicit photos of at least 100 different students at a small high school in Cañon City, a city whose population is only 16,000.
The fact that teens are sexting and sharing explicit photos shouldn’t be shocking to parents, as sexting isn’t new or all that rare. But this scandal blew open the problem of photos being shared without consent. In Cañon City, a group of kids were collecting photos that were not always shared consensually, in order to win points in a perverse game that commodified the images of girls’ bodies, some as young as middle school-age.
But we can’t just throw our hands up in defeat at this news. Nor can we continue to criminalize or even shame all teens who take or share explicit photos. Instead, we need to take a proactive stance as parents to be sure that our kids never participate in a system that harms others.
Here’s your reality check: your teens will eventually encounter sexting, and it’s your job to prepare them for that moment.
Talking about this stuff can be tough. Most of us weren’t raised to be so open about sex, but our kids need us to grow past that so that they have a source for healthy, ethical information. To give you a hand, here are a few ideas for conversation-starters and some ways you can help guide these talks.
Ask your kids these questions, and really listen as they reply …
In what scenarios do you think it’s okay to sext?
Help kids decide what fits in with their own personal values system. Share your own opinions, and ask them to think about what’s important to them.
Just remember that regardless of your family’s values, shaming kids for feeling or expressing desire is not a healthy or productive way to raise kids. Sexual desire is natural, and your kids need to know that wanting to express that desire is okay. But they also need to know when and where those expressions are appropriate and healthy.
Ultimately, sexting isn’t all that different from being physically intimate with somebody. You’re sharing your sexual self with someone when you sext, and that requires trust. Because of that, some people feel sexting should happen only within marriage while others have different standards.
What matters most is that your teen starts thinking about what they believe is best for them and have a thoughtful plan for when they encounter it.
Who is it okay to sext with?
Explore ideas of age of consent, how to spot predatory behavior, the risks of sexting with strangers or people they don’t know well, and affirmative consent.
How will you know when someone wants to sext with you?
“Ask first and ask often.” This phrase should be a part of every conversation you have with older kids about sex. We want our kids to understand that trying something sexual first and waiting until you hear “no” before you stop can often cause harm.
Talk about scenarios in which waiting until you hear “no” could be uncomfortable or even unsafe. Maybe she’s sitting with her mom, and they’re both looking at her phone. Maybe he’s a survivor of sexual abuse and will be triggered by something explicit just showing up. Maybe she simply doesn’t feel that way about you and will be upset that you didn’t respect her enough to find out how she felt first.
There are fun and flirty ways to ask for consent. Brainstorm ideas like, “I’ve been thinking some more-than-friends thoughts about you lately. Can I tell you about them?” or “I want to share this photo with you, but it’s definitely X-rated. Wanna see it?”
Remind your child, regardless of whether they’re a boy or a girl, that they can always say “no” to any sexual activity and that partners must always respect that.
What are the risks of sexting?
Photos and words that are meant to be private should never, ever be shared, no matter what.
However, teens should be aware that anything they send could potentially be made public. It wouldn’t be your child’s fault if someone took advantage of them, but it’s good to face the reality that it could happen, and ask them to consider whether it’s a good idea to take the risk.
One thing that Alyssa Royse, a sex-positive educator and writer, discusses with her own teen daughter is whether the risk of having others see your sexts is worth it.
“One thing we talk a lot about is WHY people are sexting. To get attention? To ‘get’ the guy or girl? If so, are there better ways to do it that leave you less vulnerable?” she asks, emphasizing that there should never be any element of shame brought into that conversation.
What should you do with sexts after you receive them?
The answer is always “delete them.”
Health consultant and sexual health educator Marnie Goldenberg makes clear that teens should understand the responsibility of being on the receiving end of a sext, and part of showing respect to the person who sent you the sext is to never keep explicit texts or photos on your phone or other devices.
“Society and our laws are struggling to figure out how to manage this new way of expressing desire,” Goldenberg says. The sexts and photos someone sends you are gifts, and at the very least, your most basic responsibility is to do no harm.
In her indispensable book about the social lives of boys, Masterminds and Wingmen, Rosalind Wiseman offers a script for parents to talk about what kids should do with sexts they receive:
“Give yourself one minute to look at it and then delete it. Delete it because, if you don’t do it right away, you’re going to forget you have it on your phone.” And forgetting you have it on your phone not only risks your parents seeing it, but your friends as well, who might use your phone to make it public or share it around. Make clear to teens that whatever happens on their phone is their responsibility.
Wiseman explains, “A girl sending a topless picture to a guy she stupidly falls in love with and ending up humiliated in her entire community isn’t something any of us should be okay with.”
Many areas have laws that could cause an underage child to be charged with child pornography for possessing even consensual images of other minors. So it’s important for your kid to delete all explicit photos immediately. Wiseman urges parents to remind their sons that it’s not worth risking his future, and the future of the person who sent him the photo, to keep it longer.
What if you receive a sext or explicit photo that isn’t intended for your eyes?
The bad news is that sexts are sometimes shared without consent, so it’s important that your teen knows what to do if they receive something that wasn’t meant for them.
The first rule is to delete it and not share it further. Then they should let the sender know that they don’t want to ever see a non-consensual photo again.
Jamie Utt, a sexual violence prevention educator, suggests brainstorming with your kids what they can say to their friends in those circumstances, such as, “Did she say you could share that? No? Then you shouldn’t be sending that” or “I really don’t want to see photos like that. So don’t send them to me.”
“That’s not cool” and “That photo could get me in huge trouble,” might also work.
Remind your teen that having a non-consensual photo will always land them in trouble in your home, no matter how they got it. Discuss the consequences they may face outside of our your home, too, including school suspension or police intervention.
Reassure your kid that you are open and won’t judge if a problematic photo is sent to them. In some cases the authorities or another parent should know that a non-consensual photo is being passed around. The last thing you want is your teen struggling alone with an ethical dilemma over the victimization of someone else.
These conversations seem tough at first, but the more you practice having open and honest conversations about bodies, sex, and consent, the easier it gets.
For parents of younger kids, prep them for these future conversations by being open with their questions about reproduction and their bodies. The openness of your relationship when they’re little lays a solid foundation for these tougher ones as they grow up.