By: Yolanda (Linda) Reid Chassiakos, MD, FAAP
Sexting— the sending or receiving nude or seminude images or sexually explicit text messages—can destroy the lives of children and teens. Not only can it cause severe emotional distress for those whose photos may be viewed or spread around without consent, but it can trigger profound legal consequences for both underage senders and receivers. Teens have been convicted of felonies for sexting with underage partners and placed on sex offender lists.
Surveys have reported that approximately 12% of youth 10 to 19 years of age have sent a sexual photo to someone else. A study published in the July 2014 Pediatrics also found middle school students who send or receive sexts are more likely to be sexually active.
Just as you'd have "the sex talk," you should also should begin the difficult conversation about sexting before a problem develops. It's best to introduce the issue as soon as a child is old enough to have a cell phone, and to continue to provide age-appropriate guidance as your child or teen matures.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers these tips for talking to your children about this growing problem:
Start the discussion even if you don't think sexting has impacted your child or your community. "Have you heard of sexting?" "Tell me what you think it is." It's important to first learn what your child's understanding is of the issue. After that, you can add age-appropriate information as needed.
Use examples appropriate for your child's age when providing information and guidance. For younger children with cell phones who may know little about sex, alert them that text messages should never contain pictures or videos of people—kids or adults—without their clothes on, or engaged in extended kissing or touching private parts. For older children, use the term "sexting" and ask if they've been exposed to nude or seminude images or sexual activities such as "making out"—or more.
Be very specific—especially with teens—that sexting often involves pictures of a sexual nature, including nude and seminude photos and sexual activities. Some sexts can be considered pornography or child pornography. Both senders and receivers could be charged and prosecuted.
Make sure kids of all ages understand that sexting is serious and considered a crime in many jurisdictions. There can be serious consequences for sexting, quite possibly involving the police, suspension from school, and labels on their permanent record that could hurt their chances of getting into college or getting a job.
Inform your children that texts, images, and videos on the internet can remain there forever, even if posted on apps that "delete" after a short duration. Receivers can also share these posts with others, often without the consent of the sexter, and some can even "go viral." Sexters who may have intended their sexts to be viewed by only one individual may find that their photos have been seen by everyone at school after a break-up with a formerly loyal friend. Help your teen resist peer pressure and protect him or herself by saying no to sexting—and no to sharing any sexts viewed or received.
Monitor headlines and the news for stories about sexting that illustrate the very real consequences for both senders and receivers. "Have you seen this story?" "What did you think about it?" "What would you do if you were this child?" Rehearse ways for your child to respond if he or she is asked to participate in inappropriate texting. Encourage your child to come to you with concerns or worries about sexting.
Be on the lookout for excessive texting, as it is associated with an increased likelihood of sending and receiving sexts. If you suspect inappropriate behavior, monitor their cell phones, check in with them about who they are communicating with, and perhaps restrict their number of texts allowed per month.
How Your Pediatrician Can Help
Your pediatrician can help you and your children approach and discuss this important issue. You can also encourage school and local community groups to educate parents, teachers, and students about the risks of sexting. Teach children and teens digital citizenship—including respect for others and themselves and rejection of cyberbullying. Invite and welcome your children's questions and conversations. Help them be safe and kind online.
Additional Information from HealthyChildren.org:
About Dr. Reid Chassiakos:
Yolanda (Linda) Reid Chassiakos, MD, FAAP, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, and the Director of the Klotz Student Health Center at California State University Northridge. With the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Reid Chassiakos sits on the Council on Communications and Media Executive Committee. She is also a fellow of the American College of Physicians. Follow her on Twitter @YReidChassiakos.