real talk

Nudes & Sexting Are Part Of Life Now & We Should Talk To Our Teens About It

Shaming them for it accomplishes nothing — we’ve got to teach them how to navigate this safely.

by Devorah Heitner

Even the most “sex-positive” parents know that when you combine adolescent sexuality and impulsivity with lightning-fast technology, things can get tricky. Parents are understandably terrified by the thought of explicit images of our teen or tween circulating out there. If we learn that our teens are sexting, it forces us to see their emerging sexuality in ways that are uncomfortable for many parents, and profoundly cringey for your kid, too — if they know that you know — or worse, have seen.

How much sexting is really going on?

Even before the pandemic left a bunch of bored and isolated teens at home for months or years, 15% of kids ages 12 to 17 had sent an explicit message, while 27% have received one. Sexting increased rapidly between 2008 and 2016 among tweens and teens as young as 11, and everything I’ve heard from families and schools since the pandemic suggests that those numbers have likely increased

Sexting shouldn’t surprise us: Kids are engaging in school and socializing digitally, and they are also growing up in an explicit culture where highway billboards feature models in underwear and social media is filled with influencers posting in suggestive poses. Sending “nudes” or “pics” or just sexy photos — especially to someone kids believe can be trusted — doesn’t feel like as big a leap to them as it might to us.

That’s why teens can seem skeptical when we try to scare them with the idea that taking a photo naked or wearing only underwear will lead to their social downfall. Younger tweens might doubt that they would ever want to do such a thing (gross!). But as they mature, they also may find that some of their friends have shared nudes or suggestive images and have not experienced disaster.

The uncomfortable truth is that, when consensual and private, sexting can be nothing more than another form of healthy teenage sexual exploration — one that can have negative consequences — especially if the adults don’t freak out! Our shaming can be a negative consequence, but we should resist that knee-jerk reaction.

If we use fear tactics to shame or scare them into not sexting, we only make it harder for them to seek out adult help if they get into a dangerous or nonconsensual situation.

Why do kids send nudes?

In order to parent in the age of digital age, we need to empathize and understand why kids send “sexy” pictures, videos, and texts. I thought I knew why when I started writing Growing Up in Public. For some, it is exciting and transgressive; for some, it is a way to flirt or try to attract interest; for some, it is a way to “up the ante” of intimacy in a romantic relationship. Some kids send as part of a quest for body validation. Many teens deeply want to know that someone finds them attractive. Unfortunately, they sometimes do it because they are pressured to or even coerced.

In my conversations with clinicians, families, and kids, I learned about a few more reasons that were new for me and increased my empathy and understanding of the nuances of why kids might engage in sexting. For one, kids sometimes share to experiment with sexual personae and language that they are too nervous to experiment with in “real life” with a partner. Control is another compelling reason: For someone with body insecurities or who doesn’t feel ready to get naked in a room with a partner, an image where the creator can control the angle and the lighting and exactly how much to reveal can feel empowering.

The “body validation” motivation may be extra compelling for kids who don’t identify as heterosexual. “Straight boys have more confidence about how they look because they have a lot of people to tell them,” a 14-year-old study participant in the United Kigndom explained to researchers. “Whereas if you don’t have people to go to, you must find out other ways.”

Sharing nudes is already fraught with risk for teens. For kids who don’t identify with their assigned gender at birth, nudes can be especially problematic. But sex educator Rachel Lotus thinks that sexting, especially explicit text-based exchanges that do not include images, can give nonbinary or trans kids the freedom to experiment. “I have talked to nonbinary middle schoolers who have, in some ways, benefited from the safety of that kind of flirt,” she explains. “It is a way of testing it out before doing anything physical. It’s also trying on different identities. ‘Does this feel like a good fit? Am I... what I think I am?’”

Ultimately, kids who feel autonomous, like they have free choice, don’t seem to experience sexting as harmful, according to research. And that’s important. On the other hand, “pressured” sexting, when kids are coerced into sending nude or sexually explicit videos, does have significant mental health consequences. Young victims can experience stress, worry, shame, and depression. That’s the type of sexting you especially want to help kids avoid or recover from — and certainly never to perpetrate.

But it’s against the law!

The good news is that most kids who take explicit photos of themselves or who have received or shared them don’t face legal consequences, especially from consensual image sharing. That’s why Elizabeth Englander, Ph.D., a psychologist and expert in cyberbullying and aggression reduction, says we should be wary of focusing on the threat of prosecution when trying to dissuade kids from sexting. “Care must be taken when citing the risk of criminal prosecution,” she wrote, “as such prosecution seems to be increasingly unlikely and could actually frighten victims of coerced sexting away from reporting to adults.”

Where we need to seek legal support is with coerced sexting, revenge pornography, and “sextortion,” but prosecuting two 15-year-olds in love or even just “flirting” is not developmentally appropriate or a viable use of legal resources.

How parents can teach kids how to navigate sexting safely

Sexting has become commonplace enough that preventing or stopping your child from doing it to keep them safe might backfire. “[As with] anything related to sex, it doesn’t really work to just tell kids not to do it,” the sex educator Rachel Lotus told me. “They won’t likely be deterred by scare tactics and shaming.” The key is to help our kids become better at navigating the risks associated with sexting.

You may prefer to say don’t sext rather than sharing how to “safe sext.” I get it. But, you say, I prefer you not share explicit pictures for all kinds of reasons, but a) if you do and someone threatens you with exposure, come to me and I will help you, and b) if you do share consensually, there are safer ways to do it. It’s still risky, but do keep these things in mind.

Researchers Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja shared strategies for safer sexting to pass along to your adolescent. For example:

  • Make any intimate photo unidentifiable. Never show your face, and make sure it does not show any background, tattoo, jewelry, scars, etc., that can help others identify you (or where you live).
  • Consider taking pictures that are suggestive rather than explicit. That is, photos that strategically cover your private areas.
  • Remember to delete any explicit images or messages you’ve received or created from your devices. Keeping them might carry criminal implications, and hackers and friends with ill intentions might find them.

While this might seem like we are giving them a “license to sext,” it is actually no different than offering them basic sex education. Just as sex education does not make kids more sexually active, educating them about sexting will not make them more likely to sext.

In her workshops with students, Lotus likes to help teens and tweens think a few steps ahead. She suggests telling your child “You might be in a relationship with this person this week. And you might feel like it’s true love and it will last forever. You might be using sexting as a form of flirting and foreplay. But [what happens if or when] that relationship comes to an end? What will happen to all those [pictures, videos, words] that you’ve exchanged? So, fast-forward weeks or months or years to that eventuality, and think about how you will feel about all of those things you have shared [being] in that person’s hands.”

Talking about consent is crucial.

Talking about sexting and helping kids make better choices taps into values that most of us already want to instill in our children. We want to raise children who are thoughtful about how their actions affect them and others, who know how to treat and express interest in another person in a respectful way, who honor other people’s boundaries and their own, and who understand the consequences that might follow if they don’t.

Every parent should discuss the difference between willingly exchanging explicit images with another person and coercing or pressuring someone to send them. Explain to them that if someone consents to send an explicit image, they are not consenting to have it shared with others — and they likely would not have agreed to send it in the first place if they knew that this was the intention. Make sure your kids understand that they should also not send an explicit photo to someone unless the person on the receiving end has consented to receive it.

Empower your kid to seek help right away if they are being pressured or coerced into sending explicit images. Crucially, we must empower kids to get help if someone violates their boundaries. We need to lead by example in resisting being part of a culture of shaming and objectifying others. And if explicit images or messages end up circulating in our kids’ school or friend groups, we must teach our children to act with compassion — and with caution. Finally, if your own child’s image is “out there,” we need to keep their mental health in focus and be supportive rather than punitive.

Ultimately, we want to live in a world where teens can feel empowered and safe to explore their sexuality without being exploited or shamed and without harming, exploiting, or shaming others.

Instead of simply fearing sexting, we must actively teach our kids about consent and negotiating boundaries. By emphasizing the importance of tuning into their own feelings and other people’s feelings, we are mentoring them to make safer and more ethical choices that honor themselves and others.

Excerpted from Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World by Devorah Heitner, PhD, with permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Devorah Heitner, PhD, 2023.