If you’re a parent of teens—or future teens—you may have heard that sexting is something that you should be worried about. But how common is sexting among teens, really? Is it dangerous? What can you do to help keep your kids safe? Read on for some tips on how to initiate a thoughtful conversation with your teen about sexting.
What is sexting?
Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages, images, or videos to someone using your phone (1). High profile cases of cyberbullying and harassment, victimization through “revenge porn,” and even prosecution of children who have sexted have many parents understandably worried about the harms that could result.
How common is sexting among teens?
A 2018 study in the American Medical Association journal Pediatrics analyzing existing research on teens and sexting found that about one in four teens have received a sext or a request for a sext, and roughly one in seven have sent one. This suggests that most teens are choosing not to sext.
Why do teens sext?
Motivations for sexting vary depending on the individual. Some teens may sext to seek approval or attention from peers, or to assert their independence (2). Others approach sexting as a way to flirt with a crush or promote intimacy within an existing relationship (3).
Is sexting dangerous?
Engaging in flirtatious, sexually explicit, or erotically charged conversations, including sending sexts, is a developmentally appropriate form of sexual exploration for teens (4).
As with all sexual behavior, there are risks associated with sexting, but it is not inherently dangerous. Sending or receiving sexts may expose adolescents to cyberbullying and, in rare (but highly publicized) cases, prosecution for the possession of child pornography (2). On the other hand, sexting does not result in sexually transmitted infection or pregnancy. Even as sexting has increased, rates of sexual intercourse and certain unsafe sexual practices among teens have actually fallen over the last twenty years (5).
Many experts in the fields of law, child development, and healthcare argue that consensual sexting between teens should not be a crime (5). Because child pornography laws are intended to protect minors from exploitation and abuse, there is growing recognition that criminalizing teens who engage in consensual sexting is counterproductive and harmful.
When teens who choose to sext are aware of potential consequences, understand the importance of consent and boundaries, and feel that they can be honest and open with adults they trust, the risks of sexting can be greatly mitigated.
How can I start a conversation with my child about sexting?
Research has shown that parents have a big influence on their children’s sexual behavior and choices (6). Communicating openly with teens about your questions and concerns around sexting while emphasizing healthy boundaries, consent, and the importance of developing their own set of values around sexuality can help to empower them and promote healthy decision-making.
Using “scare-tactics” or an abstinence-oriented approach that overstates the risks associated with sexting can backfire and make your teen less likely to listen to your opinion, seek out your advice, or confide in you if they have a concern (7; 8). Instead, asking open-ended questions, allowing plenty of room for them to express their own ideas and opinions, and remaining nonjudgmental are all helpful when discussing sexual health with teens (9).
There is no one-size-fits-all script for initiating potentially challenging or awkward conversations with adolescents. Instead, letting them know that you care, that you are available as a sounding board, and that you’re genuinely interested in their thoughts, feelings, and experiences can help them develop the security and confidence to explore their sexuality in safe and healthy ways (10).
What's the most important thing for my child to know about sexting?
While consensual sexting can be a normal part of adolescent dating, coercing someone into sending or forwarding a sext, sending unwanted sexts, or forwarding a sext without explicit permission are serious consent violations and are never ok.
When talking about sexting with your teen, stress the importance of consent and boundaries. Make sure they understand that they should never pressure anyone to engage in sexting or let anyone pressure them into doing something that makes them uncomfortable. Emphasize that they should share any concerns they have with you or another trusted adult.
What if I'm worried about my child's sexting?
If you are worried that your child is engaging in unsafe sexting practices—coercing others or experiencing coercion, perpetrating or being victimized by bullying, exchanging sexts with adults, or spending too much time involved in sexting, for instance—it’s important to pay attention to your concerns. Most of the potential harms associated with sexting involve nonconsensual or coerced sexting, the forwarding of sexts to people other than the intended recipient, or inappropriate sexting with an adult (8).
Share your concerns with your child in a gentle and nonjudgmental way. Be clear that consensual sexual exploration is a normal and healthy part of growing up, but that any violation of consent represents a serious harm and could expose them to a range of negative consequences. Depending on their response and the severity of the issue, it may be helpful to seek out a mental health professional with expertise in working with adolescents, since problematic sexting behaviors may indicate underlying mental health challenges (11).
The bottom line
Sexual and romantic exploration are an important part of adolescent development; for many teens, sexting is part of this exploration. Prioritizing trust and connection in your relationship with your teen and communicating your values and concerns in a nonjudgmental manner can help them to navigate the challenges of dating and sexuality, including sexting, in a healthy and respectful way.