How to Discuss Sexting with Tweens and Teens (so That They Listen).


A Parents and Teachers Guide to Online Safety for Teens.

The internet can be a great place for children and young adults to learn, meet friends and play. But how do we benefit from the great aspects of the internet whilst protecting our children and teenagers from the more problematic sides of virtual communication?

Children and Teens Spending More Time Online. 

The events of the past few years and the necessary school closures have greatly impacted the screen times of children. Learning, socialising and developing has become a virtual experience for teens. The anxiety that parents once felt around screen time seems to be less of a discussion point with more focus on how each member of the family can carry out work, education or other activities simultaneously. It has been quite a spectacular act of juggling for many parents, families and educators.

94% of teens are online daily, a huge figure which highlights the impact that the virtual world has upon their lives. In recent years, we have all seen screen time increasing and have adapted to these changes in the supervision of our children. We are aware that access to the good, the bad and the ugly side of the online world are literally a finger tap away. 

Parents – some stretched to capacity – believe that the safety measures they have for their teens and tweens will adequately protect them online. Access Codes, Parental restrictions and even good old fashioned ‘show me your phone’ are there to help keep our children safe online. But are they really enough? 

Virtual World. Real risks.

The extended period of home based learning or the dreaded ‘lockdown’ has left adults and kids all over the world feeling disconnected, lonely and bored. We lost our stability, our routines, and our security overnight. We moved friendships into the online world, where – despite our very best efforts – many of us realised that something was missing… 

No longer were we able to be spontaneous, creative, explorative, or to share or intimate in the ways that we had previously called ‘normal’. We changed our interactions and adapted our lives to fit the changing online landscape. 

Parents Fears about Teens and Technology 

Parents are often concerned about who their children and teenagers are interacting with online. The content of the interactions and the types of information that their young adults are sharing are valid causes for concern, in particular the rise of sexting. 

Sexting is one of many risky online behaviours that concern parents and families. It is an act which involves sharing explicit material or images of a sexual nature, usually of the teenager or young person sharing the message. 

The Perils of Oversharing Online

Parents hope that a combination of education and security measures online will prevent their children falling into the trap of oversharing. Much of our fears as parents are focused on online ‘grooming’ and we often focus our teen discussions and education in this area. 

However, tweens and teens also need to be aware of oversharing personal information with those who are known to them. 

It’s Not Always Strangers. 

Strangers on the internet and those who pretend to be someone else can communicate with teens with the intention of obtaining information, pictures, contacts or bullying online. However. whilst strangers are involved in many of the unpleasant, illegal, fraudulent or sexually inappropriate content that is available online, there are also dangers closer to home for our tweens and teens. 

Teens and young adults may be sharing content with other young adults that are known to them. These young adults may attend the same schools, clubs and activities; they may be known to the family. Whilst some of this activity can be consensual, it may also be coercive control, bullying, fear driven or blackmail. 

Sexting in Different Countries

One of the difficulties surrounding sexting is that it is difficult to police and different countries often have different laws. While some countries do not criminalise young people for sending or receiving sexts, others class it as child pornography meaning that young people could be prosecuted.  

In Asia, the punishment for sending or receiving explicit images of children is harsher than in the US or UK. While messages sent between two consenting people are not necessarily illegal, when the people in question are under the age of consent Chinese and Singaporean courts have been known to prosecute. Furthermore it has been found that in countries with more rigid gender roles teens are more likely to send sexually explicit content

That being said, the prevalence of sexting among teenagers is subject to many intersecting variables. These can include whether a teenager starts puberty early, their confidence in school and the habits of their peer group. Teenagers, as a demographic, are explorative and want to test boundaries and so despite some cultural differences, there is not a specific culture that encourages sexting more than another.

Conversations About Healthy Communication Online with Teenagers 

One of the first questions that we are asked by parents relates to friendship circles. Could friends have encouraged, led or forced my child to take part in online sexual activity? 

One of the open conversations for parents to introduce to their teens should be around online judgement. How do we help teenagers and young adults to critically appraise requests to share information? How do we help children and teenagers to formulate answers and turn down requests to share information or pictures online? At the end of the day it’s all about non judgemental conversations that respect the maturity of teens and young adults whilst being mindful of their vulnerability and susceptibility to peer pressure.

Was my Teen Pressured to Share Images Online?

61% of sexters have stated that they felt forced into doing it at least once. That is not to say that the majority of teens are pressured into sharing explicit images, simply that those who are were likely to have felt coerced into it.

The difficulty with the social life of teenagers is that while they are online their actions can feel distant from their families. As a result it is almost impossible to know whether a teenager may or may not have been pressured into sharing inappropriate images. One of the only ways to know is to ensure that your teenager has a safe non judgemental space to talk about these things. If they fear being told off or even punished it is more likely that they will succumb to the coercion of others in their social circle. However, if they know that there is support it is far less likely that any online issues will escalate to something worse.

Are all Teens Sexting? Is Everyone Doing It? 

The simple and straightforward answer is no. This is not something that all parents will experience. However, it is really important that parents are not minimising the risks for themselves or for the young people in their homes. The likelihood is that although not all teens are sexting, many teens will be exposed to sexting in one way or another. This might be through seeing other people’s sexts, or through hearing about it in school corridors. 

A 2021 survey conducted in the US found that 1 in 10 teens have forwarded sexts without the consent of the original sender. For teens and young people who are unaware of the consequences of this act, it may seem funny. This is why it is important that teenagers are informed enough to make decisions that will protect both themselves and their peers.

What Can I Do If my Child/Teen has Shared Explicit Material Online? 

When a child or teen shares explicit material it is likely that they are not privy to the dangers of this decision. At this age the awareness of consequences is less developed and the desire to please peers is at its highest. In fact, in a recent survey 78% of young people who had sent explicit images said that there had been no consequences afterward

Parents should therefore try and have frank nonjudgemental conversations about what consequences might be. When a teenager is aware about potential risks or repercussions they become empowered to make informed decisions.

Trauma and Online Activity 

Teenagers and Young Adults who have a history of trauma may be more susceptible to sexual activities online. Young people who have experienced childhood trauma are statically more likely to go on to experience higher levels of lifetime traumatic events and be at increased risk of mental health problems. They may also be encouraged or feel forced to take part in – or even initiate – sexual activities. The impact this can have on self esteem is detrimental to the wellbeing of teens and young people. It can also come with deeper issues such as anxiety, depression and disordered eating.

If you fear that your teen is being exposed to adult content or being coerced into inappropriate online situations there are ways you can help. Vulnerable teens who are subjected to these pressures will often require professional help that addresses the source of the problem and the traumas they reveal. The Wave provides professional care that is sensitive to the stresses and strains of teenage life. Coinciding mental health disorders can be appropriately supported by experienced clinicians who provide the highest levels of care for young people.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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