How to Prevent Teens from Sexting

It's easy these days for parents to feel overwhelmed and overmatched by technological innovations that have placed kids increasingly at risk. But in spite of the many and ever-changing challenges, we still think there's a great deal you can do to protect them and to help them to navigate the dangers of online technology. Let's take a look at some practical strategies you might be able to implement.

The first is the simplest: don't give your teen a cell phone with a camera. We realize that kids are concerned about "fitting in" and "being cool," and that phones are a major factor in that equation. We're also aware that many parents are afraid of "depriving" their children or even placing them at unnecessary risk if they deny them the latest and greatest mobile device. In spite of this, we don't believe that every child needs a state-of-the-art smartphone--at least not until they have reached the level of maturity and responsibility required to use them. If you need to stay in touch with your teen, get her a simple flip phone equipped with basic calling capabilities. If "sexting" seems like a potential problem, just remove the texting option from your mobile phone plan. It can be as straightforward as that.

Second, develop responsibility by providing phone privileges on the basis of proven maturity. Shape your child's character. Teach her sound moral principles. Help her to feel more "grown up" by guiding her step by step through the stages of social, personal, and sexual self-awareness and self-control. Don't simply hand out phones as a matter of "entitlement" or a way of "keeping up with the Joneses." Instead, ask yourself, "Is my child ready to use a tool like this? Can she handle the challenges and temptations associated with the technological power it provides?"

Third, be aware of the motivations and deeper psychological factors that lead kids to get involved in sexting. Sit down and talk with your child. Get inside her head and try to see things from her point of view. Be aware of the pressures that could be driving her to do things she might prefer not to do-peer expectations, for example, or self-esteem issues, or threats from bullies, or requests from aggressive boyfriends. Acknowledge the emotions that might influence her to do something as "edgy" and risky as sending a sexually explicit photo of herself over the phone. Let her know that you understand the allure and the mystery of sexuality, the thrill and excitement of pushing boundaries. Problem-solve with your teen by asking, "Are there healthier ways of satisfying your curiosity about the sexual side of life? Can you think of other areas where you might fulfill your desire for excitement and adventure?" If you discuss the subject openly and honestly, you'll probably be able to come up with a long list of good alternatives to sexting.

Fourth, state your expectations clearly. Draw up a set of rules for phone and computer use. Discuss these guidelines with your child and post them in a place where the whole family can see them. Reserve the right to monitor calls and review text messages. Let your teen know that you will not tolerate secrets, that everything relating to phone use will be kept open and above-board, and that all erased messages will be automatically regarded as "bad" messages. Make it clear that random spot-checks can be expected. Most importantly, establish and make perfectly clear what the consequences will be for violations of the rules, and follow through when infringements occur.

Fifth, warn your child in no uncertain terms about the dangers of sexting. Make the discussion part of a larger, comprehensive conversation about sex, sexual attitudes, sexual morality, dating, and the consequences of pre-marital sexual activity. Point out that there are serious emotional, psychological, and spiritual risks associated with this kind of counterfeit intimacy. Remind them that digital images don't go away-once they're "out there," there are a number of ways that sexually explicit photos can be captured, stored, and shared - and probably will be.

As a footnote to this last point: law enforcement officials report that sexually explicit text messages have become a veritable gold-mine of "raw material" for sexual predators in search of likely victims. They're also fair game for bullies or anyone else who might have reason to seek revenge against the "sexter." The consequences can be devastating: in one well-known case, an eighteen-year-old high school graduate committed suicide after a nude photo she'd transmitted to her boyfriend via cell phone was circulated among hundreds of her classmates. And that's not to mention that sexting is very likely illegal: in most states, electronically transmitted photos of this kind fall into the category of child pornography. Individuals found guilty of possessing or sharing such photos can end up on a sex offender registry list for life.

Sixth, know the warning signs. As a parent, you have a responsibility to keep tabs on your child's online activities and cyber-behavior. Here are a few indicators that you may have a problem on your hands:

  • Your child spends large amounts of time online or on the phone, especially at night.
  • You find pornography on your child's computer or suggestive photos on her phone.
  • Your child receives phone calls or text messages from people you don't know or makes calls, sometimes long-distance, to numbers you don't recognize.
  • Your child receives mail, gifts, or packages from someone you don't know.
  • Your child turns the computer monitor off or quickly changes the screen when you enter the room.
  • Your child becomes withdrawn from the family.
  • Your child is using an online account belonging to someone else.

In short, assume full responsibility for the sexual education and development of your child. Warn them about the potential consequences of ill-advised, impulsive sexual messaging. Above all, let them know that it is never acceptable to exchange sexual photos or texts with anyone for any reason. In our technological age, this kind of open communication between parents and children is more important than ever.

If you think it would be helpful to discuss your concerns with a member of our staff, please feel free to call Focus on the Family's Counseling Department. You may contact them for a free consultation Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Mountain time at 855-771-HELP (4537). The Family Help Center staff member who answers the phone will arrange for a licensed counselor to call you back. One of them will be in touch just as soon as they're able. They'll be pleased to assist you in any way they can.

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