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Sexting: What Parents Need to Know

What Is Sexting?

Sexting (or "sex texting") is sending or getting sexually explicit or suggestive images, messages, or video on a smartphone, computer, tablet, or other device.

Sexting includes sending or receiving:

  • nude or nearly nude photos or selfies
  • videos that show nudity, sex acts, or simulated sex
  • text messages that propose sex or refer to sex acts

Why Do Teens Sext?

Teens might sext for many reasons. Some may sext as a joke, as a way of getting attention, or because of peer pressure. For others, though, it might be a part of their teenage sexual development — a way of flirting, seeming cool, or becoming popular. They may use sexting as a tool to bond or become more intimate with a sexual partner. They may see it as experimenting with new adventures, or simply having fun.

What Problems Can Happen With Sexting?

While to them sexting might feel like an innocent activity if it is done with mutual consent, teens should understand that problems can still happen. Messages, pictures, or videos sent via digital devices are never truly private or anonymous. In seconds, they can be out there for all the world to see.

Even if the image, video, or text was only meant for one person, after it's sent or posted, it's out of your teen's control. Lots of people might see it and it could be impossible to erase from the Internet, even if your teen thinks it's gone.

If a compromising image goes public or is sent to others, your teen could be at risk of humiliation, embarrassment, and public ridicule. Even worse, it could damage your teen's self-image and even lead to depression and other mental health issues.

And there can be legal consequences. In some states, a teen could face felony charges for texting explicit photos or even have to register as a sex offender.

Risky behavior online can haunt a college applicant or job-seeker years later. Many colleges and employers check online profiles looking for signs of a candidate's maturity — or giant red flags about bad judgment.

How Can I Help My Teen?

First, think about whether your teen is using digital media to explore their sexuality. Approach them with a willingness to understand and a desire to communicate with them. This is more productive than shaming or punishing, which might push them to continue the behaviors in secret.

Make talking about sexting part of a general discussion about safe sex and healthy relationships. Discuss personal responsibility, personal boundaries, and how to resist peer pressure. Conversations like this should happen often — not just when problems come up.

It can be hard for teens to grasp the long-term results of impulsive behaviors. They might not understand how sharing everything now risks their reputations later. Talk to your kids about how pictures, videos, emails, and texts that seem temporary can exist forever in cyberspace and they can’t be taken back. They can, and likely will, spread to others who weren’t meant to see them. One racy picture sent to a crush's phone easily can be forwarded to friends, posted online, or printed and distributed. An image sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend could lead to problems if someone else sees it or it's shared after a break-up.

Teach kids to follow the "WWGT" ("What would grandma think?") rule. If grandma shouldn't see it, they shouldn't send it.

Learn together about the laws in your state that deal with sexting. Discuss what it means to be a good “digital citizen” by following safe, legal, and ethical online practices.