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How Do I Talk to My Kid About Sexting?

Handle this wrong and you and your kid could be going to jail

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

I hate to sound like a “back-in-my-day” old man, but when I was a kid, things were simpler. I still remember my “man’s-man” of a father awkwardly stumbling through a serious talk about “the birds and the bees” as we drove home from a Mets game in my early teens. It was uncomfortable, and I remember already knowing much of what he told me, but it’s a necessary rite of passage for a kid: Getting “the talk.”

Today though, with the pervasiveness of the internet and especially the smartphone, it’s much more complicated. Not only are there still the birds and the bees, but there’s also catfishing, trolls, PAWs, GNOCs, Sugarpics, and the most bothersome idea of all, revenge porn.

While I’ve already given my nearly-teenage son “the talk” in my own uncomfortable way, now that I’m giving him his first smartphone, I know it’s time that I address all the issues around sex and the internet, especially sexting. And as much as I want my advice to him to be, “Don’t ever fucking sext ever or I’ll kill you,” I know that I probably should be a bit more nuanced than that, but I’m a bit clueless about how to approach it (a total n00b, if you will).

So, how do I talk to my kid about sexting?

The Expert Advice

Thom Ledoux, assistant district attorney in Colorado’s 11th District: Sexting [as a minor] is a very specific, state-by-state crime. In Colorado, while it used to be a felony, the legislature recently carved out a misdemeanor crime for sexting between two minors, but technically, it still is sexually exploitative material involving a child, which is essentially child pornography. This can be a very serious situation for the kids involved as many states still have antiquated laws making this a felony. And even in the places with more updated sexting laws, it’s still a crime everywhere that I’m aware of. In fact, in Colorado, a child could be sentenced to youth corrections for up to two years, so kids can get in a lot of trouble for this.

For parents, it’s important to understand that, in Colorado and other states, the parental possession of these photos would still be considered child pornography, which is a felony. So you have to be very careful about how you respond if you find out your child has been doing something like this. One of the things I dealt with when we had the situation in a Canon City middle school that made national news was a lack of understanding from adults that these images constituted child pornography. And it can get especially complicated when you think about who owns that phone and what kind of access they have to that phone.

Stephen, IT consultant: Nothing done electronically is absolutely secure. Even with simple texting, an image may not really be gone once its deleted. Was it sent via SMS? Or iMessage? Are you sure your phone isn’t automatically backing up your images in the cloud? And for emails, many of those are archived. See, these messages go through some sort of service, and unless you know all the backup and archiving policies of these services, that image or message may not be gone.

Plus, what if you’re sexting with somebody and you break up? Now they have whatever it is you sent to them and they can do whatever they want with it. You might have some chance to get it off something like Tumblr, but many porn sites are hosted outside the country, so you’re not getting that shit removed. They’re there forever. It’s absolutely, positively impossible for you to get something off the internet once it’s up.

Al Vernacchio, sexuality educator: The sexting talk should happen whenever a child gets a smartphone or online access. Now, as a sexuality educator, I know that I cannot stop a young person who has decided to initiate or respond to a sext. Parents can’t either. There are tons of rational reasons why sexting can be harmful, but teenagers aren’t always swayed by reason, nor do they fall for heavy-handed fear-mongering.

The best option for talking to teens about sexting is a both/and approach. You might try something like this: “There are many good reasons not to get involved in sexting. It can bring a lot of unwanted consequences that can stick around for a long time. I also recognize the pressures you may be under to engage in it. I’m asking you not to do it, and to talk with me or another adult who loves you about it if someone asks you to. If you decide, despite all of this, that you’re going to do it, please remember these important things. None of them guarantee no harm will come from sexting, but they may be able to minimize some of the potential damage.”

From there, you should explain that there’s no such thing as safe sexting, just like there’s no safe sex, only safer sex and safer sexting. When I talk with my students about safer sexting, I say that safer sexting is about minimizing the chance that you can be identified as the person in the pic or video if it’s shared. So, they should be mindful of any tattoos, scars or body marks that can identify them — make sure they’re not in the photo or video. They should also be mindful of what’s in the background: If everyone knows what their bedroom, bathroom, etc. looks like, don’t make that the background.

Similarly, they should be mindful of the account they’re using to send the sext. If they send it from their own phone or email address, no matter what the picture or video looks like, it’s easy to tie it back to you. A lot of people who are sexting want people to know it’s them in the pic or video and that’s a choice people can make, but it significantly increases the risk to you if the sext is shared beyond the original recipient(s).

Consent is a key part of the discussion, too. Anyone who is pressuring you for a sext doesn’t deserve one — ever! The only power and control you have in the situation is whether and what you choose to send. Don’t waste that power.

For consensual sexting, the parties involved must agree that they want to sext and what kind of sexting they want to do (words, emojis, photos, videos, etc.). Once the sext is sent, consent is needed to share, post or otherwise disseminate the sext in any way.

The problem is, of course, that we have no control over what other people may do with a sext we send to them. That’s why it should only happen when there’s a significant amount of trust and clear consent established about what the sender and receiver can or can’t do with what’s sent. While this is true with any message sent, it’s especially important with a sext.

Lennie, assistant high school principal in New York state: It seems that more often than not, girls are the victims in these situations. It’s not exclusive, and of course, once they send something, they’re a participant, but I find that they’re more likely to get pressured into sending inappropriate pictures.

Regardless of the gender though, if I hear that naked pictures are being passed around school, the first thing I do is call the kids in and get everyone’s story. I’ll talk to the boys, and a female counselor will talk to the girls. If they admit that they have something on their phone, that’s when we call the cops. From there, the police go visit with the families and talk to them. Their goal is to get everything deleted and to scare them a little. I’ve never seen them press charges in that situation though.

Katie Helpley, family therapist: If a parent discovers their child has been sexting, they should really think before they react. They should go in calmly, but firmly, and say that “this is something we need to talk about,” and bring the issue out into the open.

Understand, though, that this is something very intimate and private for them, so be respectful of that. Their safety, of course, is priority, so they have to understand the consequences or potential consequences of doing this. You’ll also want to include in there how to be respectful of themselves with their words and their bodies. If you react with anger, it’s just going to make your kid more defensive, and they’re not going to be able to hear the message that you’re trying to communicate.