National statistics tell us that 49% of young people (9 – 24) have sent a sexually suggestive image and 67% of young people have received one. Like many traditionally teenage issues, they are now making an appearance in primary school and we are faced with thinking about prevention and education at strikingly young ages.
I want you to take away two things from this statistic. Sexting is a serious issue but unfortunately a very common one. It certainly is an issue that every young person is aware of and has to make decisions about. If your son or daughter has sent a nude image remember they are not the only one who has done so. Remember too that teenagers can recover from doing so. It is not a mistake that they can’t bounce back from. I actually think it can teach them a huge amount about self-protection and respect if dealt with well by caring adults.
Parents, this is what I want you to do if you think your teenager might be sexting.
1. Simply ask a very direct question (without warning or lead in time). “Have you ever sent a naked picture?” A direct question gives a teenager zero wiggle room. It also gives parents the best indication as to whether their son or daughter is lying.
2. Once you know what you are dealing with you take a breath. One big breath is needed! Most parents will feel a sense of shame or anger when they find out their son or daughter has sent a nude. It is a normal, protective and healthy reaction. However, when a parent transfers this emotion to a teenager it doesn’t help. Emotions + emotions usually cause an explosion. If you process your emotions away from your teenager, you can be as levelheaded as possible when you are with them.
3. How you initially respond will have a big impact on their self-esteem and your relationship with them. What’s why it is wise to remind yourself that teenagers do make mistakes (sometimes big ones). You might even take a moment to validate how challenging growing up is, and the emotions they may be currently feeling. Teenagers are often pretty scared of themselves and make some big errors in judgement they later regret.
4. First thing I recommend is gaining context. Make sure all your questions are answered and you understand the sequence of events thoroughly. Are there predators involved? Is there an ongoing relationship with a boy or girl? Who else knows? Where has the image been sent?
5. Once you have this information, a parent’s highest priority is protecting their child, which sometimes includes protecting them from themselves. You have to make sure they are safe. Reinforce your need to protect your teenager by making any changes you need to ensure their safety. One example that comes to mind is if sexting has happened in a teenager’s bedroom at night, social media needs to have a shut down time and remain out of their bedroom.
7. Although many experts will advise parents never to confiscate a phone as a form of punishment, I personally don’t think it’s unreasonable to give them a break from social media for a few weeks if you feel it is necessary. Try the “soft and close” approach if you feel this needs to happen. You can find more information on it here https://www.michellemitchell.org/new-blog/gotostrategy
8. You may need to contact the school or police. If you do make contact with the school, ask for their policy’s on dealing with sexting so you know how they will respond. It is important that both you and your teenager know what to expect.
9. Deal with sexting holistically. Sexting is not just about a child’s online life. Where are the positives influences and where are the negatives influences? Take stock of the positives (and keep them intact) while reducing the negatives in your daughter’s life. In practical terms that might mean introducing some more positives and it might also mean saying a few more ‘no’s’.
10. Positive, scheduled daily routine stabilizes stressful situations. That means keep everything as normal as possible. So many parents ask me if they should take their teenagers out of school to spend time with them? Where there are times this is a positive move, my overall advice is to try and stick to normal wake and bedtimes and daily routines.
11. Lots of constructive talking to a young person goes a long way. This will help them reflect, evaluate and learn from the experience. Sometimes teenagers show a range of strong emotions including anger, shame, grief and loss and are feeling the weight of their poor choices. Other times they aren’t taking things as seriously as their parents are. I have heard a lot of girls say, “It’s no big deal”, to which I sometimes wonder if things just haven’t caught up with them yet. Expect processing what has happened to take time.
Answering the Difficult Questions
These are some of the tougher questions that parents ask me, which I am going to try and answer as honestly as I can with the help of great resources like www.esafety.gov.au, which I recommend parents refer to.
Can teenagers or parents recover nude photos?
When it comes to recovering nudes, you can do your best to recover them but there is no guarantee that you (or the school or even the police) can retrieve or delete them. Schools and police may carry a bit more weight when it comes to retrieving photos but even there are no guarantees. It depends where they have gone once they have been sent.
What are the legal issues relating to sexting?
It is illegal to ask for, take or create, receive and keep, be in possession of, send or upload a sexually explicit image or video of anyone under the age of 18, even if they are your boyfriend or girlfriend and even if they approve of you doing so. Images or videos include young people showing their private parts, posing in a sexual way, doing a sexual act or being in the presence of someone who is doing a sexual act.
When teenagers sext it is a criminal offense because it creates child pornography. We have to see sexting in this light and treat it seriously. The police may choose to charge youth with a crime, send them to youth counselling, give them a warning or caution or let their parents or school decide on the consequences. of course this is at the digression of police, but I have noticed they are more likely to press charges when the incident involves harassment or threats.
When should parents contact the police?
Definitely contact them if your son or daughter is in any danger, being bullied or threatened or if an image has been spread without their consent. Many parents go to the police in the hope they will be able to retrieve photos, which in some cases police will assist with and other times they are unable to. Authorities see thousands of cases of teenage sexting and are most concerned about young people’s safety. They do become very active when bullying or blackmail is involved with sexting.
When should parents contact the school?
Schools have to report incidents of sexting to the police and they will have their own internal policy on associated restoration, and punishment like expulsion or suspension. It may only be necessary to disclose an incident of sexting if it is likely to become public, involves someone else at school, impact their education or you needed the school’s help to retrieve photos.
When should parents contact other families?
I personally would be very cautious about contacting other families directly. If there is a need to contact another family my guess is that the incident would be serious enough for the school or police to be involved and therefore you could leave that job to them to do for you, or at least be a third party to the communication process.
What should teenagers do if your daughter receives a nude?
Delete the image or video immediately and let the sender know clearly that they don’t wish to receive any more of them. They can also report it to the service that they were posted on. I also recommend they discuss the incident with an adult, but we all know this does not always happen. They should never forward it to someone else.
Prevention is Always Best
Parents of pre-teens often ask me what they can do to prevent their sons or daughters from sending or receiving nude images. This is a great question! These are just some small tips that will make the most impact and more can be found in my article https://www.michellemitchell.org/new-blog/parentingteenagegirls-cybersafety
· Create crystal clear agreements on social media use
· Insist on transparency
· Ensure there are no phones in bedrooms (especially at night)
· Talk to them about nudes and sexting regularly
· Be aware of the company they keep and their values
· Teach them the difference between beautiful and sexy
· Be aware of warning signs and high-risk behaviours
RECOMMENDED READING: For more, check out Michelle’s book “Parenting Teenage Girls in the Age of a New Normal”.