You casually pick up your teen’s phone from the kitchen counter and catch an eyeful of your son’s girlfriend in her birthday suit.
Pick your jaw up off the floor and don’t take this full frontal as a personal affront, advises Dr. Jeff R. Temple, a psychologist and professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in a newly published paper in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health Journal.
According to Temple, for teens in the digital age, sexting— that is, sending or receiving sexually explicit material by cell phone or computer—can be considered a normal step in sexual exploration and development if it occurs under the right conditions. Temple, who has studied sexting among adolescents for eight years, proposes setting aside kneejerk feelings of shock or anger and trying to understand the nuance surrounding the sext.
Sexting as Modern Day Flirting
If sexting is consensual, and particularly if it’s between two older teens in a committed relationship, parents should view it as a natural adolescent behavior.
“I’m not looking at it as a horrible, bad, risky behavior when two 17-year-olds willingly sext each other,” says Temple. “We should see it as a kind of a modern day version of flirting.”
Sexting among teens is common. According to research, many as one in four teens report that they have sent or received sexts and about half of all teens will sext by the time they leave high school.
Causes for Concern
But not all types of sexting should be considered equal, Temple explains.
Sexting between very young teens, or between a young adolescent and one who is much older, could be cause for concern.
While it may be simply a “contemporary manifestation of sexual exploration” for some, sexting offers many opportunities for abuse. Recent studies in JAMA Pediatrics found that 12 percent of teens send sexts without consent and that sexting can be related to mental health challenges among younger teens.
Teens sometimes feel coerced into sexting and unwanted and unsolicited sexts can cause depression, anxiety, stress and low self-esteem, according to research published in the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.
It’s still unclear whether sexting leads to sex or the other way around, Temple says, but his research shows that teens who sext are:
- Three to five times more likely to be sexually active
- Five times more likely to have multiple sexual partners
- Using contraception half as often as their non-sexting peers
The Law Lags Behind the Technology
While you try to accept that sexting is common, casual, and normal for some teens, remember that many state laws still consider it a crime. Sexting is classified as distribution of child pornography and laws don’t always make a distinction between amorous teens and predators.
Teens who send, share, or receive pictures that contain images of nude minors can be charged with a felony. A Colorado court recently upheld a ruling that required a teen boy to register as a sex offender for the next 20 years after police seized his phone and discovered he had been sexting with two teen girls.
Temple says laws like this haven’t kept up with the digital world and don’t recognize how common consensual sexting is among teens. “When we find out that a 15-year-old is having sex, we don’t arrest them, we don’t criminalize them,” Temple points out. “We educate them and talk about healthy relationships and talk about safe sex.” He believes sexting should be handled the same way.
Parents Set Guidelines
Parents can accept sexting as a normal expression of teenage sexuality and still guide them regarding the legal and social downsides, says Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives and author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.
For example, let teens know that if a sext ends up in the wrong hands, it can be used to embarrass, shame, or even blackmail. “We owe it to our kids, if we find an image like that on their phone, to tell them that they should get rid of it,” Heitner says.
Temple believes parents and schools should teach safe sexting along with safe sex and good digital citizenship. “We need to live in reality and realize that this is happening and it’s going to continue to happen, just like sex between teenagers is going to continue to happen,” he says.