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What parents are getting wrong about teens and sexting

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9 min

Sexting – the digital sharing of sexually explicit texts and images – has become inextricably woven into the culture of adolescent life, growing ever more common and complex in recent years. Nevertheless, many parents take the simplistic approach of telling their teens, “Just say no.”

That’s a mistake, according to Carrie James and Emily Weinstein, Harvard researchers and co-authors of “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing).” “Saying ‘Just don’t sext’ can be really a conversation ender,” James said. And when it comes to sending nudes there is plenty for teens and parents to talk about. In their research, she and Weinstein found that teens sext for many reasons, some of which might not have occurred to adults, and that girls are coming up with sophisticated strategies to discourage the leaking of nude images.

“One of the things that we found in our conversations with teens and in our research is that so many of the dilemmas around sexting are so thorny and complicated,” said Weinstein, who, along with James, is a researcher for Harvard’s Project Zero, which explores topics in education. “If we do not show up for these conversations with teens, we are not equipping them to navigate those situations and the pressures they’re facing.”

Here’s what parents need to know about sexting and how to approach their teens about it.

It’s fairly common

According to a 2018 meta-analysis of research done before June 2016, about 15 percent of teens had sent a sext, while 27 percent had received one and 12 percent had forwarded one without consent. A 2021 meta-analysis of studies between 2016 and early 2020 found that 19 percent of teens had sent a sext, 35 percent had received one and 15 percent had forwarded one without consent.

Both analyses, however, looked at studies done before the pandemic — and lockdowns reportedly sparked an increase in sexting between teens.

In fact, sexting among adolescents has become such a concern in some quarters, that experts have advocated including it in sex education curriculums, decriminalizing consensual sexting between teens, and teaching “safe sexting,” which would include advice such as deleting metadata, never including one’s face, identifiable body features such as birthmarks, or jewelry in a photo; and using a plain background.

It’s complicated

Some of the girls Weinstein and James talked to in teen advisory groups had devised their own elaborate procedures to reduce the chances that nude photos of them would be leaked by recipients. For example, they would superimpose watermarks on the images with the name of the boy they were sending the photos. Or, instead of sending a nude, they might send a Google image, while also screenshotting the search result so they could forward it as proof that the body in the photo wasn’t theirs, if it was passed along.

“Carrie and I just kept thinking, why go to so much trouble? Why not just say, ‘I’m not going to send you a picture?’” Weinstein said. “And we came to see these as kind of like survival tactics, and a signal of how hard this landscape feels for them, regardless of what adults might think or feel is so obvious.”

Another thing that might not be obvious to parents is the definition of sexting today. “We tend to use one word like sexting and think of one kind of tiny sliver of a situation, probably a sliver where a girl is being asked by a boy for a nude and she makes a decision,” James said. But a 2018 meta-analysis found that research on sex differences in sending sexts is inconclusive. And the surveys and teen advisory groups that James and Weinstein conducted show that kids sext with a wide range of people for a wide variety of reasons, and can be quite willing participants.

For example, they may find it fun and exciting. They may want to show interest in someone. They may want to take their relationship to the next level and to express trust in their partner. In fact, in some cases, James and Weinstein said, older teens had had experiences sexting in close, consensual, trusting relationships with no negative consequences. These teens found adults’ dire warnings about sexting to be out-of-touch and condescending.

The researchers also pointed out that intimate digital communication might be an important option for LGBTQ kids who are exploring their sexuality and may not be ready or comfortable to do so in public.

But there are many scenarios in which kids are sexting under pressure. They include: Being threatened or coerced into sending a sext; not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings or shut down a relationship or potential relationship; thinking everyone else is doing it (research shows that high-schoolers who believe popular kids are sexting are more likely to follow suit); believing that having nude images gives them status (this is especially prevalent among boys); thinking it’s the only way to attract someone they are interested in; seeking affirmation about their body.

Some of the scenarios that James and Weinstein heard about surprised even them. For example, “It’s not just that teens are getting asked for nudes or seminude pictures from people they’re already in relationships with,” Weinstein said. “Sometimes those requests are coming from people who they actually see as friends.”

Shelley Rutledge, a psychologist for the Salem-Keizer school district in Oregon has seen the same behavior. “Particularly with our younger teens, we’re seeing transactional exchanging of images outside the context of romantic relationships that may be based in friendship or even just acquaintances,” she said.

Rutledge, who is a member of the school district’s Student Safety and Support Response team, recommends preparing kids to deal with requests for inappropriate images as soon as they begin using technology to communicate — whether that’s by phone, via social networks or on gaming platforms.

This isn’t a one-and-done situation, she said; as with all issues involving sexuality, parents should check in frequently and continue to have age-appropriate conversations and work on “refusal skills.”

Parents should also understand that consensual sharing of intimate images between adolescents, which was barely on the radar of psychologists 15 or so years ago, is no longer seen as developmentally inappropriate, said Rutledge. So your 13- to 18-year-old isn’t atypical if they are intrigued by sexting (although sending unwelcome photographs of themselves to others or pressuring others into sending images would be concerning). They are, however, impulsive teens who may not be able to understand the potential consequences of their actions or who believe in what psychologists call the personal fable – that their experiences are unique, and that bad things, won’t happen to them.

Talking to teens

So, how can a parent find out what is going on in their adolescent’s digital environment and talk to them about the risks?

Weinstein, James and Rutledge recommend asking open-ended questions, avoiding judgment and coming at it from a mind-set of curiosity. For example, a parent could ask how sexting is playing out in their child’s school, or whether their kids’ friends are talking about sexting, or what their teen thinks of the issue.

It’s also important to understand what function sexting would serve for your teen, Rutledge said — are they tempted to sext because they want to fit in, to save a friendship, to receive affirmation about their body? Then you can tailor the conversation around values. For example, if a friend asked your child for a nude image and won’t take no for an answer, you can talk about whether that person is really being a good friend.

But it’s not enough to teach adolescents how to defend themselves from inappropriate sexual overtures. Parents also need to tell teens why it’s not safe or appropriate to solicit photos, which is not a gender-dependent conversation. “All genders solicit, all genders consent, all genders can exploit, all genders can be exploited.” Rutledge said. “So we want to make sure that we’re having gender inclusive conversations about not just why it’s not safe to offer an image, but why it’s really, really unfair of you to ask for an image.”

Parents also need to talk about the core value of consent, she said. “True consent is enthusiastic consent. Like, ‘I am not just acquiescing to your request because I care about you. It’s that I believe this is in my best interest and it’s something that I actively want to do.’ ” Many kids, she added, don’t understand “that consent is not 10 no’s and a yes.”

Another important principle to impress upon teens is that sexts should never be shared without permission, said James, who termed it the “ultimate … violation of consent and respect in this space.” Rutledge also noted that adolescents should be encouraged to come forward if they see people sharing other people’s nude images that have been sent to them.

Finally, parents should assure their adolescents that they can reach out to them for help if sexting goes wrong. This is another reason, Rutledge points out, that it’s important to take a calm, nonjudgmental approach to the issue. While it’s difficult, she said, parents need to try to “set aside that visceral reaction to something that’s unsafe and scary for us. Because in the end, when your child makes a bad choice or if your child’s being exploited or harmed… we want them to come to us.”

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