Sexting is happening much more often than you think. I have been completely SHOCKED as a therapist for teens at how frequently teens are texting sexy messages to one another. A lot of the girls I work with who are not sexually active still sometimes engage in sexting. The phone does make people more comfortable, and text messages make it even easier to say things that would never, ever be said in person.
Most of the time it is a boy asking a girl for a picture of something. However, it is rare that a boy comes right out and asks. Usually the conversation leads into the request for a picture. It starts out friendly enough. Next the conversation becomes flirtatious. Often it might include a compliment like, “You looked really pretty in that dress you wore today.” The girl says thank you, so the boy tries to be a little bit bolder. He might text, “Actually, you looked hot.” Slowly it progresses until the boy asks for a picture. Sometimes the girl says yes, and sometimes the girl says no. Rarely is the boy shamed for asking.
One situation I dealt with a little over 2 years ago happened with a 13 year old girl. She was called into the principle’s office. She was surprised to find a police officer sitting there. He asked her if a picture was of her. She reluctantly admitted it was. She was suspended, but the boy whose phone it was on was arrested. He faced charges of child pornography distribution. Apparently after he became angry at the girl, he sent the picture to several other people in order to embarrass her.
Sometimes the sexting conversations do not include pictures. However, they can include questions about what a boy or girl might do with the other one. Teenagers don’t realize these conversations are in writing! If one party says they are deleting it, but instead forwards it to a friend, it often replicates over and over again.
There are emotional reasons sexting is bad behavior for a teenager too. It creates a false sense of intimacy. There is no personal contact, very little emotional connection, and a boldness that surpasses face to face conversation. It moves the relationship along at a much faster pace.
Often, one of the adolescents in the sexting conversation is very uncomfortable. However, in order to keep the other happy, or not look like a “prude,” they continue. In fact, every single girl I’ve counseled who ended up sending a nude photo initially said no. Often the girl said no several times. With repeated asking the girl gave in. A couple of different times the girl unwittingly sent the image to a guy who had friends over. Can you imagine walking back into school after that?
What can parents do? You have to monitor what your teenager is texting/posting. You have to educate them on how to resist texting pressure just as you do with face to face pressure. Teach your teen to be guarded with his or her emotions. Explain repeatedly that whatever is put in print has the potential to exist forever. Most importantly, maintain an open door policy.
What is an open door policy regarding texting? When I was a teenager my parents allowed me to have boys at my house. However, whatever room we were in, the door had to be wide open. If I was on the phone with a boy the door also had to be wide open. Granted that was in a time when teenagers were carrying around pagers, so texting wasn’t an issue. The open door policy meant my parents could walk by at any time and look in, or hear my side of the phone conversation. Honestly, that policy was very annoying at the time. Now, looking back, I realize it kept me out of a lot of trouble.
An open door policy with the cell phone means that you as a parent reserve the right to grab your teen’s phone at any point, and you actually follow through with this. It means that if they complain that this is a violation of their privacy then they can just not have a phone for awhile. It means that you are allowed to be their friend on Facebook, Instagram, etc. and that you routinely check on their profiles. It also means that you allow your teen more and more privacy as they earn it.
A lot of parents automatically give their teenager privacy, and then they have to take it away if their teen is acting up. The teenager perceives this as mean and unfair. However, if privacy is a privilege and not a right, there is very little argument.
You do these things because you don’t want to be the parent whose son is arrested at school for the distribution of child pornography. You do them because you don’t want to be the parent whose daughter half the school has seen naked. You do them because you want to be the parent who teaches your child to become a self-respecting adult. You do these things because you are a smart parent who knows that setting limits isn’t mean, but is loving your child well.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT