Online safety / September 28, 2021

How to talk with your kids about sexting

Nimmi Kanji

Nimmi Kanji

Director - Social Purpose Programs, For Good and TELUS Wise

How to talk with your kids about sexting - image

Sexting is a surprisingly common (yet risky) trend among youth today with 56% of youth reporting that they have sent a sext. Despite this, 49% of parents have not discussed sexting with their kids. Just like the other critical and sometimes uncomfortable conversations we have as parents, it's time to introduce the topic of sexting and begin a dialogue around respect and healthy relationships, consent, peer pressure, and overall safety when it comes to sexting and growing up in our digital world.

Sexting is when you take, send, receive, or forward sexually explicit images or videos, usually referred to by youth as “nudes” or simply “pics”. People - youth included - are sending sexts via text message, apps like Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp, and even in gaming platforms. Sexting is commonly considered by many experts to be a normal expression of sexuality through technology, but with the potential reach and permanence of the Internet, there are obvious risks.

Why sext?

Youth may sext for a lot of reasons like achieving social goals, imitating their friends, conforming to peer pressure or simply trying to be funny. They may also be experimenting with flirtation and affection, trying to establish intimacy or impress a crush. Others may feel pressured into sexting by partners who threaten to break up with them if they don't send a picture. In extreme situations, sextoration can occur - when someone (usually a stranger or third party) gets ahold of an image and threatens to share it broadly unless they are compensated with more images or paid a ransom. While it often gets the most media attention, the prevalence of sextortion in Canada is very minimal among young people.

How common is sexting?

According to a new report titled, “Young Canadians’ experiences with electronic bullying and sexting during the COVID-19 pandemic”, sexting is more common than you may think.

The 2021 study conducted by PREVNet, a Canadian research hub that addresses youth interpersonal violence and promotes healthy relationships, found that among youth age 12-18:

  • 56% of youth reported consensually sending sexts to a partner
  • 42% of youth said that they had received consensual sexts from a partner
  • 33% of youth reported that they had sent unwanted sexts to a partner (14-15 year olds were significantly more likely to both send and receive non-consensual sexts)

It’s happening, so how do we address it?

When you approach the subject of sexting with your kids, create a non-judgemental space for conversation and approach the subject with understanding. You may wish to start the conversation by simply asking your kids if they know anyone who is sending sexts or if someone has ever sent one to them. Consider discussing the characteristics of healthy sexuality, respect in relationships, personal boundaries, peer pressure and the potential dangers of digital permanence (once you take and send a photo, what happens next is generally out of your control).

Remind them that it’s ok to say “no” and not lean in to peer pressure to share intimate images of themselves or others. Encourage them to self reflect on the implications of engaging in sexting behaviours:

  • Is this how I want other people to see me? (remember, once it’s out there, your image can be seen by people you didn’t intend)
  • Would I be upset if my image was shared with others? (how would you feel if your parents or teachers saw your sext?)
  • Could somebody use this to hurt me? (what happens to your image after a breakup?)
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen if I sent this? (remember in extreme cases, sextortion can occur)

Consent and the risks of forwarding other people’s sexts

It’s also important that we discuss the damage that can be done when someone’s sext or image is shared with other people without their consent (15% of youth reported that they had forwarded a sexual image of another individual without the consent of the original sender). Taking and sending a sext is a personal choice of the original sender - albeit a risky behaviour - but there is no excuse to share or forward a sext of someone else without their permission.

Remind your kids that sharing or forwarding a sext of someone under the age of 18 is against the law; it’s also against the law to share a sext without the person’s permission (regardless of age). Interestingly, youth are often more likely to listen when you tell them something is morally wrong than if you tell them something is dangerous or illegal, so ensure your conversation goes beyond the legal considerations and discuss how sharing someone else’s sext is morally wrong and can hurt the person in it in ways that may last a lifetime.

If your kid is involved in sharing sexts, remind them that receiving a sext does not imply consent for them to share it with others. If someone shares a sext with them, have them ask themselves:

  • Did the person in this picture mean for their image to be shared?
  • If it came from someone other than the original sender, did they have permission from the person who’s in it?
  • How would I feel if somebody shared something like this with me in it?

If your kids find themselves in a situation where their own image is being shared, know that there are steps you can take to help resolve the problem and have the image taken down.

To learn more about how to have a healthy and positive conversation with your kids about sexting, check out the TELUS Wise parents guide: Talking to your kids about sexting, and check out this insightful conversation with Scientific Director of PREVNet, Dr. Wendy Craig, Clinical Psychologist, Areeba Adnan, and host, Erica Ehm.

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