Over the last two decades, we’ve seen amazing advancements in cellphone technology, resulting in a number of small and affordable devices that can send text, photos, and video to another person almost instantly. It’s hard to deny the convenience, but as with most truly innovative technologies, it has brought its fair share of problems. One that has gained a lot of attention in recent years is sexting.

Sexting refers to the sending and exchanging of sexually explicit messages, photographs, or images of oneself, usually sent through cell phones or other electronic devices. It would be one thing if this was something that only consenting adults engaged in, but it has become an increasingly common issue among teenagers as well. Recent research shows that at least one in four teens receive sexually explicit texts and emails, while at least one in seven teens has sent “sexts” themselves. These young and emotionally experienced kids don’t realize the potential dangers that come with sexting, and parents often don’t know that it’s happening.

It’s important for parents to understand why teenagers sext and what they can do to help keep them safe.

Why Do Teens Sext?

There’s no one single reason why teenagers engage in sexting. For some, it’s just a way of flirting with someone they’re interested in or an opportunity to prove their commitment to their boyfriend or girlfriend. Teenagers are just starting to learn about sex around this time, so there might be an impulse to experiment in this arena, which is made that much easier by how time we spend with our cellphones and other electronic devices. Some teens also view sexting as a form of “safe sex,” since it doesn’t come with any risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

There is also a potential social pressure at play with sexting, as teenagers will sometimes receive messages asking for nude photos or other sexual imagery. If the one making the request somebody that they like, a teenager might feel obligated to comply. This is especially true of young women, as girls are more likely to be pressured to send nude photos of themselves than boys. In some cases, they might even receive threats or verbal abuse if they don’t, which can be hard on kids with low self-esteem who might have a harder time saying no.

What Are The Dangers of Teen Sexting?

Teenagers often fail to fully consider the risks of sexting, mainly because they think that it’s just between them and the recipient. If they’re in a positive relationship with their boyfriend or girlfriend, they might not see any downside to sending them compromising images or messages. Yet pictures or videos that were sent in confidence can easily be shared with others via email or text, or even posted on social media. Even a well-meaning significant other might not have any qualms about showing these sensitive images to their friends, and if there’s a break-up down the line, they have access to something that could seriously hurt their ex’s reputation.

There are also potential legal issues to consider. Many young people don’t realize that distributing explicit pictures of someone who is underage is illegal, even if they are the ones in the photograph. Granted, the police tend to avoid treating sexting among children as a crime, but they must also act in the best interests of the child’s safety, which means that serious legal action might be necessary in some cases.

What Should I Do If I’m Worried My Child Might Be Sexting?

Whether you think that your child is already sexting or you simply want them to understand the potential dangers of doing so, you need to be proactive. Here are a few important tips if you think that your teen is at risk:

  • Don’t wait for an incident to occur before talking with them about sexting. It might be awkward to discuss dating or sex with teenagers, but it’s better to be proactive in this case.
  • If you believe your child has engaged in sexting, have a calm and supportive conversation with them about it. Try to learn as much as you can about the situation as you can.
  • Talk with them about the pressures to send revealing photos and the potential social humiliation if those pictures are shared with others.
  • If your child has received any explicit pictures or videos, have them delete it immediately. You don’t want to run the risk of having what could be considered “child pornography” on any of your family’s devices.
  • Consider talking with the family of the other party or parties involved, but sure to keep your child informed and involved. Going behind their back will make it harder for them to trust you.
  • Carefully consider if you should involve your child’s school or not. Some schools have mandatory reporting requirements, so unless you’re okay with getting law enforcement involved, you might want to avoid involving them if it isn’t necessary.
  • Consider seeking help from a therapist or counselor, as many sexting incidents could be linked to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, or depression.

The most important thing to keep in mind when talking to teenagers about sexting is to be kind. It might seem obvious that you shouldn’t send “sexts,” but remember that it’s normal for teenagers to do unwise things. You probably made mistakes when you were younger, so just think about what kind of trouble you could have gotten into if you have a smartphone in your pocket back then.