How to Talk About Sexting
The advice for the past few years from parents and educators everywhere has been clear:
Don't do it.
That advice has been less than effective.
So, here we are. Sexting is still going on and may even be "the new first base" for teens. In fact, 80% of adults admit to sexting within the last year. The reasons that adults and teens engage in sexting behavior is often different, and schools and parents are usually rocked by scandal when teen sexting comes to light in their community. In the mean time, many adults are afraid to talk about it because it seems so taboo and uncomfortable.
This post is meant to provide enough information to empower educators and parents to start talking to their adolescents and teens about sexting proactively. The discussions need to happen before the scandal breaks and in an effort to prevent it, not in reaction to the scandal. This information should make adults feel empowered, not frightened.
Also, as a disclaimer, this post is not meant to be the ultimate and final guide to sexting. There is much more to the topic than can fit in one blog post. Many educators and parents just need a place to start. This post might be that place.
For some girls, sexting seems unnatural and unimaginable. We should never assume our daughters or female students are engaging in this behavior and open with accusations. But, if and when these girls show interest in boys and start communicating with them using messaging technology like iMessage or Snapchat, it is not unreasonable to assume they will be asked for "nudes" from those boys. (Worth noting: "Nudes" can be spelled almost any phonetical way such as "noodz" and many others.) We can start by asking them what they have heard about sexting and if anyone they know is sending those kinds of pictures.
According to the research of Nancy Jo Sales, girls are caught in a tough spot. If they refuse to send a naked picture, they are called "prudes" or even blackmailed with personal information they do not want others to know. If they do send that naked picture, they lose control of it and it can be copied and shared widely by anyone who receives it. Both options are a potential black hole for their reputations to fall into. It might be worthwhile to listen to the podcasts and read through the articles on Sales's website and choose one to share with your daughter. Ask her what she thinks and if she is worried about that happening to her. Let the conversation happen organically and go from there.
What we do know, as Teen Vogue's recent article makes clear, is that telling girls "just don't do it" is ineffective and tends to make them less likely to be willing to talk with their adults about sexting and the social pressures that go with it. Sometimes a girl is so consumed by these pressures that she might send "nudes" even when they are not requested because she thinks that is the expectation when she likes a boy and wants him to like her back.
For some boys, the idea of asking a girl for "nudes" or of sharing a "dick pic" (an unprompted penis picture) is way outside their comfort zone. Not all of our adolescent and teen boys are engaged in sexting culture or even have a desire to be. We should not start the conversations about this topic with accusations, but that does not mean we should not be having the conversations at all. Start by asking what they know about sexting and if they have heard other boys, even their friends, talk about sending, asking for, or receiving naked pictures.
Based on information from Dr. Powell-Lunder, who calls it Clark Kent Syndrome, boys are programmed from a young age that being the alpha-male – a sort of superhero status – is what they should strive for. Even boys who are quiet and unassuming in person can act out that ideal on social media or via private messages. If a boy who is shy in-person can contribute "nudes" to a "slut page" – an Instagram, Facebook, or Dropbox where teens collect nudes that have been sent and shared – then he can help make progress toward the superhero ideal.
It is important to note that some boys do not initiate the sexting and are pressured into exchanging "nudes" by a girl. Ask your son about these dynamics, what he has heard about or seen, and how he feels about it.
Where to Go From Here
It all starts with the courage to ask questions and the patience to listen. Most of the time these conversations will not end with answers that you or your children/students are comfortable with. In fact, most of the time the conversations will be a little uncomfortable. After all, there is a lot at stake and the people involved care a lot about each other. For this reason, a couple of resources I like are ConnectSafely's Tips for Dealing with Teen Sexting and Common Sense Media's Guide to Sexting. Both resources acknowledge that there can be legal consequences involved, but in many scenarios that might not be the best path. They also state up front that there are many relationships affected when sexting happens and there are no easy answers.
Ignoring sexting because it is scary or because we adults are worried about what we might find out will not help our children/students navigate this complex and mature topic. Starting and continuing conversations with our children and students in a way that lets them know we care about them is the best way to get started.