Could Your Child be Sexting? Signs to Look for and Ways to Respond

By on Nov 23, 2019

Oh, what we wouldn’t do to travel back in time to the days before smartphones kid-jacked our families, right? But here we are. Our kids are forever connected. And, it’s up to parents to help them navigate the risks — one of which is sexting.

Ouch. Even reading the word may make any parent want to click off this post and run. But don’t. Stay here. Keep reading. Yes, it’s a difficult thing to imagine that your child could be like those “other kids.” (You know, the unruly ones; the wild ones, the ones who must lack parental input and digital monitoring, right?)

But it happens. Good kids — great kids even — may bend the rules and eventually engage in sexting.

As one parent recently reminded with this Direct Message on Twitter:

“I recently discovered my daughter has been sexting with her boyfriend. I’m still shaking over what I found. This is not like her at all. The worst part is she blew it off like it was no big deal! She says everyone does it, and I’m overreacting. Am I the crazy one here? Do a lot of kids do this? Please help. No clue what to do next.” ~ Minnesota Mom

Teens and sextingSexting stats

For Minnesota Mom, and others, here’s what we know.

Some, but not all, kids sext.

One of the latest and most comprehensive studies reveals that while adolescent sexting isn’t an epidemic, it’s still happening despite public campaigns to reduce it. The study, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja, surveyed 5,593 American middle and high school students ages 12 to 17.

In summary, the study found:

  • 14% of middle and high school students had received a sexually explicit image from a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • 6% said they received such an image from someone who was not a current romantic partner.
  • 11% reported sending a sext to a boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • 9% of the students who were asked by a current boyfriend or girlfriend to send a sext complied.
  • 43% of students asked to send a sext by someone who was not a current romantic partner complied.

No, mom, you aren’t crazy.

If you’ve discovered your child is sexting, don’t buy into the flippant (and erroneous) response that “everyone’s doing it.” For those kids who are engaged in sexting, your concerns are more than legitimate.

Sexting can carry enormous emotional, physical, social, and even legal risks. Also, if a situation gets out of hand (not often but it happens), those involved may never fully recover emotionally.

Some signs of sexting

  • Increased secrecy. If your daughter (or son) is sexting, they may become overly protective of their cell phone and hide their screen from public view. They may sleep with their phones under their pillows to safeguard its contents.
  • Grade changes. Grades may drop as risky behaviors edge out day to day responsibilities.
  • Friend changes. If you check your child’s social accounts and notice an increase in flirty photos and language or friends who do the same, it could be a sign of risky digital behavior.
  • Spike in screen time. You may notice your tween or teen on the phone more, leave the room to talk or text, and insist on using their phone from a private place.
  • Anger, defensiveness. While kids may try to rationalize or normalize sexting, your child knows sending a racy photo on a device is risky. Hiding that behavior can cause anger and defensiveness. Your child also likely knows about the specific risks associated with sexting — things like sextortion (pressuring, threatening), revenge porn (sharing to humiliate), bullying, a wrecked reputation, anxiety, and depression. However, she may be in denial that the consequences apply to her personally.

How to respond

Don’t lose your cool or shame. Today’s digital teen culture is something parents haven’t experienced. Peer pressure plays a significant role in sexting. Girls may sext to compete for and win someone’s approval, to prove loyalty or love, or as relational insurance. Boys can be bullied or shamed by male peers if they don’t have girls sexting them.

Keep in mind: What the teenage brain believes to be a good idea at 15 isn’t likely to align with that of a parent. Coming-of-age behaviors in the digital era do not look like they did decades ago. So getting angry, shaming, or getting extreme with restrictions, may not be as useful as working together to figure out why your child is sexting, why it isn’t wise, and how to avoid doing it in the future.

Act quickly. If you discover your child is sexting, immediately remove all suggestive images from your child’s phone and be aggressive to get them deleted from anyone else’s devices. Sexting will often end between the participants without incident. Other situations can escalate. Every situation will be different. Gather all facts and carefully consider bringing other people into the situation. State laws vary, and sexting allegations can have profound consequences. Some options may be to 1) talk to the other kids or parents involved 2) speak to the school (if relevant) 3) contact the police (if a situation evolves to conflict or threats) 4) pursue legal action (if related) 5) seek counseling if a situation causes anxiety or depression for your child.

Teach responsibility; consider filtering. Teaching digital responsibility is one of the top tasks of parents today. And, a healthy parent-child relationship is the best way to equip your child to deal with and avoid sexting. In addition to discussing the risks, but time limits, and phone curfews in place, and consider protecting your family devices with parental controls.

Be proactive. Sexting is a tough but necessary conversation. Start talking to your kids at a young age about the importance of protecting their privacy — information, images, reputation — online. Get specific about what kind of content is okay and not okay to share. Have age-appropriate conversations on how to avoid the temptation of sexting and possible consequences. This handbook from Common Sense Media is an excellent resource as you approach the sexting discussion.

Make the consequences clear. Work together to create ground rules for responsible phone use that include clear consequences. Be prepared to enforce those consequences. If you say you will take away a phone for a week that isn’t used responsibly, be prepared to do that (even if you have to endure not being able to communicate with your child throughout the school day).

Parenting in the digital age certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Kids are always one poor choice away from an emotional avalanche. Find different ways to let your kids know you are there for them — without condition — to listen, to counsel, and to help them work through any difficult situation.

About the Author

Toni Birdsong

Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist for McAfee. She is an author, speaker, and cyber savvy mom of two teenagers (much to their dismay). As a family safety evangelist for McAfee, she focuses on online safety and often speaks to educators, parents, and teens about dodging the dangers online. She is the co-owner of ...

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