How to talk to your teenager about sexting

Sexting can be broadly defined as two people using technology to send and receive a sexually explicit image or video. This commonly takes the form of nude photographs/videos and sexually explicit texts.

What makes sexting illegal?

When teenagers under 18 take nude photographs or videos of themselves, this material is classified as child pornography. This has nothing to do with technology; it’s to do with the material itself.

Under federal law, it’s an offence for anyone to access, transmit, possess, publish, control, supply or obtain child pornography. Different states and territories may have slightly different laws.

This means that if a 15-year-old girl takes a nude photograph of herself and sends it to her 16-year-old boyfriend, they are both partaking in child pornography.

Why do teenagers sext?

Teenagers might sext for a variety of reasons, including:

  • to explore or experiment with their sexuality

  • to communicate or show affection.

When teens are under 18, or are unaware of the full consequences of sexting, however, there seems to be one overwhelming reason why they do it – peer pressure.

The story in the media is that sexting is a really common thing for young people to engage in. This can be pretty nerve-wracking for parents to hear, and can also make teenagers think that if they don’t do it they won’t be ‘accepted’ by their peers.

A recent study in the found that only 1 in 7 teenagers in the US had sent a sext, and 1 in 4 had received one. Though at first glance this might seem like quite a lot, actually it means that only 14 per cent of teenagers are sexting. This is a useful stat to have up your sleeve when you’re talking about sexting to your teenager.

What can parents do about sexting?

Your kids aren’t born with the knowledge that they shouldn’t steal things or set things on fire – they’ve been taught this, by you or another adult. Sexting is no exception, and is therefore something that you need to discuss with your teens.

Since your kids will probably have a smartphone by the time they start high school, discuss sexting as part of your early conversations around sex, and about online privacy when they get their first phone. Rather than forbidding sexting outright, have an open conversation about it. Help them understand the real-world consequences of this simple online act and how to resist pressure to do anything they’re uncomfortable with.

Be clear about the law

Make sure your teen knows what is and isn’t legal. This will help you to prevent problems, rather than having to deal with them when they happen.

Get your head around all the facts, and then help your teen understand why sexting can be illegal. You can even start the conversation by asking them questions like ‘Do you know what the age of consent is in Australia?’, to see what they already know.

Ask questions to get them thinking

Often, teens engage in sexting because they think it’s normal. Ask them some questions to get them thinking about what they are doing, and why:

  • Why are you doing this?

  • Do you think a photo posted on the internet will remain private and anonymous forever?

  • How could this affect you, your family and your community?

This will help them to work out whether they’re comfortable with what they’re doing.

Set clear rules and boundaries

As with any part of raising a teenager, rules and boundaries are an important part of helping your child gain independence, make sound decisions and stay safe.

To keep them safe, you and your teenager could agree on some rules. For example:

All of these conversations will help them develop their decision-making skills when it comes to sexting. At the end of the day, you can’t control what your teenager does, but you can give them the tools to make a call that’s right for them.

‘Consent’ means agreeing to something of your own free will. Like discussing the issue of consent when you’re giving your child the sex talk, you should also raise it when talking to them about sexting. Your child may decide that they want to sext after they turn 18, so it’s important that they know how to do this respectfully, and how to stay safe.

Make sure your teen knows the following:

  • They have the right to say ‘no’.

  • All parties should consent before engaging in sexting. They shouldn’t send unsolicited nudes. They should ask the other person if this is something they want to receive, and only sext after they’ve received an explicit ‘yes.’

  • Sending or receiving a sexual photo/video doesn’t mean they are giving or are given automatic consent to share it with others. Don’t share or post someone’s nudes without their permission.

  • Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Just because your teen sends one sext, it doesn’t mean they have the other person’s consent to do it again. Just because someone sends them one sext, doesn’t mean that person has to do it again.

It’s not consent if:

  • they’re unable to say ‘no’ – for example, if they’ve been drinking or taking drugs

  • they’re being threatened or blackmailed into agreeing to send a sext.

Here’s some more information on talking to your teenager about consent.

Make sure your teen feels supported

As sexting is an online act, it can feel separate from the ‘real’ world. But people arrested for cyber-crimes don’t go to cyber-jail – they go to ‘real’ jail.

Use your relationship with your child to support them. With the internet feeling like a separate world, they might not know that when an issue occurs online, they can still come to you for help. Let them know that they can talk to you about any problem, offline and online.

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