How to talk to your teenager about sexting

Worried your teen might be tempted to send risque photos over the internet? Here’s what you need them to know about the dangers of sexting.

It may seem like a flippant thing to do, but sexting — essentially, sending sexually suggestive photos on social media or through text or email — can have severe and long-lasting consequences.

And while some parents would rather do anything other than talk to their teens about sexting, it’s an important conversation to have – and it doesn’t have to be weird!

What is sexting?

Sexting is taking sexually suggestive images of yourself or someone else and then sharing them on the internet and social media, or sending them to someone’s mobile device.

Raising Children Network director Derek McCormack says that while teens can see sexting as fun and consensual – a part of exploring sexuality, identity and building relationships – they’re often unaware of the risks.

“Parents should talk to their teens about the risks of the images being shared beyond the intended recipient or recipients, and to think about what might happen if they break up or fall out with someone who has sexual images of them,” Derek says.

Recent US research shows a spike in children aged between 9-12 sending nudes with most thinking it is “normal”.

Experts say the earlier you can talk to your child about the dangers and raise their awareness of it, the better.

What are the dangers and risks of sexting?

Under Australian law, sexting involving a child under 18 is a criminal offence, even when it’s consensual – and even when the photographer is also a child.

This means that a young person who asks for, accesses, possesses, creates or shares sexualised images of someone under 18 may be at risk of criminal charges, even if both parties consented.

Some states have added defences or exceptions to the laws for consensual sexting between young people of similar ages.

The laws are complex, but legal services can advise and support young people.

Risque photos can become part of your teen’s digital footprint and stay in the public domain forever.

This may lead to feelings of guilt or shame, damage their reputation and harm friendships and social networks.

Youth Law Australia has details of the laws on sexting in each Australian state and territory.

When and how to talk about sexting

Relationships Australia NSW chief executive Elisabeth Shaw says talking openly and honestly about sexuality is the best way to help teens feel more comfortable talking about sexting.

“It can be useful to start with being curious,” Elisabeth advises, who is also a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.

“Ask ‘What do you know about sexting?’, ‘How is this playing out with people you know?’, ‘What do you think about it?’ and ‘Have you heard of any problems with it?’

“It’s possible they already have their own examples, such as texts that were privately being circulated, that they can tell you about.

“Stay curious and conversational, though.

“If you look open, only to go ‘Aha, I knew it!’ they might never confide in you again.”

More ideas on how to broach the subject

Derek says conversations about sexting could also be initiated by:

  • Asking teens whether they know anyone at school who has sent or received a nude picture or sexy selfie; or
  • Asking whether they have any questions about things they might have heard about sexting from their peers.

“Teens learn about sexuality from many sources, but evidence shows that they trust information from their parents,” he says.

“Having wider conversations with teens about respectful relationships, trust and consent can help protect them from the risks of sexting as well as open up the lines of communication about sexuality.”

Elisabeth adds that parents should try to avoid incorporating their own fear or bias into the conversation.

“For adults, sometimes the fear is not just about the record of the interactions, but young people being sexual beings,” Elisabeth says.

“Are you actually trying to shut down sex or sexting?

“If you have a broader agenda, then your young person will be on to you.”

Written by Andrea Beattie.