When asked about sexting, a teen might say something like, "It's not a big deal, everyone does it." This kind of response is most likely intended to deter a tough conversation, but sexting is an important issue to address. Is sexting a big deal or not, and is everyone really doing it? It is critical for both teens and parents to think through these matters because sexting can have unanticipated outcomes and consequences.
The truth of the matter is that not all teens are sexting, but many of them are. Sexting can involve sending texts with sexual language, or sending revealing images of oneself. The rise of technology development, smart phones, and social media have made it very easy for teens to get involved in this activity. Sexting only requires a phone, a data plan, and a send button, which many teens have access to 24/7 in the western world. This type of access makes them susceptible to the pitfalls of a generation that is rarely separated from technology. Since technology is now a major part of this generation, adults must continue to adapt and become aware of the positive and negative influences that technology can have. In addition, we must help our teens learn to navigate these issues as well.
Teens Don't Need to be Shamed, They Need Adults to Help Them Understand
Much of the time teens do not think through the decision to sext or send provocative pictures of themselves. They are willing to trust the receiver to not do anything disrespectful with the images. After all, it seems like everyone else is doing it and nothing bad seems to be happening. The unfortunate reality is that bad things are happening as a result of sexting. Pictures are used as blackmail in breakups, images are shared with others, and bodies are being objectified. Teens may not be aware of how devastating and humiliating it can be if pictures do get out. As stated before, all it takes is a click and a send button, so there is not much keeping images from spreading. Nonetheless, teens often disregard any level of risk because they trust that their recipients will not misuse the material. Unfortunately, trust can change quickly - especially in the life of a teen.
As they are navigating a world with these types of issues, teens need help and guidance. They have the ability to think things through on their own, and we don't want to hinder those abilities. Instead, we want to encourage teens to learn to think through the possible consequences of sexting and sending pictures. This can be done in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way because as much as teens would like to fool us into thinking they know everything, they really do want support. They are wandering in uncharted territory and they are often struggling to discern what is best.
Truth be told, we don't even have all of these issues figured out as adults yet. We are still trying to get a grip on how much technology is useful and how much is excessive. In other words, we are all figuring this out together and we can have compassion for our teens. Compassion and openness goes a lot further than judgment when we want our teens to be able to feel safe consulting with us about difficult topics. Open, adult-like conversations about sexting can encourage and empower teens to think through potential risks of sexting. They are capable of coming up with very reasonable conclusions, so we want to help them practice thinking through this topic and all of the other topics that arise for teens in the 21st century.