“What is sexting?”
Sexting is the sending, receiving or forwarding of sexually explicit content of oneself or others, usually through messages, photos, and videos (Media Literacy Council). It is a growing trend among young people. If our children approach us about sexting, whether out of curiosity or concern, how can we respond to them?
This is a good time to start an ongoing conversation about your family’s rules and expectations on media consumption, if you have not already done so. Such conversations guide your children to practise media discernment skills, so that they can identify and know what to do with the types of content they come across intentionally or accidentally.
If they ask you what is sexting at this age, simply answer them factually and calmly. Explain to them that sexting is the sending, receiving, and sharing of any sexual content about oneself or others. It is important not to react with alarm, as it may give your child the impression that this topic is off-limits for discussion. He or she may then turn to other sources to find answers.
Recap, if necessary, which parts of the body are considered private and hence, should not be shown to or touched by anyone else, except parents.
You may wish to follow up, either in the same conversation or at another suitable time, by asking how they came to hear about the term. Was it from their friends or perhaps something they came across on the Internet? Gently ask to understand the context of how they encountered the term, and address any concerns if they arise.
It is timely to share your family’s values on this matter as well. For example, “In our family, this is not something we do, because it is not respectful towards ourselves and others.”
Assure them that if they come across the term again, and if they wish to talk more, they can always approach you to chat.
Build on the conversations with your teenager on media consumption and discernment with chats about the need to draw healthy physical, relational, and media boundaries. This can include discussions on livestreaming. It would also be helpful to talk about peer pressure and how to resist it.
If the subject of sexting comes up again, or if you feel there is a need to bring it up, approach the topic in a friendly rather than judgemental tone. For example, “Have your friends been talking about sexting?” or “Have you received any requests to send such messages?” It is helpful to not sound like you are interrogating your child. This will encourage them to share their experiences honestly with you.
You may wish to explain to your teenager that in Singapore, it is against the law to force someone below the age of 16 to engage in any form of sexual activity, including sexting. Assure them if they have been asked to engage in such practices, they can come to you immediately for help.
Teens may avoid going to their parents, out of fear of getting in trouble. Help your teen to understand that you will not jump to conclusions without first hearing them out.
Share with them that if anyone—even if it is a close friend or family member—sends them any sexual content, they should approach you as soon as they can to discuss the matter, before deleting the content and, if needed, blocking the sender. They should not forward it to anyone, because that is inappropriate, disrespectful, and illegal.
Filtering software is a useful tool for monitoring your teenager’s media usage, and can be installed on their smart devices and the family computer. In addition to monitoring media and smart device usage, these can also send you any photos taken on the device before it can be sent out, alert you if any inappropriate material has been sent from the device, and enable you to retrieve deleted messages.
They should be used with your teenager’s knowledge and after getting their input on this issue. You and your teenager should agree upon the rules of media and device usage, as well as the agreed-upon consequences of breaking any part of that agreement.
It is important, however, that these type of software are not the only tools being used. What is more essential is to engage them in an on-going conversation about identity, relationships, and intimacy.
Often, teenagers who engage in sexting think of it as a fun thing to do as long as it is consensual and the other person is trusted. They may mistakenly believe that it is necessary for fostering self-esteem and closeness with the other person.
Explore with them how healthy and respectful closeness can be built with another person with good boundaries in place.
If you have not done so already, talk to them about the harm of pornography and how to respond to it. As part of that discussion, help them to understand how sexting is similar to pornography. Ask them questions to get them to reflect on the possible negative consequences of sexting. For example, “What do you think might happen if someone forwarded a sext? How do you think it would affect the sender and receiver?”
Risk-taking may feel pleasurable to them at this stage, so it would be good to help them to differentiate between healthy risks and unhealthy risks.
Explain to your teenager that if they are ever asked or pressured to send sexual content of themselves, they need to bring this to your attention. Get them to consider whether a person who really loves and respects them, would request sexual content from them? How does this align with your previous discussions with them about a healthy sense of identity, boundaries, relationships, and intimacy?
While sexting may be an uncomfortable topic for parents, addressing this very real issue in an open and honest way will help your child to decide on a healthy response should they encounter it in the real world.