Sexting (the sending of nude or semi-nude images or otherwise suggestive messages) is everywhere nowadays–popular culture glamorizes it, news headlines trumpet it, and teens are doing it at increasing rates. Every parent should be aware of this issue and be addressing it with their kids, as the consequences can range from emotional distress to criminal prosecution, sometimes resulting in tragedy.
Here are some basic things parents can do to address sexting with their kids, before and after an incident occurs:
- Model responsible technology use. For starters, don’t engage in sexting as a parent! The consequences of sexting are can be the same for adults in some circumstances–once a photo or message is sent or posted, it is out there for good. Even suggestive photos or messages between spouses can come to light and lead to embarrassment at a minimum. Morever, excessive texting or social media use has been linked to negative outcomes, and parents need to model self-control and prudent tech use consistently.
- Talk to your kids about sexting. Parents need to address this issue with their kids early, before the child receives a mobile phone and while they are beginning to use the Internet. Sexting doesn’t just happen on phones; any camera plus email, social media, blogs, etc. can provide a platform for a sext to be received or sent. If you children are old enough to use the Internet and computers or phones, you need to explain what sexting is, why it is harmful and unacceptable, what to do if they ever receive an inappropriate image (talk to you, the parent!), and what the consequence will be if they every create and send sexts or other inappropriate messages.
- Set up parental controls on your kids’ mobile phones. When purchasing a phone or even if your child has been using the phone for some time, be sure to make use of the parental controls provided by your wireless carrier. Each carrier’s controls differ, but as a general rule, parents have the ability to filter or restrict Internet use, control contacts, limit texting, and disengage certain functionalities, such as the camera. Talk to your kids about why you are setting limits and use it as an engagement point to discuss responsible tech use.
- Look for teachable moments. The continuous stream of national and local news stories about sexting incidents and arrests provide opportunities to address this behavior and its consequences with your kids. News stories aside, know that this issue is a reality at their school and among their friends; so look for moments to address it in a loving, sincere, non-confrontational manner.
- Have a plan for dealing with a sexting incident. If you have provided your child with a phone, or if they are using the Internet (especially social media), you have to be prepared for them to be exposed to a sext, whether it is a friend or a stranger. Make certain that your child knows that their first response to an inappropriate message is to tell you, and that any such message should not be resent (that act could still constitute distributing child pornography in some jurisdictions). Be prepared to address the situation calmly with your child, and know who you will contact, depending upon the nature and severity of the image/message (e.g., the other child’s parents, school officials, the police department, an attorney). Take into account the ramifications on the welfare of the children involved; reacting emotionally or publicizing the incident unwisely could increase the harm caused by the incident.