Sexting: What to Do if It Happens to Your Child

By: Dr Justin Coulson

A friend of mine had an awful ‘sexting’ incident occur with her 11 year-old daughter. Her daughter was having an innocent conversation with a boy from school via text when he asked her to send “noodz” to him. I have two daughters and a son who are between 9 and 14. Is sexting normal now? How can I stop them having to deal with this?Regardless of how well we prepare our children, it is almost inevitable that they will receive solicitous messages for nude images – and from increasingly early ages. I consistently hear of children as young as 9 and 10 being asked to send nudes to “admirers”. This predatory behaviour is absolutely unacceptable, even when the person making the request is of a similar age. This is one of the reasons I consistently tell parents that children don’t need smartphones; they need smart parents. And smart parents give their kids dumb phones; the kind that don’t have Internet and can’t take pictures.

The research

We need to start conversations about this from a young age. 2015 research conducted by the Criminology Research Council on 1200 Australian teens found that 50% of 13-18 year-olds have sexted. That is, half of Australian teens have acknowledged that they have sent nude images of themselves or received nude images of someone they know. The CRC report suggested a level of fun and adolescent identity exploration in their report, highlighting the fact that girls’ top three reasons for sexting were to be fun and flirty, to give a present, or to feel sexy and confident. And boys said they did it because they wanted to be fun and flirty, because they received a sext, or to give a sexy present. Sexting, in these terms, seems focused on empowerment and fun.

While many teens may have positive views of the “exciting” aspects of sexting (remember how thrilling many sexual things were for you as a teen?), experience soon teaches us – and our children – that there is no such thing as “safe sexting.” Some respondents acknowledged that they sexted because they felt significant pressure or because they wanted to be popular – and many were betrayed and harmed, even extorted – in the process.

Our children need to know that even if they consent, and even if the person they send something to loves them, once that image is in someone else’s possession, it’s out of their control. And the gender double-standard that exists ensures that girls will be hurt far more than boys by the inappropriate sharing of this material.

Would you know what to do if your child was a victim of sexting?

It is imperative for parents to teach their children, from a young age (around 8-9 years), what to look out for, and how to deal with inappropriate requests for sexual content in any context. (Note that while girls may be more likely to receive these requests, boys are often victims as well.)

Most unsolicited requests for nude images follow a typical pattern. A person our child trusts asks innocent questions (where are you? what are you wearing). These move on to more leading questions (are you alone? what is underneath that?). Requests are made. If refusal follows, there will often be guilt induced through emotional manipulation, and in some cases this can lead on to threats being made against our child if they continue to say no. Sometimes the aggressor will make threats against themselves to guilt our child into sending a nude image.

Like the proverbial frog in the saucepan, our children often don’t recognise that the water is boiling until it is too late.

The two most important things

If your child is approached for nude images or if nude images are sent to your child, regardless of their age, teach them that they must do the following two things:

  1. Keep the evidence
  2. Tell you or another safe, responsible adult (but preferably you)

Researchers have discovered that too many children delete the evidence so they won’t get in trouble, and keep the incident secret. This helps no one, and even endangers others. I recently heard from a thirteen year-old who described how she had told her parents when an older boy sought nudes from her. She later discovered he had also tried to get them from two of her friends multiple times over several months. They had not told anyone or kept evidence, and so his behaviour had continued. If this is to stop, our kids need to know they need to tell us so we can deal with it appropriately.

For our own protection, we MUST NOT keep any evidence on our own phones. We may be legally liable for those images and can be charged as sex offenders.

How to get help

The hardest thing for our children to understand is the betrayal they feel when someone they have known and trusted seeks to violate them in some way, or objectify them, or sexualise them. If something like this happens to your child, it may be appropriate in some instances to simply contact the parents and gently let them know what has happened. Most parents will be mortified and respond with great concern. If this is not appropriate, you can contact the social media sites involved (if there is one), and request that they intervene. In some instances, our child’s school will need to know in order to ensure our child is safe and comfortable at school. And if we can’t go to the offender’s parents, or if they are unhelpful and unresponsive, or if our child has been sexually harassed or sent nude images, we should go to the police. The Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner is another useful resource that parents can find online for help.

While the welfare of our child is crucial, we should also be sure we are mindful of the welfare of the offender. Labelling them as a sexual predator will not typically be helpful. We must understand their intent – was it curiosity and teen stupidity, or was it malicious? And we must focus on helping them and teaching them.

It’s awful that we now need to talk to our children about this occurring. But start early. Teach your child about the warning signs so they are less likely to be a victim. Teach them about being respectful and ensuring they are never an aggressor. And more than anything, teach them that they can come to you at any time and tell you anything so they can feel safe.

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.

Feature image: Photo by John Tuesday on Unsplash.

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