What Is Sexting and Why Is It a Problem?

Should You Be Concerned That Your Tween or Teen is Sexting?

Two girls on a bed looking at their phones
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Sexting is sending sexually explicit messages, photos, or video via cell phone, computer, or any digital device. Sexting includes photos and videos containing nudity or show or simulate sex acts. It also includes text messages that discuss or propose sex acts.

As teens and children increasingly carry cell phones and use tablets, social media, apps, and messaging, the risks that they will send or receive sexually explicit content has become a concern for parents, teachers, and law enforcement. The prevalence of sexting by underage teens and children is a matter of ongoing study. It is often done as a joke, a way of getting attention, or as flirting.

This isn't necessarily something to immediately panic over, but it is an issue you will want to consider discussing with your tween or teen — especially when they have easy access to the Internet or get their first smartphone.

Why Is Sexting a Problem?

A photo shared between two people can quickly become a viral phenomenon. A child may believe it will be kept private and then discover it has been shared widely with their peers, sometimes with grave consequences. These include arrests of teens who shared photos of themselves or other underage teens and suicides of teens who had their photos shared.

Important Points for Teens and Parents About Sexting

  • Photos and videos sent privately can easily be shared with others, even if using apps that promise privacy and that images will be removed after a brief time.
  • Once digital images are out there, they leave a digital footprint, especially online. You can't "take it back." Deleting post or message is no safeguard against it having already been received, copied, and sent to others.
  • Half of teen girls cite pressure from guys as a reason to send explicit messages, while only 18 percent of teen boys say they have been pressuring girls. This is of concern where there is already a power imbalance in a relationship or an issue with self-esteem. Boys may not realize they are, in fact, pressuring girls.
  • Sexting can fall under federal child pornography law, with potential felony prosecution of the teen who sends or receives it, and parents who allow it. State laws are evolving and some states have more leniency and wider discretion in how it is prosecuted and whether it is a felony, misdemeanor, or lesser offense.

    What Can Parents Do about Sexting?

    The best approach to talking about sexting is to take a non-judgmental and informational one. Keeping the dialogue open leaves room for your kids to talk with you rather than hiding things away. Remember that the word "sexting" was coined by the press. Kids may have a different name for it. Try some simple conversation starters to break the ice:

    • "Have you heard about this sexting thing? Do you know anything about it?"
    • "I was watching TV/reading the news the other day and saw a story about some kids who got in trouble for sending [use your own word here—suggestive, sexy, naked, etc.] pictures to friends. Did you hear about that?"
    • "Can we talk about the types of things you and your friends like to share online? I want to make sure you're taking care of yourself and looking out for your friends, as well."

    Rather than leading the conversation, make sure you listen to your tween/teen. They may not agree with you about what is and isn't appropriate and may have some compelling reasons why. Helping them think about the possible consequences of their behavior and also the image of themselves that they'd like to present to the world is one way to encourage them to come to their own conclusions.