One quarter of teens are sexting and parents should be concerned

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If you're the parent of a teen, or you have that in your future, it's time for us to talk about sexting.

While taking nude pictures used to be a rarity, a new study has found that a quarter of all teens have received nude photos – and experts say parents should be concerned. 

A meta-analysis of sexting research found that one in seven teens have sent nude photos, and a quarter have received them. And a separate study has found that almost 29 per cent of teenagers were engaged in consensual sexting.

And while consensual sexting may sound concerning, something else for parents to consider is what happens to those photos once they're sent. Over one in 10 teens admitted in one study that they had forwarded a sext on without the consent of the sender, and 8.4 per cent reported that they had had that done to them. 

Add to that the coercion that many teens have reported they've felt to send naked photos, and that possession of those photos of the subject is under 16 is a crime, and we're looking at a challenging world to navigate for parents and teenagers. 

How do parents start to talk to their teenagers about sexting? Clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Hughes suggests starting with the key messages that it's important for kids to understand.

"Probably the most important thing for teens to understand is that once they've sent a sext, they're no longer in control of what happens to that image and who it's shared with," she says. 

"And there's no way to reverse things. It's like trying to put superglue back in the tube – you can't. Even if you ask the person to delete the image, they might refuse, tell you they've deleted it when they actually haven't, or delete it, but after they've shared it with others. There's no way to control what happens next."

Dr Hughes says that convincing a teen they can't trust those close to them to keep their confidence is almost impossible, but it's important to tell them there are still other things that can go wrong.

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"There's still the problem of what happens if that phone gets lost or misplaced, or is monitored in secret by the other person's parent," she says. "Once a sext is sent, it can be seen by anyone, even if it's sent in private.   

"It's also important for teens to understand that if they're sent a sext by someone else, the person featured in the image hasn't necessarily consented to the image being captured or shared with others, which is why it's always best to delete the image, and not on-share it." 

Dr Hughes says a child doesn't even need to have a phone before you start talking about responsible use – and that includes sexting.     

"The point at which a child is old enough to have a phone, or the point at which their friends are, is the point at which conversations about sexting need to start," she says.

If that conversation feels uncomfortable or inappropriate, Dr Hughes says that could be a sign that it's not yet time for that child to have a phone.

"When teens first have a phone, monitoring is an important part of that – so long as it's out in the open, secret monitoring never ends well – but once teens are well versed in and have a bit of experience with online safety, there'll come a point where it's important to step back."

It's also important not to send the message that sexting is wrong, says Dr Hughes, because it can be a way for teens to explore their sexuality.

"For a lot of teens, sexting is part of them learning to express themselves sexually, so it's important not to send the message that sexting is wrong or bad, but it's also important to help teens to explore their sexuality in a way that doesn't increase their risk for shameful or humiliating experiences," she says. 

"That being said, like the decision to have sex, it's ultimately up to teens to decide whether sexting is an activity they want to participate in.

"We can warn them of the dangers and help them to understand the potential consequences so they can make an informed decision, but at a certain point, it's up to teens to decide whether sexting is something they're for or against."

And if you find out your child has been engaged in sexting, Dr Hughes says it's important to keep a cool head.

"Unless a parent has been secretly looking through their teens phone, parents usually only become aware of their teens sexting when a sext has been leaked," she says.

"If that's the case, it isn't the time for 'how could you be so stupid' – the teen will be all too aware of their mistake –acting quickly needs to be the priority.  

"If you know who the sext has been sent to, contact that person directly – and anyone else who the image has been shared with – and ask them to delete the sext.  

"If the sext has been uploaded to social media – contact the social media platform directly and ask them to remove the image.  And if your sense is that the image has been shared too much to track, contact the police."

And if you suspect your teen is engaged in sexting but they're denying it, Dr Hughes says it's time to go back to basics and engage your teen in conversations about sexting and potential consequences. 

  "And if that doesn't work, revise the limits you have in place for phone use and the degree of parent monitoring."