Teen Sexting – Everything Parents Need To Know
If only us parents had been more clued up before an online sexual predator targeted the teens in our faith community.
Worse still, it was one of our youth leaders who assumed numerous fake online identities to entice over 50 teen boys (from inside and outside of our church) into sending semi-nude or nude online pics of themselves. In most cases, these images were enough for him to then blackmail them into sending even more revealing images, lest they be released to the public.
The alleged predator will, assuming he is guilty, face the consequences in court soon enough. (Listen to this radio interview for more.)
There are so many painful issues that the kids, parents and pastors involved need to try make sense of. Perhaps in the future I will write about some of them.
It’s all too raw at the moment.
But for now, I want to speak about one obvious issue that has come to our attention as adults, one that need not wait another day: the prevalence of sexting by teenagers, and how damaging this can be.
Many parents were shocked to find out that their kids sexted (on at least this occasion), and wondered whether there was something they could have said or done to prevent this.
This post is my best attempt to equip parents to help their phone-carrying teens.
I also hope educators and youth leaders use what I share here to influence the young people under their sway. (By the way, I recommend that Cape schools invite my friend, Natasha Swift of Life Talk to speak to their preteens about cyber safety, and their teens about sexting.)
The major statistical sources I have drawn on in this post are 2 reputable studies (this one and this one) – as well as some conclusions reached by Professor Megan Maas, a sexuality and technology researcher.
How many teens sext?
Depending on the study, between 44 and 54% kids will send some form of sexually suggestive or explicit text or image, which includes both pics and videos, during their teen years.
As for image sexting, between 20 and 28% will send a nude or semi-nude picture or video in their teen years. Girls are more likely than boys to do so, something I will come back to later on.
As for how revealing these images are, it may range from a snap of themselves in their underwear, to a nude pic, or even to some video footage of them touching themselves, or having sex with someone.
Shockingly, 15% of teens who have sent or posted nude/semi-nude images of themselves send these messages to people they have never met in person!
5 Reasons many teens sext
1. Many do it because they have received one. So says 23% of boys and 14% of girls. ‘I showed you mine, now you show me yours,’ seems like a difficult line or argument to refute.
2. It can be an expression of an existing sexual relationship. 44% of teen sexters say that they send these images in the context of an exclusive romantic relationship. Some girls speak of it as ‘a sexy present’ for their boyfriends, most often because it is asked of them. ‘Baby, it’s my birthday – show me something.’
3. It can be a way of flirting with someone they like. 34% of young sexters have used it this way. 29% of teens believe it’s a necessary part of dating or ‘hooking up’.
4. Many do it out of pressure. 61% of all sexters who have sent nude images admit that they were pressured to do it at least once. This is far more common for girls – 1 in 2 say being pressurized by the opposite sex is a common reason to sext. Comparatively, less than 1 in 5 boys say the same. (But it’s not always boys pressuring girls. Girls sometimes ask boys for nude photos or send nude photos of themselves without solicitation.)
5. It’s seen as normal, harmless and fun. If sexting is believed to be the norm in a young person’s social circle, they will be more inclined to sext. Most teens believe there will be no negative outcomes, so what’s the harm? They sext because they can. Their phones are right there. One snap, and a few clicks and into the ether it goes. Quick and easy.
Some will even do it as a joke. 40% of youth who sext have used it this way. There’s also the feel-good factor – 34% of female adolescent sexters say sending those images makes them feel sexy, confident, naughty or grown-up.
5 Reasons it’s dumb, dangerous and damaging for teens to sext
Even as adults we tend to think of the cyber-realm as a virtual world. If something happens in the virtual world, then it’s not real. It’s all just pixels, right?
Actually, there are plenty things that are very, very real and really wrong with it:
1. A sext will quite possibly be shared. A quarter of teen girls, and a third of teen boys have had images shared with them that were originally sent to another. This is because close on 1 in 5 teens who receive a sext, are prepared to share it with others, and most often with more than one person.
Why do kids share this stuff? One reason is that, for boys especially, it becomes a status symbol as they brag to their mates about their collection.
Another reason kids share these is that it is a common form of revenge after break-ups – it’s called ‘revenge porn’.
You may have read enough stories of how these shared images can lead to some kid’s humiliation, harassment or even cyber-bullying – think of the tragic accounts of teens driven to suicide when this has happened. It can also resurface in years to come as part of one’s digital print – wrecking various employment and relationship chances.
Teens seem to forget that even disappearing images can be screen-grabbed. And that people they’d never think would share the image, just might.
2. When sexting is done because of any kind of pressure, it usually undermines your self-esteem. With half of girl sexters and a third of boys admitting being pressured to send images, this is evidence that a lot of psychological turmoil is involved.
It’s commonly understood that kids with low self-esteem are more likely to behave riskily. But acting riskily can also lead to a lower self-esteem.
3. Teens who sext are more likely to engage in other sexual behaviours. One longitudinal study of American high school students, by Jeff Temple and HyeJeong Choi, shows that sexting makes one more likely to engage in in-person sexual behavior.
Sending a nude photo seems to signal openness to sexual activity and will increase sexual expectations and advances from others. The earlier one sexts, the more likely one is to have sex earlier – and along with it, experience the downsides of premature sex – pregnancy, STIs, emotional entanglements and the like.
4. It can get you in trouble with the law, even legally labeling you as a ‘sex offender’. In many countries it is illegal. In South Africa for example, sending or possessing a nude image of someone under the age of 18 makes you guilty of child porn. In the USA as many as 1 in 400 people are registered sex offenders – many of them so because of sexting child porn.
5. It just might be a predator cloning someone’s whatsapp or instagram account. This was the case with the online scam that has so recently wreaked havoc and heartache in our community.
5 Ways parents can empower their kids not to sext
1. Us parents cannot afford to hide behind our ignorance of the intersection of teen sexuality and technology.
We have to learn the technological platforms our kids use, and how they use them. We have to know what teens are getting up to nowadays.
For example, in the wake of the online scam, our church recently taught parents how to crack the code of teen messaging. Here are some that you need to know…
PAL – Parents are listening
P999 – Parent alert
KOTL – Kiss on the lips
NIFOC – Nude in front of the Computer
SMH – Shaking my head
SOS – Someone over shoulder
PIR – Parent in room
99 – Parents have stopped watching
GNOC = Get naked on camera
2. Parental controls on devices and apps, and the parental right to monitor social media and online activity should come as standard.
A loving parent would never give a motorbike to their child unless their child had been thoroughly equipped to drive. And even after that, there would be a continuing review of their responsibility levels on the bike.
In the same way, I propose that parents should never give their kids a smartphone without equipping them for the challenges that will come part-and-parcel with that phone, as well as making it clear that there will be ongoing conversation and review.
Freedom and privacy should be handed out at the rate that our kids are ready for it, and no sooner. If you have been non-vigilant in the past, it may be more tricky to take back this ground. But you have to do it, especially if you have reason for concern – and the statistics themselves give you reason for concern.
I must recommend this website page. It will help you set up an internet-safe contract with your kids, set up a safer mode on your child’s mobile, restrict youtube videos and set up your internet browser to be safer.
Let’s not be naïve here though – being the digital natives they are, our kids can easily side-step our efforts. For example, many kids will have 2 accounts – one that their parents can see, and another secret one. They can also easily bypass parental controls. We must become digitally savvy, as a basic part of our parental responsibility.
3. Most importantly, parents need to talk to their kids about sexting especially before it happens.
Two issues are involved – both the safe use of phones as well as our kids’ sexual values and behaviour. As parents we must not only address the first issue, especially when we consider that the one reason so many teens sext is precisely because they are having, or want to have, sex.
What kind of things can we talk about with our preteens and teens?
We need to chat through some of the 5 reasons teens sext. In a two-way conversation we can show that, though many of these reasons are appealing, none of them are compelling.
For example, just because you receive a sext, doesn’t mean you need to reciprocate. Isn’t that what happened to so many boys in our recent event – and look at the harm.
As for the belief that most teens do it, in reality 7 out of 10 teens will never sext a video or image. Teenagers are prone to assume everyone’s doing it – and therefore feel the pressure to conform. Not true. Tell your teens this. It really can turn their behaviour. Perhaps this post will lead to an even lower rate of sexting teens.
In conversation, you can also pick up on some of the 5 negative sides I listed above. Don’t be alarmist, or lecture or exaggerate. Don’t make it about your personal disapproval, but rather your wanting what’s best for them.
One of my favourite parenting sociologists, Dr Eileen Moore, gives this advice:
Mostly, we need to engage our teens in conversations to help them think through the issues. We need to ask questions and genuinely listen to our teens’ responses. We can and should share our values and perspective on sexting, but our teens will be more open to hearing our views when we’ve respectfully considered theirs.
Teens tend to balk at pointed, critical questions about “What have you done?!”, but they’re often willing to talk about what they’ve heard about (anonymous) other people or about people in general. You can use a recent headline or scandal about sexting as a springboard to ask your teen questions such as:
- Why do you think some kids sext?
- Have you heard of any cases of sexting resulting in negative consequences for a teen?
- Do you think sexting means different things for boys versus girls?
- To what extent do you think teens feel pressure to sext?
- What do you think could happen when romantic partners decide to share nude images but then they break up?
- What do you think the right thing to do is if someone sends you a nude image of themselves or another teen?
There’s also the necessary art of hiding your shock when your kid tells you what’s going down in their school, or something they have been up to. So many of the boys in the online scam were too ashamed to tell their parents that they had sexted, and were now being blackmailed because of it.
That’s why us parents need to regularly tell our kids something to the effect of:
‘No matter what things you or your friends get up to – and trust me when I say that me and my friends have done our share of stupid things – I want you to know that I love you, and I am a safe person to talk to. I am all ears. I won’t be shocked, as much as I will be there to help you if you get stuck or need advice. That’s what us parents are there for – to support and guide you when you need it most. Nothing you do will ever make me love you more or less than I do today.’
Of course, all your conversation may not get through to them. Many parents face the agony of not being able to deter sexting or premature sex in their kids. In this case all that can be done should be done – phone confiscation for example.
Regardless of how they respond to our attempted leadership, the best gift we can give our kids is to unconditionally love them, build them up in all the right ways, and give them a positive experience of family life. Preteens and teens who experience that kind of environment are far more resistant to the pressure and temptations of risky behaviours.
4. We need to encourage our children to stand against female objectification.
This point may seem philosophical, but in fact it is part of the current climate that makes sexting so normal in the first place.
Although teen boys got victimized in the case I mentioned earlier, most commonly it’s the girls who are the victims of societal grooming in a highly pornified culture, where many teen boys will be consuming internet porn for about 90 minutes per week.
Like I said earlier, 1 in 2 girls say being pressurized by the opposite sex is a common reason to sext, whereas less than 1 in 5 boys say the same. In light of this, and as a dad of a daughter, I am highly receptive to Dr Megan Maas’ view on the matter:
‘These days, it is not enough for a teenage girl to be pure, elegant and ladylike, she also needs to be hot and sexually available to men – without actually doing the deed. It’s not that it is bad for teen girls to express sexuality, it’s just that we don’t want their only dose of daily self-esteem boost to come from a sexy selfie because her sexual worth is her only worth.
“In the context of a digital world where boys can objectify girls by watching pornography on their mobile phones in class, what is a girl to do? Well, some unconsciously decide “If I can’t beat ‘em, I can join ‘em.” Then they begin the process of self-objectification. Self-objectification is the act of treating yourself as an object instead of a subject. Meaning, you break down yourself into physical pieces to scrutinize instead of not worrying about your thighs because they are just as much ‘you’ as your sense of humor is.
“Now, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the feeling of sexual attractiveness, but the need for it can cross a line. Research shows that self-objectification is linked to decreased sexual esteem, sexual satisfaction, sexual safety, and increased disordered eating, depression and anxiety.’
We have to talk about the objectification of women, mass-imprinted by misogynist internet porn, and perpetuated by sexting. We need to empower our girls to stand up against this modern oppression. Instead of girls being shamed for either showing too much (and being called a ‘ho’) or not showing enough (and being called a prude), dudes in general need to be challenged to stop thinking of girls as sexual objects that exist for their pleasure.
It’s time that teens start calling each other on ‘sextual harassment’ – because that is what sexting or requesting a sext actually is.
5. Underline that sexting itself is not the worst thing a teen can do, but it is a thing that can lead to some of the most irreparable long-term damage.
When we say something mean, or do something irresponsible, or betray a trust, most times we can apologize and make right.
But there are some things that, the moment they’re done, can bring permanent damage to lives and reputations.
Sexting is one of them – one click of a send button, and an electronic domino chain reaction, totally out of our control, will destructively fall and keep on falling where it wills.
Ask some of the teens in my church who were targeted and blackmailed by the online predator. Some of them were dragged through years of pain and shame.
Also published on Medium.