Talking with your teens about sexting

What to do about (drum roll) sexting? Approaching the topic of sexting in a way that best meets a receptive outcome from your teenager is paramount. And grabbing their mobile phone to go through every message is not generally going to get a positive response. Unless…

Did you originally say to your teen “Hey, I’m gonna go through your phone occasionally to check up on you?” If you did, then it’s reasonable that you would act on the promise. But if you provided the phone to the teen without any indication you’d be doing it, then I believe your teen will think you’re being unreasonable. And how about if the teen bought the phone with their own money?

Awkward.

We all want to raise a kid who is responsible, independent, and who cares for their own, and others’ well being. While they’re little you can best do that by telling them how to act, showing them how it’s done (by demonstrating it yourself) and monitoring them as you encourage them to do the same.

When they’re teens, it’s time to let them start doing that on their own. In my opinion, in order for teens to demonstrate their own responsibility and integrity, they need to have the opportunity to do it. That’s hard to do when the media’s telling you scary stories about sexting. You need to put something in place, but still work from the standpoint that you trust your teen (if you do and want to continue to).

That’s hard to do, I get that. And every parenting situation is different, I get that too. But it’s apparent this is something many people are struggling with. So here are a few idea-starters to get you thinking about a more positive way of approaching the topic with your teenager.

1. Have a contract.

With every piece of technology there is an inherent basis of responsible use. Whether that’s with the equipment itself (such as don’t throw the phone around) or with the manner in which it’s used (such as don’t send 500 messages a day, and watch your language). A great way of demonstrating you mean what you say is through having a contract dealing with both of these areas. You could create one yourself, or ask the family to contribute to what they think should be in it. And then everyone who uses the equipment gets a copy to sign. Let me be clear – this contract is something everyone adheres to. It’s not just for the kids. You don’t get to throw your phone around and expect them not to. You have to follow through.  Not only that, but the contracts, when signed, should be displayed in the person’s regular space at home as a subtle reminder.

You might think this is a little ‘out there’ – but when you think it through, you’ll see that it’s a transparent way of linking to all that stuff you taught your kids when they were younger. It just gives them some control and treats them as a more independent, free-thinking person. And hey, you need to make it clear they don’t have to sign the contract. It’s optional. And so is the phone.

Then if someone breaks the contract with any kind of irresponsible use, it’s easier to demonstrate why there’s a problem. It gives you a foundation to work from that everyone understands.

2. Demonstrate how things live forever online

Having a great relationship with your teen doesn’t mean you unequivocally know they’re going to do the right thing all the time (you can’t). It does mean that you’re prepared to let go a little and trust that they want to be responsible, and will be pretty likely to be, even without you standing behind them with a rolling pin (tempting though it might be). Also, let’s assume that your teens can make a logical progression of thought and have interest in their own well being. With all that in place, this becomes a no-brainer. (As much as a no-brainer and teens can be, anyway. ;))

Have a chat and say you’ve read stuff about sexting (read up a bit first – nothing loses respect more than not knowing what you’re talking about). Say you get it. This stuff can be fun, and it’s shared only between people you trust. There’s never any idea that something bad will happen or that someone’s going to be mean.

But people get angry. People fight. Have you ever slammed a door or said something nasty to someone you cared about? No matter how much you want to take it back, and apologise, it still got said. But words tend to ease with time. Images and text, however, don’t.

Stuff lives forever online.

Let’s say someone gets angry and posts a compromising picture somewhere online. They can regret it and take it down, but it’s still up there in search engines.

Try two projects:

a. Put a picture of something that is personal, but that you’re comfortable with online somewhere. Leave it there for a few days, then take it down.

Then search for it. Use everything you like. Treat it like it’s a treasure hunt. Treat it like you’re a journalist and you’re writing a story about that picture. What kind of lengths will you go through to find it? How hard is it? Then once you’ve found it, how easy is it to then forward it to every person you know?

b. Think of all the people you know who have a web-based email account. (A lot, right?) Then think of how many contacts they’d have in that account. (Again, a lot. Hundreds each, possibly.) In fact, you’ve probably got a web-based email account yourself. Go to http://www.spokeo.com (or a similar site). Using your mail account you can sign up and find out what everyone in your address book has posted across lots of different social media sites.

Think of when you try and apply for a job. This is better than Facebook for a human resources person. And it lives forever. Look yourself up. What would a human resources rep think of you right now?

By working with your teenager you’re showing them you trust them to act as responsibly as they can. You’re also giving them the opportunity to initiate conversations, to take control and showing them why it’s important.

I’ll finish by reiterating that this situation is different for every family, and I totally understand that. That said, I believe this is just one, positive way of approaching a very delicate subject, and it could bring you closer together rather than threaten your relationship. Sailing the tumultuous ocean of teenage parenting is challenging. I’d like to ride this wave with our teens instead of against them.

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One response to “Talking with your teens about sexting

  1. Absolutely excellent post!

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