How Dangerous is Sexting for Kids?

By on 05-17-2021

Tips on how to protect your tweens and teens and talk to them about the legal and emotional risks of sharing sexual content online

What is sexting?

Sexting is a combination of sex and texting. Sexting stands for the act of sending sexual or erotic text messages or emails and it often also involves sending nude or seminude photos or explicit videos via messaging services or social media sites. Sexting is a type of cybersex.

Studies show that nearly 15% of teens have sent a sext, about 27% of teens have received one, and 75% of young adults have participated in sexting. According to Save the Children, the average age for the first ‘sext’ is between 14 and 16 years old, and an estimated 50,000 children were exposed to some form of sexting without their consent during childhood.

Digital sexual activity is on the rise, and it can be part of a healthy relationship among adults or older teens. But it comes with major risks, especially for young people who likely do not have the emotional maturity or understand the potential negative consequences of sexting. What often starts out as a game can turn into a real drama. Sending messages and photographs of this type can lead to situations of sextortion, grooming or pathologies such as depression and anxiety, among others.

The British Command of Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP), affirms that "there are thousands of hours of webcam recording of British girls published on child pornography websites", an alarming fact that helps us be aware of where sexting ends.

Do you know how to protect and educate your child about sexting? In this article I will show you the best ways to deal with sexting before it happens and after if it occurs.

Why do tweens and teens send sexts?

  • To feel cool. Many kids, upon receiving a sext, forward it to their friends thinking that they will be the envy of everyone. They are proud, and want to show off. And if others in the group are doing it, or it is part of a dare, they may share sexual material to not feel excluded from the group.
  • Impulsiveness. Many minors tend to act quickly without reflecting on what they are going to do and its consequences. For example, faced with a sentimental breakup, they may be carried away by the spirit of revenge and make an impulsive post. 
  • Out of natural sexual curiosity. It is normal for adolescents to be curious about sex and nudity.
  • Because they live in a zero privacy culture. Kids today share their personal and private lives in an online culture of openness never seen before. Sharing intimate material may feel normal.

What’s so bad about sexting? 

As mentioned before, sexting doesn’t have to be all bad for consenting, older teens. But even they can be victims of a moment of impulsiveness or revenge. The worst side of sexting and every parent’s fear is compromising or nude photos or videos of their children end up being made public which can lead to a many severe issues including:

1. Harassment and Sextortion. This is a type of blackmail that occurs when one person threatens another with spreading their explicit material to get something in return.

2. Grooming. Many times minors end up talking on social networks with an adult who impersonates a child with the aim of sexually harassing them.

3. Anxiety and Depression. It is easy to imagine how practicing 'sexting' can lead to disorders such as anxiety and depression and other more serious ones that end in suicide.

4. Loss of control. When someone uploads or shares content on the Internet, you never know which website they are going to host or which screen they are going to view from. There is no way to control this dissemination once the 'send' button has been given, so in the future it could influence your child's job opportunities, for example.

5. Criminal liability. One of the consequences of this could be imprisonment since spreading explicit material of minors is considered spreading of child pornography, even when the person sending it is also a minor. So they would be committing a crime not only for sending, but also for forwarding. Although they do not know the person at all and although the victim gave her consent to the recording. Charges for adults are more severe than for minors, something an 18-year-old who decides to send a sext to a 17-year-old might not be aware of.

Tips to protect your child from the dangers of sexting

  • Talk to your kids about sexting from an earlier age. Earlier than you probably think. In my parents, parents wait too long to talk about sexting. Remember, many kids these days have mobile phones as young as age 10. So I advise you to start talking about it at least before then. Always adapting the conversations to your child’s age.
  • For a young child, just as you would teach them to never get into a car with a stranger, you can also teach them to never send messages to someone without clothes on. On this note, I also remind parents never to share nude photos of your children online, even as babies. 
  • For older children, start by asking them what they already know about sexting, what they think about it, and how it makes them feel. Talk to them about friendships, romantic relationships, and how people treat others and want to be treated. Remember that those conversations should include the "what ifs": What if you feel pressured to send a sext message and you don't want to? What are the correct ways to act there? Who would you turn to for help and advice?
  • Promote good self-esteem. Kids who value themselves depend less on the opinions of others, are better at saying no, and at defending their arguments appropriately. This will allow them to avoid mistakes and not to give in to social pressure.
  • Maintain an atmosphere of trust. It is important to maintain open and honest communication between family members. Repeatedly remind your children throughout their lives that they should be able to ask for advice or help if they need it without fear of shame or punishment from their parents. Teach them that honestly will be rewarded, and follow through on it.
  • Be security savvy. Today's parents should be aware of the options that exist online to keep their child’s data private. Configure safety settings, this includes turning off location settings, never sharing your child’s name or age online, make sure sharing settings are just friends (not friends of friends), turn on safe search functions, and use parental native and external control features (see next point).
  • Use parental controls. App and service providers are increasingly adding parental control features to help keep kids safe and comply with privacy laws. Parents should take advantage of this and revisit all the apps, app by app, and set up the filters or privacy settings available both on the device and inside the account of each app. Additionally, parents should use an independent parental control like Qustodio to ensure consistency and to monitor activity.
  • Promote privacy. Teach your child that what goes online stays online for life. And that what they do, say or write online can have  consequences long into the future. Kids don’t generally think long-term, so it is important that they pause to really understand what is at stake when they sext.

What to do if your child is a victim of sexting

  • Stay calm. If you want to find a solution and help your child, you must control your emotions and refrain from getting angry. Remember the risky things you did when you were younger. Your child needs your help and support to solve the problem and that is done best when you and your child act calmly.
  • Collect evidence. Immediately take screenshots and save all the evidence you can find.
  • Report. If extortion, grooming, etc. is taking place, it is absolutely necessary to report it to the police. 
  • Notify the service provider (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Inform them of the case so that they remove the content (although this does not guarantee that someone has not made a copy).
  • Notify the school. Without specifically signalling out your child, schools can be very helpful in warning students that harmful activity has occurred and educate students on what to do, and what not to do.
  • Contact those who are disseminating the content. Contacting them and asking them to remove the content can help. It is advisable to remind them that it is also a crime and is punishable by imprisonment or a fine, to disseminate, or transfer to third parties images or recordings, even those that have been received with consent. Even showing that image to another person by simply showing them the screen is also a crime. 
  • Get psychological support. Children usually need psychological and emotional support since the consequences derived from this type of practice are usually very serious.
Maria Guerrero Moya

Maria Guerrero, LPC, is a licensed psychologist and expert in digital wellbeing with over 20 years of experience helping children, couples, and families. She is also the proud mother of two.

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