Sexting: A Q&A on how to talk to your children about sharing digital content with others

A UAB pediatrician offers her advice for handling tricky conversations with your children about appropriate digital device use and sexting.

sexting 2One in seven teens has sent a sext and one in four has received a sext.Many American teenagers have regular access to a smartphone and its applications, giving them instant power, information and gratification at their fingertips. In recent years, parents have had to adjust their parenting skills to incorporate conversations with their children about proper smartphone use, but a recent study published by JAMA Pediatrics has spurred national buzz about a new conversation parents need to be having — sexting.

Sexting is the sending of explicit digital images, messages, videos and emails to others, with the messages commonly referred to as sexts. While anyone with a smartphone at any age can send a sext, the rise of sexting in the teenage population has grown tremendously, as one in seven teens has sent a sext and one in four has received a sext. Some argue that social media applications have helped play a factor in the rise of sexting as well, with platforms like Snapchat fostering a sense of privacy by allowing images to “disappear” after a few seconds.

According to the study, 12 percent of teens have forwarded a sext without consent and 8.4 percent have had a sext forwarded without their consent. Since smartphones seem to be with teens 24/7, they can send messages anytime, anywhere, with a false sense of security blanketing their actions and peer pressure constantly available.

Candice Dye, M.D., assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics, shares her recommendations for how to discuss this subject with your children from her perspective as both a pediatrician and a mother. 

candice dye experts2017Candice Dye, M.D.Q: What should parents know about sexting? 

Dye: Parents should know that sexting is a real thing and that their child could be involved at some point or another. They cannot be naïve to think that their child already knows the ins and outs of this arena or that they would never send or receive a sext. This is new territory for many parents, and as their teenagers start making independent decisions and have their own digital lives, it’s critical to talk about this and keep the conversation open so they feel comfortable coming to you in the event they find themselves in a situation. 

Q: What should parents say to their teens about the consequences of sexting?

Dye: It’s important that parents really outline all potential consequences of sexting, from a message being copied and pasted to a friend, to an image getting forwarded to unintended recipients. Teenagers also need to be aware that there could be legal ramifications if they share or forward inappropriate images without consent, although parents should strongly advise their children to never forward or show any content of question to others. 

The best advice a parent can give is to encourage their child to not participate with sexting and, if they are the recipient of a sext, to delete the message and not reply or engage with the sender.   

Q: Does the conversation need to be different with boys and girls?

Dye: I think the initial and general conversation is the same regardless of gender. However, stereotypically, girls are more likely to send a photo and boys are at more risk to receive and forward a picture to others, so all need to be more cautious of how they are using their phones. But in the end, the advice is the same: Don’t engage, don’t participate.   

Q: How can parents keep a pulse on their children’s social media and texting habits while still maintaining the trust from their children?

Dye: The parents are usually the ones paying for the smartphone, so they do hold the rights to it. They need to be occasionally surveying their children’s phones, and can even restrict access as well through different monitoring parameters. I’d recommend having any children or teens turn their phones in at night; this way, they don’t go to bed with their phones, which can help with their sleep, but also may help prohibit late night inappropriate behaviors. 

It’s also beneficial to have a sibling, cousin or other relative who is a good influence for the teenager helping to monitor their digital behavior. If that person is friends with the teen on social media, they can also act as extra eyes without the parents’ directly stalking their child’s social media footprint.

At the end of the day, though, it does come down to fostering open dialogue with your children in a comfortable setting and letting them know that you are here to be a sounding board if they ever have any issues or need to chat.