Sexting is an important issue to tackle. Read our tips to start your own conversation at home.

“Sexting sounds harmless… at least they’re not doing ‘it’” many parents say.

Actually, sexting is a form of “it” – the electronic sending and receiving of photos and videos that are sexually suggestive or explicit which often contain nudity, sex acts or texted sexual messages. 

Sexting often starts as a solicited request from one teen to another, containing promises of privacy, true love, or popularity. Instead, many teens find that their sexts become public and their love is equated with sexual activity.

Teens feel invincible, act impulsively, and are craving for attention. They feel dangerously in denial of real consequences, often experiencing a questioning parent as a nag retorting “don’t worry about this.”

You need to worry about it. And these are some ways to address sexting in a way your teen might actually hear.

Tackling the "Conversation"

1. Ask What They Think 

Before jumping into a conversation about what you think about sexting, ask them if they’ve heard of it and what they think about it. After the eye-rolling and single syllable utterance, you might get some kind of response. If you’re lucky, they’ll talk openly about it, letting you know what they know. 

It’s sometimes helpful if parents “play dumb” and let the child educate you on something in their life. Use empathy in your response before you jump into a cautionary lecture. Saying something like:

  • “Wow, that sounds like somebody’s feelings could get hurt."
  • "What happens if someone else sees it?”
  • “I’ll bet it would feel really humiliating if someone sent something very private about you to someone else.” 

2. Create an Open Door 

Sadly, there are many examples in media where images and videos went viral only to ruin a career, a relationship, or a reputation. These are great stories to talk about with your teen. 

Wonder out loud with them about what would possess someone to take a picture of their private parts and send it. Wonder what kind of hollow promises were offered by the person soliciting the picture and how sad it is that people think that this is what a relationship is all about. 

Talk about safety in relationships and discuss how you and your family work to develop trust with each other. Then connect it back to the examples you’ve been hearing in the media and maybe even from other parents.

3. Stay Connected and Develop a Village 

Schools often discuss the problem of sexting in the context of bullying. Sexting targets and victims often feel mocked, coerced, or solicited and bullied into the behavior. 

Avail yourself of any parent meetings around these subjects and take the information home to discuss. Schools will often bring up incidents where students have been caught sending inappropriate information from inappropriate circumstances and gatherings. This is a great time to reach out and talk to other parents about using social media wisely.

4. Help them Create Boundaries 

There are opportune times to discuss boundaries—putting some distance between them and everything else. When they are small, we teach them about closing the door when they use the bathroom. We talk about good touching, bad touching and “stranger danger.” 

When they begin to grow up we help with things like appropriate content on television, bedtimes, and how much money to spend on toys. We teach them about looking both ways when they cross the street and putting on their seat belt. We help them learn about risk and how to avoid it. 

And when they approach puberty, we talk about changes in their body, relationships, and sexuality—learning about risk and how to avoid it. It is important to weave in the ideals of respect and consideration—for themselves and for another. There is nothing respectful about sexting. And nothing private about it either.  

Even if the image, video, or text was only meant for one person, once it's been sent or posted, it's out of their control. It could be seen by lots of people, and it could be impossible to erase from the Internet, even after your teen thinks it has been deleted. When they know of someone who has been the victim of sexting, brainstorm with them how it could have been different.

5. Have Small Conversations 

I once heard a kid tell me that listening to his parents lecture him was like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. Frequent conversations in small doses are far more effective than one long, boring or threatening lecture about not sexting and staying safe on the internet. When cell phone plans change, talk about safety, minutes, texting boundaries. 

When new relationships develop, talk about respect and spending face to face time with their friend. Begin to have conversations that get underneath the behavior of sexting. Care about what compels them to offer sexual content and to ask for it. 

Are they being pressured from friends? Do they feel like they need attention and is that attention healthy? Brainstorm how they can resist peer pressure for many kinds of negative activities. 

Ask about their day, their friends and their school in a curious and caring way rather than making it feel like an interrogation. Conversations like this should occur throughout kids' lives — not just when problems arise.

Persistence Pays Off

It might be pretty tempting to just shut down your teen’s accounts or to lock up their phones when they come home from school. But before you engage in a power struggle, try a conversation. And then try it again. Teach respect and boundaries and let those values begin with you.

Learn more by reading Why Teens Participate in Sexting.

About Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD

Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD is a psychotherapist in Southern California with private practices in Santa Monica and Malibu. She helps parents, children, couples and individuals. A graduate of UCLA and Fuller School of Psychology, Dr. Miller also is involved in school-based education and consultation, an adjunct faculty member of the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Psychology, a wife, mother, and stepmother. 

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