Teens Are Sexting — Now What?
Our lives these days are intertwined with our digital devices, for good or for ill. That includes adolescent romantic and sexual relationships of all kinds — happy, tragic, mutual, one-sided, healthy, abusive.
And experts say that rather than being shocked to find that kids are sexting, we should instead be talking about it from an early age, just as we should about other aspects of their developing sense of their sexual identities.
“It’s becoming a normative component of teen sexual behavior and development,” said Sheri Madigan, a psychologist who was first author of a large study on digital sexual activity published at the end of February in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
“The average age of first cellphone ownership is 10.3,” said Dr. Madigan, who holds the Canada research chair in Determinants of Child Development at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute in Calgary. Her advice to parents is to start talking about sexting — as with so many topics — younger than you think you need to.
She suggested that for younger children, the conversations could be simple and could be put in the context of other absolute rules. “Let them know not to get into a car with a stranger, let them know that text messages and emails and online communications should never include anyone with no clothes,” she said.
Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show decreasing rates of sexual activity among high school students over the period from 2005 to 2015, with the prevalence of having ever had sexual intercourse down from 46.8 percent to 41.2 percent over all (there were larger decreases among black and Hispanic students).
But if early sexual activity is decreasing, though still highly prevalent, digital sexual activity is probably — and not surprisingly — becoming more common. In the new study, researchers looked at data from 39 studies of people under 18 sending and receiving sexually explicit images, videos and messages. Taken together, the studies included data on more than 110,000 kids (they ranged from 11.9 to 17 in age, with a mean of 15.16).
These studies included kids of very different ages and asked — and answered — very different questions, a challenge the researchers acknowledged as they pulled together the information on this relatively new and probably rapidly changing set of behaviors. Still, they offered prevalence data from this big group: 14.8 percent had sent sexts, 27.4 percent had received them, 12 percent had forwarded a sext without consent, and 8.4 percent had had it happen to them.
Elizabeth K. Englander, the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center and a professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University, who was a co-author of an accompanying commentary, said that often sexting reflects adolescent curiosity about nudity and bodies and is an activity for “kids who are sort of interested in sexuality but might not be ready for actual sex.”
Dr. Megan Moreno, a pediatrician who is vice chair of digital health at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said: “My main message would be for parents to step back for a minute from the alarmist nature of the word ‘sexting’ and think about developmentally appropriate foolish romantic things teenagers do.” Parents might, for example, think about the risky things they did themselves when they were younger, and when they discuss it with their teenagers, “try to view sexting through that lens: here is something that might feel like a normal thing to do and a normal thing to ask, and other people are doing it, but it’s a risky thing for you to do and if you find yourself in that situation we can talk about it.”
As kids get older, the parenting guide by Dr. Moreno in the journal suggests, conversations can — and should — become more direct. Let kids tell you what they know, what they think, what they’re seeing, what they’re feeling. It’s part of talking about safety, online and offline, and part of talking about social behavior, friendships and romantic relationships and how people treat others and want to be treated. For teenagers themselves, there is a thorough handbook available from Common Sense Media, which will walk a kid through the scarier scenarios.
“Parents are very invested in the idea that sexting is a terrible thing,” Dr. Englander said. “They want to be able to turn to their kids and say, this could be the end of your life as we know it, it could ruin your chances for college, it could ruin your chances for jobs.”
By focusing on those possible but worst case scenarios, parents are not necessarily addressing the much more common problems: About 13 percent of sexters report bad experiences, and another 7 to 8 percent mixed experiences; the negatives are for the most part emotional.
So those conversations should include the “what if” scenarios: What if you feel pressured to send a sext and you don’t want to, what are the right strategies? Who would you turn to, how could you get help and advice?
The most upsetting statistic to come out of these studies is that one in nine teenagers report forwarding sexts without consent. Those are the scenarios parents worry about most; images end up in someone else’s hands, or made public. The sender’s trust has been violated, and there can be legal implications.
But Dr. Ellen Selkie, an adolescent medicine specialist in the University of Michigan department of pediatrics, said, “It’s far more common for kids to be doing it as part of a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend.” When she is counseling parents about sexting, she said, “I do try to present it as a manifestation of typical adolescent development — sexual experimenting is something kids have always done, and now we have digital media.”
It’s worth talking about it. “Kids who report discussing sexting with their parents are less likely to sext and less likely to have a traumatic outcome if they do sext,” Dr. Englander said. Studies have shown that one of the most effective messages from adults is to say, “Once you send a photo you can never control it again. That does seem to strike more of a chord with kids.”
When teenagers are pestered or threatened or coerced, when there are major power or age differentials, she said, those are “big red flags.”
We know only a little about the behavioral profiles of kids who are sexting; the ones who are doing it consensually are likely to be risk takers, but they are not more likely to be kids with mental health issues, Dr. Madigan said. We also know that nonconsensual sexting leads to significant stress, leaving teenagers in the same kind of distress they may feel after being sexually harassed or assaulted.
Parents need to be willing to consider the idea that sexting may happen in the context of healthy relationships, Dr. Madigan said. But clearly they also need to be willing to go over more problematic scenarios, including what happens if the relationship ends, especially if photos have been sent.
“Ignoring it or yelling about it or assuming it’s an indication of serious mental illness — all of those seem wrong or ill-advised,” Dr. Englander said. “Parents can make a choice to address it early and often.”