Sex and Sexting: Talk About It with Your Kids Early and Often

A recent study published in the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics found that 20% of the 1,285 middle school students ages 10-15 polled had received a sext (sexually explicit message on a mobile device or computer) and 5% had sent one. A similar study with older students between the ages 14-18 found that 40% had received a sext and 20% had sent one.

These are alarming statistic for parents and the implications are worrisome: the students who sent or received sexts were more likely to have engaged in some form of sexual activity.

I think most parents would agree that talking about sex and sexting with your child – regardless of the age – can be awkward. While it may be tempting to put off the conversation as long as possible, it’s important to start addressing sexual development and behaviors at an early age, even as young as preschool.

Discussing ‘sex’ with your preschooler at an age-appropriate level and then continuing the conversation as the years progress is a great way to lay the groundwork for the more complex but related subjects, like sexting, later in life. But what is age appropriate, and what should those conversations sound like? Here are some suggestions to get started:

Preschool. Young children should learn accurate names for their body parts. Preschool-aged children are not too young to learn about “okay” and “not okay” touches. Teach your child the appropriate ways for him to touch others and for others to touch him. Make sure she understands which body parts are private and off limits. Quick hugs and high-fives are okay. Touching in private areas is not. Your preschooler can be taught that it’s okay to say “no” if someone asks him to do things that are wrong, such as touching private parts or keeping secrets from parents.

Elementary. For elementary-aged children, reinforce with your child that he is in control of his body. Give him some words to use if he feels like he’s been touched in a way he doesn’t like. And be sure to mention that if he ever encounters a situation which makes him uncomfortable, even if it involves someone that he knows, he can talk to you or another trusted adult about it. Provide explanations about personal boundaries, including the importance of keeping private parts covered and not showing them to others. Set boundaries within the family – everyone has a right to privacy when bathing and getting dressed.

Middle school through high school. This is a very broad age bracket, but it is important to speak with this group of pre-teens and teens about their personal relationships and setting limits. What does he feel comfortable and uncomfortable doing with someone else? It’s perfectly okay to say no, and his or her partner needs to respect those boundaries.

As related to electronic devices, parents should set ground rules before handing them over. Transparency is key: tell your child how you will be monitoring her device and social media accounts; that way she doesn’t feel like you’re spying on her. Be clear that having a cell phone or tablet is a privilege and monitoring is a condition for keeping it.

Sexting should be included in the conversation about appropriate use of electronic devices. Ask your teen what he knows about sexting and if he knows what the consequences are. Help her to feel empowered to say no when someone asks her to take a picture of herself. Just because someone has requested it does not mean she has to send it. And on the flip side, it is unacceptable for your teen to ask someone to send this type of picture.

In my opinion, it is more paramount than ever for parents to have these types of conversations with their children. From the discussions I’ve had with some teens in clinic, it is apparent to me that many are not fully aware of the very serious ramifications of sexting. For instance, I’ve heard both females and males say that “it was just a joke” and shouldn’t be taken seriously and “everybody’s doing it.” The males may see it as a status symbol to collect risqué photos on their phones.

But as parents know and hopefully teens will continue to learn through conversations with their parents, the consequences of taking and receiving these types of photos are severe. Here are a few considerations to discuss with your teen:

  • It is illegal to take, send, or have in your possession a nude photo of a minor (regardless of the age of the offender).
  • Some states, including Ohio, do not have sexting laws. This means that if a minor is caught creating, distributing or possessing a sexually explicit image of a minor, he or she could be prosecuted under child porn laws and, if convicted, would have to register as a juvenile sex offender.
  • Pictures never really go away. Even some social media platforms like Snapchat, which claim to delete the chat after a certain period of time, have loopholes. For instance, a teen could take a screen shot of the image that was sent to his phone before the app deletes it. And even if the file has been deleted from the phone, the photo may still remain on the application’s server.
  • Colleges and employers commonly do thorough online searches and could discover any incriminating information.
  • Sexting can be associated with bullying and cyberbulying, unwanted attention, decreased self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and other risky behaviors like having unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancy.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have conversations with your child about sex early and often. Having open lines of communication between you and your children will help them feel comfortable bringing to your attention any issues they’re having.

For more information about how to talk to your children and teens about sexual issues, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network or at Stop It Now. And the National Society for the Prevention of Child Cruelty is a great resource for parents to learn more about sexting, how to prevent it, and what to do if you realize your child has engaged in sexting.


Heather Bensman, PsyD

About the Author: Heather Bensman, PsyD

Heather Bensman, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist in Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology, working within the Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children. She is also an assistant professor in Pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati.

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  1. SentTell (@senttell) September 30, 00:51
    It is important for parents to take a proactive role in their child's life. This is the first generation of teens that have to carry this level of technological responsibility.