Given the internet, if your kid sends a sext (i.e. digital nude photo), thousands can see it within seconds depending on which app or website it gets uploaded to. I bet you’re thinking, “How do I make sure my daughter never sends a sext to a boy”? But what if we also thought, “How do I make sure my son never shares or posts a sext of a girl?” As parents, we need to recognize the sexual culture our kids live in today if we want to help them navigate it. As a mom, certified sex educator, and professor of adolescent development, I believe that there are 7 things we should rethink when it comes to teens and sexting.
1. Teens think everyone is sexting and it’s no big deal.
Bottom line, if sexting is the norm in a teen’s social circle, they will likely sext (1). And teens who both send and receive sexts tend to be more popular than teens who don’t (2). Many of the girls I talk with think if you send a nude photo without your face in it, then there will be no negative outcome. Because sexting occurs so often without consequences like jail or complete social ostracization, when teens hear adults say that these consequences will occur, it makes adults lose credibility. If we want any chance of our kids listening to us, we must acknowledge that sexting is common before we focus on the dangers of it.
2. Boys and girls engage in sexting for different reasons.
Girls feel pressure to send sexts and are more likely to do so than boys (3). Boys feel more pressure to collect sexts and are more likely to receive sexts and share them with friends or post them online than girls. This poses an issue because it sets up a type of marketplace, where the boys are the consumers and the girls are the products to be consumed. As parents, we need to resist our initial reaction to blame girls for taking photos in the first place. We need to take a breath and realize that boys are just as much a part of the sexting problem as girls are.
3. The sexual double standard is alive and well in sexting.
We think nothing of a boy requesting a nude image or video, but when a girl participates, we think something is wrong with her. Instead of acknowledging that she too, is sexual. Today, girls are expected to refrain from sexual activity while going through extreme lengths to prove that they are sexually attractive. It is not enough to be pure and ladylike, you also need to be hot and sexually available to men without actually doing the deed. Yeah, not easily achieved. If we want to help our daughters delay sexual behavior, we must first acknowledge that they have sexual curiosities and desires. It’s not easy to navigate crushes or relationships as a teenager, so we need to equip them with knowledge of how their bodies and brains work so they can develop the skills they need to adhere to their values. Not talking about sex and relationships does not promote skills to delay sex and relationships.
4. Sexting can be a sign of self-objectification.
In the context of a digital world where boys can objectify girls by watching pornography on their mobile phones in class, what is a girl to do? Well, some unconsciously decide “If I can’t beat ‘em, I can join ‘em.” Then they begin the process of self-objectification. Self-objectification is the act of treating yourself as an object (actions happen to you) instead of a subject (you make action happen). Meaning, you break down yourself into physical pieces to scrutinize instead of not worrying about your thighs because they are just as much ‘you’ as your sense of humor is. Research shows that self-objectification is linked to lower self-esteem and contraception use, and increased disordered eating, depression and anxiety (4, 5, 6, 7). We need to be supportive and empathetic when we learn of a ‘sexting scandal’ in our kid’s school. If a girl is caught in the middle of it, she likely needs support and encouragement to focus on other aspects of her life.
5. We have a victim blaming culture, even when it comes to sexting.
When I do educational seminars about sex and technology with parents and teachers, I overwhelmingly hear stories of “sexting scandals”. Usually followed by a, “Why would she send a nude photo of herself in the first place? Something must be wrong with her.” The reason girls sext and post sexy pictures of themselves online is because they do not have as much power to claim sexual entitlement in our culture as boys do. They first have to gain approval from guys to prove that they are legitimately hot. So, what do we do? We blame them for playing the game that we do very little to combat.
6. We need to support girls to foster their own talents and abilities in multiple areas of life, and encourage boys to support them too.
You don’t want your teen to sext? Try telling them not to do it and let me know how that works out for you. Kidding! That’s not going to work. For parents of boys, it’s important to acknowledge the pressure girls feel to prove they are sexy and to encourage them to recognize girls’ interests, talents, and knowledge above their looks whenever possible. For parents of girls, it’s important to focus on their abilities and not just their looks or dress from a young age. We don’t want their only dose of self-esteem boost to come from a sexy selfie because her sexual worth is her only worth.
7. We need to hold boys and men accountable for their actions. They ARE capable of not acting on sexual impulses.
Parents and schools should be telling boys that asking girls for nude photos is sexual harassment, and that sexual harassment should have consequences under Title IX. Think of how maniacal and vile it is to hurt someone so badly by utterly humiliating them and potentially running future possibilities by posting nude photos online. Compare this with the act of complying with a partner’s request to send a nude photo. Whose motivation is unhealthy: The person who sent the photo hoping to please a partner? Or the person who posted or forwarded the photo for all to see? Unfortunately, our ‘boys will be boys’ mentality undermines our sons’ intellect and self-control. They are perfectly capable of resisting sexts and holding their friends accountable for doing the same.
Bottom line, sexting among teens is complicated. As parents, it’s difficult to know what we can do about it. Have no fear, being open and listening to your children is always the best place to start! But the next steps should be to do what most of us don’t think to do: (a) empower our girls to support one another and not bring other girls down and (b) and make it clear to all boys that requesting and posting sexts are both unacceptable acts of sexual harassment.
- Walrave, M., Ponnet, K., Van Ouytsel, J., Van Gool, E., Heirman, W., & Verbeek, A. (2015). Whether or not to engage in sexting: Explaining adolescent sexting behaviour by applying the prototype willingness model. Telematics and Informatics, (April). doi:10.1016/j.tele.2015.03.008
- Vanden Abeele, M., Campbell, S. W., Eggermont, S., & Roe, K. (2014). Sexting, Mobile Porn Use, and Peer Group Dynamics: Boys’ and Girls’ Self-Perceived Popularity, Need for Popularity, and Perceived Peer Pressure. Media Psychology, 17, 6–33. doi:10.1080/15213269.2013.801725.
- Milhausen, R. R., & Herold, E. S. (1999). Does the sexual double standard still exist? Perceptions of university women. Journal of Sex Research, 36, 361-368.
- Calogero, R. M., & Thompson, J. K. (2009). Sexual self-esteem in American and British college women: Relations with self-objectification and eating problems. Sex Roles, 60, 160-173.
- Grabe, S., & Hyde, J. S. (2009). Body objectification, MTV, and psychological outcomes among female Adolescents1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39, 2840-2858.
- Schick, V. R., Calabrese, S. K., Rima, B. N., & Zucker, A