Children today encounter an online world unlike anything experienced by prior generations. They are introduced to devices early and often, and families increasingly accept them as a normal fixture of everyday life. Over 50% of American kids have their own smartphone by age 11, and on average, 13-year-olds now devote more than seven hours a day to non-school-related screen time.
This rapid and widespread adoption of personal devices has changed adolescent life in America in many ways, both positive and negative. While the benefits are widely acknowledged, such as convenience and communication among family members, many of the downsides are not yet fully appreciated, especially by parents. One of the most troubling trends associated with our ubiquitous devices is the increased exposure to inappropriate content and the rapid rise of sexting. Sexting is when people send sexually explicit or revealing pictures or texts.
The statistics on this trend are devastating. Two out of every 3 girls ages 12-18 have been asked to take and share a nude image. One study found that 14% of teens have sent a nude photo or video of themselves, and 24% of teens have admitted to receiving photos. Alarmingly, 1 in 8 teens has said that they have had their photos shared without their consent to others. Given the growing prevalence of this phenomenon, parents need to address the uncomfortable topic of sexting. As awkward as the conversation may be, it is preferable that children learn about this issue from their parents, rather than an anonymous stranger online or from their peers. Parents should help their children understand in an age-appropriate way that the power and freedom afforded by these devices must come with the responsibility to use them well.
Conversations should ideally take place before your child receives his or her first phone in order to guard against the risk that they send a sext, and to prepare them for the possibility that they might receive one. But no matter the situation, parents should talk to their children early and often about such issues. But how do we begin such difficult conversations?
Sean Clifford, CEO of Canopy, a parental control app that can deter sexting, answers questions below about this dangerous trend. He emphasizes the importance of making wise digital choices and provides advice for parents on how to address the topic of sexting with their children.
Jill Waggoner: What are digital footprints, and why are they important?
Sean Clifford: The choices we make online can follow us forever. They exist in the form of digital footprints, which are invisible trails of data that every internet-connected device leaves behind during normal use. Even when a photo, for example, is posted and later deleted, there is no guarantee that it is truly gone for good—some trace of it may be left somewhere.
In addition, there are numerous ways other individuals can capture a digital image or video without permission, even if it’s only up for a moment. Some apps, like Snapchat, automatically delete content after a certain period of time, providing the false security that whatever is sent is fleeting and will soon disappear. However, even on such apps there are easy ways for others to save the content, such as taking a screenshot or recording the screen from another device.
JW: What are the potential consequences of sending a sext?
SC: The consequences for sharing inappropriate photos can be significant. What may seem harmless, rebellious, or impermanent, often can result in painful, embarrassing, and unhealthy outcomes. Such consequences include:
- The message can be shared beyond the intended recipient. It sadly is not uncommon for such posts to go viral at a school or end up on websites that feature child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
- Adults, including parents and teachers, could see it, resulting in suspensions, or in some instances, legal trouble. There are cases in which sexts have been prosecuted as the transmission of child pornography.
- Sexting can damage real-life relationships and reputations, and the psychological harm that results when a sext goes public can be devastating.
JW: Sometimes children do not know where to draw the line when taking or posting pictures of themselves. How can parents guide their children in creating appropriate boundaries for their digital choices?
SC: We know that digital is forever, so we encourage kids to ask if they would be comfortable sending the photo in question to their parent or teacher or having it posted in a public forum accessible to the whole school. It’s a simple but powerful question: if they aren’t comfortable with a parent seeing an image or video they intend to post or share, they probably shouldn’t send it at all. Most children would be rightfully horrified if their mom or dad saw an inappropriate picture of them. Asking a question like this makes them think twice about the pictures or messages they are willing to send and reinforces that what they do online far outlives the moment. This approach also opens the door for parents to help their kids understand what type of photos are acceptable when it comes to taking pictures of themselves.
It also can be helpful to listen to the first-hand experiences of teenagers who have had personal images go viral. The stories are heartbreaking and can help illustrate the potential consequences as shared from someone in a similar stage of life. Kids will often respond to parental advice that ‘life is different’ and ‘parents just don’t understand’, and in some cases, they are right! Introducing voices of their peers can help make the case.
JW: As you mentioned, digital choices can affect the future. How should parents approach this in conversation with their children?
SC: Parents should encourage them to think seriously about the following two questions:
- Who do you want to be?
- How do you want to be known?
These questions place an emphasis on the future, rather than the present. As we discussed previously, digital choices stick with us forever, potentially even years after something was posted or sent. Help your child understand that sending or posting pictures might seem harmless now, but it can impact their future and their reputation. Regrettably, the cost of making a mistake today, if captured digitally, is simply higher than it used to be. As much as we may wish this weren’t the case, it is a reality of our new digital age.
JW: How can parents prepare their children for situations where they are asked to send a sext?
SC: First, help your children understand that it’s not only acceptable, but a good thing, to say no. Often, kids take part in sexting due to the fear of peer pressure, being judged, or made fun of for abstaining. Frame the request as a form of manipulation, which it is. As any parent of a teen can attest, they hate the idea of being manipulated to act against their own will.
This leads me to my second point, which is preparation. It is vital to proactively prepare your children and equip them with the reasons—and hopefully the confidence—say no when the moment arises. Give them some ideas for how to respond to a text that is asking for inappropriate photos and what they should do if they receive one on their device. For instance, they could respond with, “My parents put an app on my phone that will alert them if I send a photo like that.” Finally, it is important for them to know they should never apologize for not sending a sext. Saying no and standing up for oneself is a decision they can be proud of—now and in the years to come.
Parenting in our digital age can be frightening. It has always been challenging to help our children protect their purity, but it seems almost impossible to guard their hearts and minds from technology’s pull toward the illicit. Yes, it is important to equip our kids with practical ways to avoid these temptations. But most importantly, as Christians, we must call them to the One who has the power to change their very desires. Jesus alone can give our children new hearts that want to walk in purity and find their satisfaction in him. And ultimately, as we seek to parent well in all the complexities of our society, we entrust them to the God who can lead them in paths of righteousness for the sake of his name (Ps. 23: 3).