The secret to educating teens about sexting is that it’s exactly like good sex ed. That means it should be accurate, non-shaming, compassionate, and realistic. We need to acknowledge that sexting will happen and aim to reduce the potential harm and help teens make deliberate and ethical decisions.
Taking an abstinence-only approach to sexting squanders an opportunity to help teens develop important skills, like navigating risk, figuring out who they can trust, and learning how to respect digital privacy. Abstinence-only messages about sexting are particularly damaging because it deters victims of privacy violations from seeking help by shaming and blaming them for sexting.
1. Common mistakes
Just telling teens “don’t sext” won’t be effective.
- Why? Around one-third of 16- and 17-year olds are going to sext even if they’re told not to. We know abstinence-only sex ed has failed to reduce rates of unplanned pregnancy and STDs, so we can guess that abstinence-only sexting policies will fail too. Focus instead on harm-reduction strategies.
- Depending on the nature of the image, teen sexting may be illegal in your jurisdiction; consult local laws. Also be aware that telling teens that sexting is illegal will not stop most of them from doing it.
Avoid the scare tactic of warning teens not to sext because all sexts will eventually be distributed.
- Why? Teens already know distribution is a possibility, but they trust the people they share private images with. In fact, research suggests that most teenage sexts (90%) are shared consensually among peers and are never distributed without permission. When teens hear the message that “all sexts will be distributed,” many will tune out because that doesn’t match up with their experience.
- All sexual behavior involving a partner involves some risk, and sexting is no different–talk about how to establish and assess trust and strategies to reduce risk.
Don’t ban mobile phones or try to monitor kids’ technology use.
- Why? This is an ineffective band-aid solution. It’s impossible to keep up with every new app, and the most tech-savvy kids can easily get around monitoring applications. We are all still figuring out how to adapt our ideas about privacy for digital media.
- Violating young people’s privacy with a monitoring app sets the wrong example. Focus instead on teaching values, like respect for privacy and consent.
Don’t tell people whose private images have been distributed that their future job and college prospects are ruined and that their images are being viewed by child molesters.
- Why? This creates unnecessary fear and shame, and in cases in which images are distributed among peers without permission, they are very rarely ever uploaded to public websites.
Avoid the strategy of telling girls that abstaining from sexting proves and preserves their self-respect and self-esteem.
- Why? This perpetuates slut-shaming and victim-blaming.
2. What should I say to teens about sexting?
You can try to stop teens from sexting, but the research tells us that around a third of 16- and 17-year olds will do it anyways, and many will also do it when the get older. In most studies of young adults, well over half say that they sext.
More research is needed, but among consensual sexters, it looks like around 10% will experience a privacy violation later on. However, when sexters were initially pressured or coerced to create and send an image, the rates of distribution or other harm is much higher–around 1/3.
Consider that your teen might be the perpetrator, victim, or bystander to that kind of harm. If the only thing you’ve said to them is “don’t sext,” you’ve missed an opportunity to help them develop the tools to deal with those situations.
Here’s what else you should do:
- Focus on trying to make sure the teens in your care don’t perpetrate sexual privacy violations.
- Cultivate empathy
- Teach teens to resist sexism and slut-shaming
- Talk to all teens about the ethical violation and devastating impact of these digital harms:
- Creating a sexual image without the subject’s permission
- Distributing a sexual image without the subject’s permission
- Coercing or pressuring someone to produce a sexual image
- Teach teens to be responsible bystanders who support victims (see below) by never forwarding private images and never shaming victims.
- General advice on helping kids learn empathy: “My Worst Nightmare — What If I Accidentally Raise The Bully?“
- Devorah Heitner argues that we don’t need parenting apps that monitor kids, we need to mentor empathy:
- Discuss sexting’s similarity to other sexual activities; talk about how the issues of sexual ethics, consent, and respect between partners are the same.
- Teach young people to recognize and respect consent in themselves and others.
- Learn how to teach consent on a daily basis from birth to adolescence and watch this video, “4 Ways Parents Teach Kids that Consent Doesn’t Matter.” Both offer specific advice.
- If a teen in your care is victimized by a privacy violation, be supportive and compassionate. You wouldn’t blame a rape victim, so don’t blame and shame a victim of a sexual privacy violation either.
- Victims of privacy violations often face devastating slut-shaming from peers. Don’t exacerbate that problem by punishing consensual sexters at home or at school; remember that the victim didn’t harm anyone, they just took a risk and trusted the wrong person, and they deserve the utmost compassion.
- Teach teens to resist slut-shaming and other damaging forms of sexual shaming.
- Model anti-sexist views of female sexuality. Teach teens about the sexual double standard and help them learn how to resist sexism and think critically about gender norms and stereotypes, including about masculinity.
- Discuss rape culture.
- Discuss homophobia and teach teens how to resist homophobic bullying.
- Work with young people to collectively develop on-going strategies to resist gender- and sexuality-based harassment and bullying.
Teach digital privacy
- Talk about teens’ norms and expectations of privacy on the internet and mobile phones in different contexts.
- Be a role model for the importance of digital privacy. Monitoring kids’ texts (or reading their diaries) damages trust in relationships and sends the wrong message that privacy violations are ok.
You should also consider your own liability–consult a lawyer. Teen sexting is legally risky because it can qualify as child pornography. It may be useful to inform teens if you are subject to mandatory reporting laws or policies for child pornography. Educators who talk to people under 18 should avoid encouraging sexting, as this could be interpreted as aiding and abetting the production of child pornography. Again, consult a lawyer.
Video PSA for parents
Nude Selfies: What parents and carers need to know: This PSA offers the crucial message that sexting is not wrong and deviant; teens often do it simply for pleasure and that it’s not something to worry about in and of itself. These videos also include the important point that forwarding a private photo without permission is a serious violation.
- Advocates for Youth created an excellent one-hour lesson plan on sexting that doesn’t shame sexters and instead helps teens think about both the pleasures and risks of sexting. All their lesson plans are available for free download if you share your contact information. The sexting lesson is aimed at 10th grade students and is called: “Lesson 5 Using Technology Respectfully and Responsibly.”
Sample discussion questions
- How do you know if an image you receive is intended to be private or if it’s ok to pass on to your friends?
- If you want an image to be private, what’s the best way to make sure your recipient knows?
- What kind of images are likely to cause problems if someone distributes them? Does the person’s gender make a difference? Is that fair?
- How do you think someone would feel if you shared a private image they sent you? What could happen to them if their friends, teachers, and family members saw it?
- Do you think sexual images of people your age should be illegal? (Compare answers to state laws.)
3. Recommended Resources
- Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World: how to mentor (rather than monitor) kids’ use of communication technologies.
- Kids help phone has an excellent site about sexting for teens, though the specific legal guidelines only apply in Canada.
- It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by danah boyd.
- Girl Positive: Supporting Girls to Shape a New World, by Tatiana Fraser and Caia Hagel.
- What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety by Jaclyn Friedman. In a culture that demands sexiness of women but condemns their sexuality, how do you make decisions about sex that you’re happy with? What’s great about this book is that it helps readers un-learn the scare-tactics and slut-shaming about sexuality that they’ve probably grown up with. Though the book is written for women and teen girls, most of the advice applies to people of any gender.