The response to sexting: It’s easier than you think

Every now and then, a piece about sexting is shared across my social media feeds. Questions abound: “Agh! Why do teens sext?! Don’t they know better?!” and “Why do girls think it’s okay to send these photos?!”

Then of course: “Pictures last forever on the internet! Once you send something, it’s out there!”

The young women are often referred to as slutty or desperate for attention — and the young men? Well, they’re just boys being boys.

We need a new narrative. Recent research demonstrates that, in fact, not everyone is sexting: Approximately 20 percent of teens have been involved in sexting, which includes distributing, receiving or forwarding. In fact, sexting is far more prevalent among young adults than teens. Still, it’s important to address the issue — and in a different way.

Sexting is a lot like other issues teens face regarding sex. There is pressure (a whole lot of peer pressure) and experimenting. Instead of treating it like an enormous out-of-control epidemic, there are very specific steps adults — both parents and those who work with teens — can take to help teens (and themselves) navigate the issue:

  • Be the type of adult a young person can talk to. Being an open, nonjudgmental adult goes a long way for teens who just might need someone they can trust. Have honest conversations with young people and approach the issue proactively by talking about self-esteem, boundaries, consent and consequences, or asking them how they’re feeling or reacting to certain sexual pressure. This can go a long way in developing a relationship that withstands difficulties teens face about all types of sexual encounters. Many adults look back and wish they had asked — and many teens just wish someone would ask them.
  • Present all options. Being real doesn’t mean scaring a teen into action (or, as the case may be, inaction) or shouting from the rooftops about consequences. It means presenting all reasonable options and consequences while helping teens weigh the decision for themselves. This not only helps build trust between an adult and a teen, but it helps a teen learn about the life-long decision-making process. Be prepared for them to make mistakes.
  • Acknowledge that you don’t have the answers. Adults don’t know everything, either! But having the courage to admit that you don’t have all the answers and sometimes admitting that you just don’t know helps open the door and builds trust. You can learn together.
  • Shaming is harmful. We have to acknowledge that sexting, and sex in general, has a lot of double standards. Girls are supposed to be pure and yet allow some sort of access; boys are supposed to want sex. What about the girl who feels coerced into sending a photo? What about the boy who is totally freaked out that a photo is forwarded to him? We have to consider all options and talk about sexting — and sex — in a way that doesn’t perpetuate really harmful stereotypes about women and men.
  • Schools don’t need additional sexting policies. Many schools want to jump to action when it comes to sexting. It’s an honorable intention, as no one wants to see a student hurt or be seen as unresponsive to students’ ever-evolving needs. However, existing policies and protocols regarding bullying and sexual harassment can very easily be applied or fine-tuned to include sexting. Talk to your Title IX coordinator; every school who receives federal funding has one!

Sexting can be a really difficult topic and kind of terrifying to a lot of adults, but it doesn’t have to be as difficult as we make it. Sexting is yet another aspect of sexuality that just has a shiny new vehicle. If we see sexting as teenage behavior with — like all teenage behavior — mistakes and consequences instead of an epidemic of epic and uncontrollable proportions, it’s quite manageable. We just have to be willing to listen, be open and have honest conversations. We have to think about responding to sexting in a way that helps teens instead of further harming them.

It’s probably true that pictures last forever on the Internet. However, the way we react to the young people in our lives lasts forever, too. Once you say something, it’s out there.

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