Sexting and Parenting in the Digital Age

Now that your teens are in school again, are you concerned they’re back to risky behaviors on the Internet – sending inappropriate sexual pictures and texts on their cell phones? If so, you’re not alone. A recent survey of parents with children between the ages of 10 and 18 found their number one worry was not school shootings, bullying or grades, but sexting. Nearly half said their child had received some kind of racy message or image in the past. And with impulsive teens not fully grasping the gravity of their actions, many are hitting ‘send’ before they consider the consequences of their actions.

Yet there are real benefits for students using Web 2.0 social media as other recent studies indicate. Those with social anxiety describe feeling less shy and more accepted on interactive websites and they gain experience as leaders. College students reporting low self-esteem feel a greater sense of community and group identity after significant involvement with Facebook. Other research indicates even empathy can increase from frequent online communication with friends, tightening the bonds between them.

Does this create a dilemma for you? On the one hand, you want to protect your children from danger before it becomes inevitable. On the other, you need to allow them to develop their own autonomy and friendships. With Facebook, twitter and other forms of social media being such a large part of the connections in young people’s experience today, parents need to set standards for their teens about how to use interactive technologies. And given the risks stemming from sexting, parents can help their kids protect themselves. Here are five tips to get you started:

1. Address the consequences of behavior early on so it’s not a new topic. Teens are often naïve about the long-term results of their actions. The parts of their brains responsible for good judgment have not matured enough for them to avoid dangerous situations. You’ll need to spell out possible outcomes for activities that seem innocuous but may be risky.

2. Talk specifically about the potentially serious end result of sexting. Teens are often impulsive and caught up in the excitement of acting on a dare without considering the consequences. While they are not able to process the potentially negative end point, it’s up to you to remind them that once they’ve put something out on the Internet, they can’t erase it, no matter how many times they hit the ‘delete’ button.

3. Discuss the importance of privacy and self-respect. Peer pressure is an especially strong force at this developmental stage, so give your teens the tools to avoid going along with the gang when they feel uncomfortable. As they become more secure in their personal identity and have higher self-esteem, they’ll find value in trusting themselves to make the right decision.

4. Keep the door open for more two-way conversations. Encourage your teens to share their concerns with you and try to listen without being judgmental. Know when to keep silent so they can express their views. Reinforce the value of their opinions as they make decisions that are appropriate for their safety.

5. Stay aware of your teen’s Internet activities and step in if necessary. Just as you recognize their need for independence, you also know the value of supervision at this stage of their development. As you monitor online usage, if you believe their health and safety is being threatened, draw on ‘tough love’ and shut down your kid’s Internet access.

As a parent, the goal is to be present in your children’s lives without overwhelming them with your input – there’s a fine line between letting go and staying connected. As the school activities swing into action this year, let’s all work to keep sexting off the class schedule even as teens enjoy the benefits of technology and social networking.

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