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Sexting: Why Parents Should Care and What They Should Do About It

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Recent news stories have talked about teens and sexting. It happens more than parents think.

An adolescent boy came into my office a couple of years ago and said, “I’ve been talking with this girl.” He had a big grin on his face, which opened up the door to many interpretations on my part. He proceeded to say that she had sent him “some pictures,” and his smile continued. He knew what I would say, but told me anyway. He was oozing with excitement, curiosity and arousal.

He had received a sext.

Getting hooked on a text

When people send sexually explicit or revealing pictures or texts, it is called sexting. This young man was “hooked,” which means captivated by or enamored by, dependent or addicted to something or someone. In other words, this teen was now under the influence of this young woman who had sent him pictures of herself. In many ways, it’s similar to being dependent on a drug. He did not know how to handle the sudden onslaught of emotion and arousal in response to what had been sent to him. Sexting presents an opportunity for getting someone “hooked on you,” and it happens more than parents think.

In my experience as a therapist, teens sext for various reasons and trust that the other person will keep the pictures or texts to themselves. They do not think that others will end up seeing the nude pictures or texts. They are thinking short term and not long term. I usually ask them what would happen to the pictures or texts once they broke up. Teens don’t usually think that far ahead because they really don’t feel they need to. They are going for a ride in the emotion of the moment and enjoying it, which is why the teen years can tend to be tumultuous. 

Asking for a sext can be an exciting risk that a teen is willing to take, especially if there is a potentially willing participant on the other end. A person willing to send the photo is most likely confident that the other person will like what they see and want to be with them (hooked).  It opens up the door to sexual fantasizing and, most likely, actual sexual contact at some point. It’s like the old way of sending a note to “test the waters,” but much more sexually overt. It is a quick way to explore curiosities, get someone to think about you more often, and see if the other person is open to continuing sexual fantasies. Usually kids sext to get attention, show off and prove their commitment or interest and to get a person’s attention. Once the picture is sent, however, no one really knows what will happen from there.  Teens, most of the time, do not have a long-term view of life due to an emotional world that requires their immediate attention. This reality, many times, leaves them blind to consequences. 

Taking a dangerous risk

The adolescent brain loves to “toy” with various risks, and adolescence offers plenty of opportunities for risks, which can be both good and bad at the same time. Risk is necessary to “grow up” and pursue life, but it can also be dangerous and destructive. Technological advances have significantly increased the potential risks that can be pursued in society, and mobile devices have stretched the limits for all of us—from learning how to use them to sending explicit photos and texts. 

One very real danger within the world of technology is the dopamine rush that sexual images, sexual communication and sexual encounters provide. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter within our neuro-communication system that helps us anticipate rewards, and it is very actively triggered by sexual behavior. It initiates the process of getting “hooked” and pursuing risk. Sexting can trigger a dopamine surge increasing the “seeking out,” curiosity and goal-directed behaviors that can quickly engulf a person’s social judgment and perception of consequences. This physiological anticipation of rewards can be overwhelming and addictive, but it eventually depletes dopamine and makes it harder to get excited about life—many times, it creates even more “poor decision-making.”

Sexting is a quick and easy way to enter an adult world of sexuality with less inhibition. It provides a novel “excitement” and the potential for immediate gratification. Sexting leads to all sorts of misperceptions and distortions. Parents need to set guidelines with teens regarding the use of mobile devices and talk openly with their teens about sex with the purpose of teaching them how to manage impulsive urges driven by emotions, hormones, and a transition to more adult-like freedoms and stages. 

Practical advice for parents

  1. Remind your teen that you are on their team and want them to successfully transition into adulthood and full freedom.  Many teens and parents don’t know that sending (including forwarding) naked pictures of people under the age of 18 is illegal and can result in criminal prosecution. Remind your teen that this applies even if they are just sending the photo to their boyfriend or girlfriend. It is against the law and is considered distribution of child pornography.
  2. Help your teen identify helpful risks and destructive risks. Make a list together and talk through the different risks and their potentially good and bad consequences.  Discuss the reality that in this tech-saturated world, once the image is sent, it cannot be retrieved. You cannot just change your mind. It is out for people to see, and they do not have control over where the picture lands. Discuss what it would be like if their peers, teachers, the entire school or their parents saw the images. This happens a lot, so they need to be prepared for the possibility of this happening, if they choose to send sexual photos.
  3. Phones and all mobile devices should be “open for review” with the expectation that there is nothing to hide. If there is any defensiveness about the devices being able to be checked at night without an erased history or erased messages, then guilt should be assumed and freedoms are lost. Again, remind your teen that you are on their team and want them to have ultimate freedoms. Sexting can get a person “hooked” resulting in less control of their own life. 
  4. Give teens the opportunity for personal ownership.  What is theirs to own emotionally and what is for other people to own. Many times, teens engage in this behavior because of emotional needs and trying to change or manipulate someone else’s emotions, which usually does not lead to smart decision-making. Discuss the possible pressures to send or receive sexual photos or texts. The potential social costs of sending a nude photo and others seeing the photo far outweigh any pressure they encounter initially from peers to send the picture. Also, the long-term negative impacts of receiving sexual photos or texts also outweigh any positive immediate impact of refusing or immediately deleting a photo.
  5. Develop a ceremony or a celebration for major transitions (i.e., pre-teen to teen and teen to adult). Teens need a ceremony or celebration to help clearly define their transition into adulthood and the responsibilities that are increasingly becoming “theirs,” including their decision-making and their boundaries.
  6. Make sure your home has a lot of openness regarding conversations having to do with sexuality and the foundation to sex: the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control). Adolescence offers plenty of opportunities to grow amazing spiritual fruit. Also, have some discussion regarding self-esteem and self-respect. Talk about their viewpoint regarding sexting. Get to know their beliefs and perceptions.
  7. For additional input, parents can visit Focus on the Family’s “Family Help Questions” on sexting.

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