“Sexting” – sending or receiving sexually explicit messages, images, or video – is becoming an increasingly common part of modern life. A 2015 survey found that 65% of parents worried that their child would use a smartphone to send or receive explicit content. However, in the same survey, fewer than half of the parents questioned said that they had talked to their child about the dangers of smartphone use. If you’re a parent who’s worried about what your teenage daughter or son may be doing online or on their phone, the best way to start dealing with your worries is to simply talk to your child.
Don’t keep putting off the conversation. If you’re the parent of a teenager, you’re going to have awkward moments. Hopefully you’ve built up a good enough relationship with them, and there aren’t areas that you “just don’t talk about.” But teenagers are unpredictable: they may not stop talking one day, and then not say a word the next. Try and pick a good time for both of you. Don’t sit them down to talk about sexting the night before they have an exam, or if you’ve got to go out in ten minutes. But accept that there’s never going to be a perfect time to have this conversation. It might not be very long, and it probably won’t be a beautiful bonding moment for either of you, but it’s better than putting it off indefinitely.
Keep the conversation general. Don’t start off by asking if they’ve sent dirty pictures to their boyfriend or girlfriend. Hopefully you’ve had conversations before about staying safe online; link back to these principles. Check that they understand that once a picture is shared, they can’t control what happens to it. Of course, they may believe that the person to whom they send a picture would never do anything malicious. Everyone else may argue and break up, but he or she has found True Love. If you can’t get a reasonable response to the suggestion that a picture may be misused in the future, ask what might happen if a phone was stolen (or even borrowed) by someone?
It’s important to understand what your child sees as normal. Do they think that talking dirty is flirtatious, or do they think it’s abusive? Many children have seen porn videos online; would they think it’s a normal part of a relationship to create one? Does your child think that “everyone’s doing it?” Do they have any evidence for this, or have they been told by someone else that sending an explicit picture is normal, or even expected? Many adult lifestyle magazines carry articles on sexting, often portraying it as a way to spice up a relationship. Does your child think that sexting is part of being grown up? Don’t lecture them on how sexting is wrong or dirty – if they have tried it, they’ll be much less likely to tell you if they think you’ll negatively label them.
Help them to understand that a sexual relationship (which includes sending pictures or suggestive texts) should involve mutual trust. Any relationship where one person feels they owe sexual favors to the other is abusive. If they’re being told that they “ought” to send a picture or upload a video, make it clear that they have a right to say no. It doesn’t matter what the other person did or sent; they don’t have to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or guilty. If they’re being coerced, bullied or even blackmailed, reassure them that they don’t have to do things they don’t want to, and that you’re going to help them find a solution.
If they say they’ve never tried sexting, then make sure they know they can come to you if there are any issues or problems in future. If they say that they have sent a picture or video, ask if they know who has seen it. If it’s been sent to one person, suggest that they ask that person to delete it. If they tell you that they have sent pictures, but felt coerced or pressured into doing so, or if they’re being sent content that they don’t want, discuss with them what happens next. It might simply mean blocking someone online, or could involve telling a supportive teacher. If they are being asked for pictures by several people, or by anyone they don’t know, then you’ll need to explain that this should be reported to the police. Although creating a sexual image of a child or young person is actually an illegal act (even if it’s the young person who does it himself or herself), most police forces see young people as victims rather than perpetrators of a crime, particularly if they’re being pressured or blackmailed into sending pictures or videos to other people. But don’t threaten to take away their phone, or drag them down to the police station. Simply explain that you need help in looking after them, and that means involving other people.
Don’t make it a one-off conversation. You don’t have to do a weekly check of their phone. But leave the door open to future conversations, particularly when they break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or when they start a new relationship. If they know that they can talk to you, they’re more likely to tell you if there ever is a problem. But most importantly, don’t let this be the conversation that you wish you’d had when it’s too late.