What Is Sexting and Why Is It a Problem?

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 simulated 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. Sexting is often done as a joke, a way of getting attention, or as flirting. You need to discuss it so your child understands the risks and what to do when pressured to participate.

Why Is Sexting a Problem?

A photo shared between two people can quickly become a viral phenomenon. Teens 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, While some states have laws that differentiate sexting from child pornography, others do not. Sexting could result in charges of distributing or possessing child pornography.

Bullying, harassment, and humiliation are common problems when the photos and messages get shared beyond the intended recipient. There can be severe emotional and social consequences, including suicides of teens who had their photos shared.

Reasons for Sexting

There are many reasons kids engage in sexting or are encouraged or pressured to do so.

  • 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.
  • A nude photo of another teen is a trophy that a teen can use to brag to peers about the relationship.
  • Teens might send a photo of themselves as a way of flirting with a potential partner or to get compliments from peers. Some may also send a photo as a joke or on a dare.
  • Couples may exchange photos as proof of commitment or as part of their romantic or sexual activity.
  • Sexting photos of other teens can be done to bully or humiliate them. This might be done after a relationship ends or the photos may be taken unknowingly, such as in a bathroom or locker room.

What Can Parents Do About Sexting?

Start the conversation before you have an incident. If you are giving your child a cell phone or webcam, that is the time to talk about sexting. You can also use news stories or plot lines in television shows or movies as a conversation starter.

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. Also, be aware that kids may have a different name for sexting, so you'll need to be clear about the topic you are discussing. 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. Your child may not agree with you about what is and isn't appropriate and may have some compelling reasons why. Encourage your child to think about the possible consequences and how your child wants to be seen by others.

Important Points for Teens and Parents About Sexting

Cover these topics in your discussion with your child.

  • 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. Friends who vow to never share a photo will often break that promise, whether deliberately or accidentally. For example, a friend's phone could be accessed by a sibling or someone she is dating.
  • Once digital images are out there, they leave a digital footprint. You can't "take it back." Deleting post or message is no safeguard against it having already been received, copied, and sent to others.
  • Ask your child to pause before sending any message or photo and think how it would look if the entire school saw the photo.
  • Discuss the pressures that teens often experience to send these photos. Balance the pressure with the consequences, which can often be more severe.
  • Encourage your child to do the right thing. This includes immediately deleting any inappropriate photos or messages and telling you or another trusted adult.
  • 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.
  • If your child tells you that he or she (or a friend) has been sexting, address the issue calmly. Ask about the circumstances and what led to sending or receiving the photo or message. You may discover your child is being bullied or doesn't realize the consequences. Problem-solve together on what should be done now and how to prevent recurrence.

A Word From Verywell

Sexting is one more area where teens often don't recognize all of the risks. You will need to employ your parenting skills to help your child avoid the legal, emotional, and social consequences.