Sexting among kids and teens has become much more pervasive since the pandemic. It's a topic with which I've become painfully familiar since 2018, when I founded a digital parenting company that offers an app that deters sexting. I’m also a father of four, and as much as I don’t want to have this conversation with my kids, I know I’ll have to have it.
On average, children are first given cell phones at age 10. By age 14, almost half (42%) of kids have been exposed to sexting. This number is increasing every year. As parents, we’re given a lot of advice and resources about how to talk to our kids about sex, but not enough of us are talking with them about sexting.
Conversations about sex, technology, and boundaries should be a part of family discussions as soon as kids understand or have access to smartphones. I lament that we need to tackle this topic at all and regret that it must happen at such a young age. However, we need to teach our children to walk in truth. Parents can’t shy away from discussing difficult subjects with them, even if it’s awkward.
Here are five things to keep in mind when talking to your kids about sexting:
Prepare them. In an age-appropriate manner, explain to your kids what sexting is, but don’t normalize it. Be honest about what they can expect and why it can be harmful. It’s important for them to understand the psychology behind it. They may be tempted to send or share a sext because of social pressure. Impress upon them that it is OK to be different from their peers, and have discussions (talk with your kids, not at them) about how to say no to requests for photos.
Protect them. It’s OK to put apps on their phone that block dangerous content and images, and it’s important to explain to kids what these apps are and why you’re using them. As children are increasingly formed by the experiences they have online, a greater and greater share of parenting must now take place in the digital world. We have to remember that our kids are still kids, and that it’s our responsibility to protect them wherever they’re likely to encounter danger. Parents can’t ignore the potential risks of phones or iPads any more than they can give them keys to a car without first teaching them to drive.
Be candid. A lot of girls think, “My boyfriend would never share this photo with anyone.” But the reality is different. One in eight teens have admitted to forwarding a sext to someone else. Show your kids examples of content (maybe even your own) that have stayed on the internet for years or decades, so they understand the idea of digital permanence. Some apps delete uploaded photos after a short period of time, but with common screen-capture tools, even those can be made permanent and circulated far and wide. One good rule of thumb is to encourage your child to only send photos that they would be comfortable sharing with the entire school or their grandparents.
Repeat it. Sometimes parents think they’re having an impactful conversation with their kids, while in reality, the kids aren’t getting the message. One study found that while 41% of parents said they have discussed how to say “no” to sex many times with their teens, only 27% of their teens said they have discussed this many times with their parents. Don’t think about having “the talk” but rather having many conversations on a regular basis. Sexting is not a one-time temptation, but an ongoing series of challenges that require consistent and open conversations.
Be an example. Demonstrate through your own habits what it means to live well with technology. Don’t let your phone rule your life; show them that digital tools are useful but not central to a good life. Experiences and relationships — not on screens but in real life — are the fuel healthy souls need. If our kids see us scrolling through our phones at dinner or retreating to our own rooms with our tablets, they’ll do the same.
It’s not enough to give our kids access to technology and hope for the best. As parents, part of our role is to have intentional conversations, grounded in love, about the obstacles they will face as they navigate friendships, relationships, peer pressure, and social media in the new digital age. You have the opportunity and the responsibility to prepare your child to be courageous when confronting pressure and forthcoming about missteps. It may be uncomfortable and challenging at times, but it does matter and they will thank you (eventually).
Sean Clifford is the founder of Canopy, a digital parenting app, and the father of four kids.