It’s no big secret that teens use their smartphones to remain connected. Through use of social media, texting, and videos, most teens are comfortable using technology to make plans, establish friendships, and engage in romantic relationships. Gone are the days parents picking up the phone, taking note of “suitors” asking to speak with their children. Gone are the days, for most phone users, of even having to worry about how often and how much they are talking to someone; so many phone plans are unlimited, the better for getting to know one another! Right? Modern teens can connect in an instant and from the comfort of their own bedrooms.

Enter sexting. Sexting is sending sexually explicit messages, photos, or videos via any digital device. It can include nudity, messages that discuss sex acts, or content simulating sex acts. As teens and young children increasingly carry phones and tablets on them and use social media, messaging, and other apps to communicate, the risk of exposure to sexting or explicit content is a concern among parents and educators. 

The Surprising Statistics of Teen Sexting and Cyberbullying

A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that sexting has become more common among adolescents. Researchers examined the data on 39 previously published studies. Participants ranged in age from 12 to 17 years old, with average age of 15 years old. Results of their review indicated the following:

  • At least 1 in 4 teens are receiving sexually explicit texts and emails
  • At least 1 in 7 are sending sexts
  • More than 1 in 10 teens are forwarding sexts without consent
  • About 1 in 12 teens have had sexts they’ve sent forwarded without their consent

“When young people sext, they often lose control of the situation quickly,” explains Sue Scheff, author of Shame Nation, “Messages can easily be intercepted or forwarded to unintended recipients, which is a form of cyberbullying.” Surprisingly, there are even times when teens use sexting when cyberbullying themselves.

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The consequences of sexting can extend offline. When sexts are forwarded to peers at school, in the community, and in neighboring communities, teens can face humiliation at school, on the playing field, and just about everywhere they go. This can trigger symptoms of anxiety and depression and make it difficult for teens to go about their lives feeling safe and secure. School refusal, avoiding social situations, and dropping out of extracurricular activities are all potential consequences of sexting gone wrong. 

What Can Parents Do?

Given that the average age of getting a smartphone is 10 years old, it’s important that parents engage in open and honest communication with tweens and teens early and often. Parents can help tweens and teens learn to make positive and healthy choices about how they communicate using technology.

Talk about safe sharing online.

Tweens and teens don’t always respond well to lectures but talking about things happening in the news or in their favorite television dramas can be eye opening. 13 Reasons Why provides plenty of talking points for older teens and cases involving politicians, athletes, and other celebrities can help tweens and teens understand the long-term consequences of this behavior.

Avoid shielding them from the news and use it as an educational tool, instead. “When your kids hear news of sext crime cases, initiate a conversation. Talk about how sexting leads to negative consequences even for adults,” explains Scheff.

It’s also a good idea to be specific about what’s safe to share and what’s not. Tweens and teens need to know to turn off location sharing, keep their private information private, and to ask before they share pictures of others.

Ask about peer pressure

It’s very difficult to be the one who says no when it seems like everyone else is saying yes. Peers can be quite convincing. Ask your tweens and teens what kinds of things their peers are sharing online and if they ever feel pressured to join in. Asking questions and listening to the answers shows your tweens and teens that you are there to help and that you want to learn more about the pressures they face.

It also helps to give them a way out. “Tell them to let their friends know that their parents monitor (and/or spot check) their phones and social media, and they can’t risk losing your devices,” suggests Scheff. In taking the blame for your tweens and teens, they can get out of complicated peer situations.

Talk about what to do if they receive a sext

Tweens and teens don’t like to get their peers in trouble. Sometimes they hide things from parents to avoid being labeled as the one who alerts the adults. They also might be embarrassed or assume that it will stop if they ignore it.

Talk to your kids about getting help from a trusted adult if they receive explicit content in a message, email, or through social media. Not all tweens and teens understand that there can be legal ramifications to sending and forwarding sexts. Getting help from an adult is essential. In doing this, the tween or teen on the receiving end is supported, and the adult can take the necessary next steps.

Be open an honest

It can be very difficult for tweens and teens to come forward about this behavior, but it can be just as hard for parents to hear it. The only way to keep the door open on this topic is to listen without judgment and provide support.

Weekly check-ins on the topic make it less anxiety-producing and easier to bring up issues as they arise. Talk about communication via technology the same way you talk about who to sit with at lunch or how much homework needs to get done. When this topic is simply part of the framework of family conversation, it’s less taboo and easier to engage in.

“These conversations are about building trust,” reminds Scheff. “Our kids may always be an app ahead of us, but we will always be the adult in the family – lead by example and be there for them.”

Trust plays a vital role in communicating with teens. When teens know they can come to you for help without judgment or fear of harsh consequences, they are more likely to seek you out when they are in need.

Last Updated: Mar 8, 2021