Dear Your Teen:
My 13-year-old daughter was sexting boys who she hardly knew. She did not send any photos (only sexting language), although one boy did ask her to send a picture of her breasts but she did not. She is a great kid, involved in sports and school choir. She has good friends and does well academically. We spoke with our daughter and she said that she was doing it to “fit in.” What should we do now and how do we prevent future incidents?
If your daughter came to you with this issue, first acknowledge her trust in you and commend her for initiating a difficult conversation. The safe and responsible use of technology is a conversation that needs to be revisited many, many times, and the conversation is different depending on the age of your child and the issue at hand.
It’s time to talk about the dangers of sexting
In response to your daughter’s sexting, some of the important points to emphasize include:
The fake sense of intimacy that is easily established through texting
Teens can be easily made to feel as if they are having a private conversation via text messages, when in fact, their conversations can be (and often are) shared with a wide number of people.
The public, permanent nature of any digital communication
Teens often struggle to understand that any digital message—from their “liking” a Facebook status to a picture they send via text—can be forever preserved and shared with anyone at anytime. Younger teens especially may not have a clear sense of the gravity of sexting. Share with your teen that this action is illegal, on both sides, and can have quite serious consequences.
The relationship between her actions and their consequences
This is a point to revisit frequently with children and teens of any age, and not just in reference to technology. It is one of the most important jobs of parents to teach children about the relationship between their actions and the consequences of those actions. With regard to technology, this means that responsible behavior (e.g., completing homework, obeying curfew, telling the truth) results in more adult privileges, such as having one’s own phone.
In order to help your daughter effectively manage technology moving forward, it will be important to have frequent conversations about each of these topics as they arise. Luckily, there will be plenty of opportunities for this to occur!
Although parents are often concerned about “snooping” on their children’s private lives, when it comes to teens and technology, it helps to establish an open relationship from the start. You should have access to your teen’s phone and internet accounts, and your teen should expect that you may regularly check those accounts. Again, this is an opportunity for your teen to make the connection between positive behavior (e.g., responsible use of technology) and positive consequences (e.g., more privacy and technology privileges).
Most importantly, try to maintain a sense of calm during these conversations with your daughter. When teens feel supported and believe that their parents will listen to them and think with them about these big issues, they will be more likely to come to their parents about issues big and small.
Tori Cordiano, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.