If you have a teenager who has a cell phone, you’re probably accustomed to seeing them taking a selfie, texting rapidly to their friends, or laughing at a video that someone has shared with them. This is the way that most teens communicate with their friends and peers in the digital age.
However, while there’s nothing wrong with innocent texts, selfies, and videos, all of this digital communication does have a darker side. Cell phones and other internet-connected devices like tablets and laptops are lightweight and very portable, which means that your teen can carry them anywhere and can easily seek out a private place in order to send or receive messages that they want privacy for. And while teens might want privacy for any number of reasons, parents can’t overlook the possibility that their teens might be participating in risky online behaviors like sexting.
Sexting is the act of sending sexually suggestive or explicit text messages, which may include pictures, video, or audio clips in addition to text.
Teens send sexts for a number of reasons. Some do it as a joke. Some do it because they crave attention. Some teens feel pressure from romantic partners or even friends to participate in sexting – they may believe that “everyone else is doing it”, so they should as well. They may also simply sext as a way of flirting or establishing and maintaining intimacy with a romantic partner.
Although teens often understand that their parents and others may not approve of sexting and that they may get into some kind of trouble if discovered, they often underestimate the potential seriousness of their actions. It’s important for parents to talk openly with their teens about the dangers of sexting.
No matter what your teen’s reason for sending a sext, chances are good that they aren’t sending them out indiscriminately. Usually, teens send sexts to one person at a time, often a person who they have a romantic interest in, and typically, a person that they trust not to share the contents of the sext with anyone else.
Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for a teen to find that their trust has been misplaced. Often, sexts are shared with more than the person for whom they were intended. This type of sharing can take different forms – the receiver may contain the sext to their own device but show it to friends, they may forward the sext to others, or in some cases, they may publicly share it on the internet. The problem is, once the sext has been sent, the sender loses all control of the image – they just have to hope that the person they sent it to won’t share it. There’s no way to reclaim the image once it’s sent or to prevent anyone who receives it from sharing it.
Even messaging platforms that automatically delete messages after they’ve been viewed can’t prevent the receiver from taking a screenshot that can be saved and shared.
Teens also need to know that their sexts could potentially land them in legal hot water. If images or videos in the messages include a person who is a minor, then saving or sharing that messages could result in a charge of possessing or disseminating child pornography.
The legal ramifications of sexting can vary widely by location. And because the laws must change and evolve to catch up to changes in technology, it’s important to realize that something that may not have been a prosecutable offense at some point in the past may become a prosecutable offense in the future.
When talking to teens about sexting, it’s a good idea for parents to familiarize themselves with local laws and statutes so that they’re better able to explain to teens what potential legal consequences they could face from sexting or from forwarding or sharing someone else’s sexts.
In addition to criminal charges, teens (and their parents) may be on the hook for some type of civil liability as well, depending on the situation.
Sexts can put your teen at risk of embarrassment or harm to their reputation, and that’s reason enough not to send them. But teens need to know that sexting also places them at risk of being victimized in more serious ways. Teens who sext are at risk of various types of sexual bullying, including slut-shaming. A picture or video that spreads through a teen’s peer group or community could lead to ostracization, threats, mockery, and even impersonation.
Sexts also put teens at risk of blackmail – they could be asked to pay or do things they don’t want to do in order to prevent their sexts from being shared publicly. Sexts could also be used as leverage in situations of intimate partner abuse – a teen might not feel safe breaking up with a romantic partner who has possession of explicit images of them and threatens to share them if the teen should leave the relationship.
When explaining these risks to your teen, be careful to avoid victim-blaming. No one has the right to bully, blackmail, abuse, or exploit your teen, or anyone else, just because they sent a sext. Abusive behaviors are always wrong and are not justified by anything that the victim may have done. Explain to your teen that you want them to use caution and avoid sexting and other risky behaviors as a method of protecting themselves from harm, not because sexting gives anyone the right to harm them. Make sure that your teen knows that they can safely come to you for advice, help, and protection from bullies and abusers, even if they’ve done something that you disapprove of, such as sending sexts.
Parental monitoring software can help parents keep an eye on what their teens are doing online and in their text messages and may be key to helping teens avoid risky choices that could have unwanted consequences. To find out how it can work for your teen, get our free trial