By / May 26

Recently, I wrote a short post on Facebook about some of the difficult decisions my husband and I are facing in parenting, echoing conversations I’m having with other parents. Our kids are 13 and 10, and like every parent for all of time, I frequently hear myself saying, “Things are just so different than they were when we were growing up.” And while this has been true through the ages, it does seem especially difficult to raise children in an era when technology is advancing so rapidly and contributes to a vastly different childhood experience than the one in which we grew up in the 80s and 90s. 

In the Facebook post, I reflected on a recent conversation I had with a friend in which I joked, “If we could just get all the parents in a room and agree to not do cell phones or travel sports for kids, we could solve all the problems.” While this was a joke, it was also my simplistic way of expressing some of the difficult decisions we face at this stage of parenting. And judging from the responses from friends, we’re certainly not alone in wrestling with these things. There are unique challenges facing parents right now, and we need wisdom to parent our kids well.

Kids and phones

There’s a scene in the 2008 film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who in which one of the daughters of Whoville’s mayor pleads with her father, “Can I please have a Who-phone, Dad? Everyone else in my class has one.” Like so many parents, myself included, the mayor responds with sarcasm, “Oh really? Everyone?” The daughter then presents him with photographic evidence — a picture of herself standing alone in the midst of 11 other students, all of whom are happily talking away on their phones. Most parents can relate to this scene. It is no exaggeration for my child to tell me she’s the only seventh grader without a phone. In fact, it’s only a slight exaggeration for my fourth grader to say the same. 

The statistics back up our childrens’ claims. The website SellCell surveyed 1,135 parents in the U.S. with children between the ages of 4 and 14 in 2019. They found that:

  • 40% of U.S. parents let their kids have their own phone by the age of 10
  • 56% of pre-teenage kids have a phone by the time they reach 13
  • 20% of kids first received phones at 13 or 14 years old
  • 7% were 15 or 16 when they received their first phone

The study also reported that 42% of kids are spending 30 hours each week on cell phones.

You have probably seen the statistics on the links between smartphones and anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, and other issues in kids. The past year has only exacerbated many of these things. Parents who were holding off on phones have made the decision to give their child one during the pandemic because of the combination of the child’s need for socialization and the parent’s difficulty managing working from home. I spoke with a counselor who said his practice has seen a dramatic increase in children who have been exposed to pornographic content through device usage in the past year. 

Looking at the statistics, it seems like a simple decision to just say, “No phone until 16,” or some other age in the distant future. But as with most parenting decisions, it’s not that simple. Decisions around safety and the ability to stay in communication during after school activities cause many parents to allow phones. Some are intentional about starting with phones that limit access to the internet or social media. Others use smartwatches for the same purpose. For some parents, the gradual exposure to phones allows them to teach their children how to use technology responsibly. You can read more about making decisions like this here

I have spoken with parents who have allowed their children to have phones in middle school or earlier, while others have waited until high school. Some have had good experiences, although most admit it’s an additional burden to themselves as parents to stay on top of their children’s tech use. They have their kids sign contracts and treat a phone much like they would a car — as a tool that is a privilege, and one that can be taken away with irresponsible use. Other parents have admitted they regret giving in to their children’s pleas and wish they had waited longer. 

There are no easy answers when it comes to our kids and phones. 

Kids and sports

Another area in which parents feel pressure is that of youth sports. Studies consistently show that kids involved in athletics develop long-lasting skills helpful beyond the court or field such as confidence in relationships, empathy, problem-solving, and accountability. Most of us who have children in middle or high school grew up in a time when you could try out several different sports, and even play two or three in high school. It was rare for an athlete to specialize in one sport from an early age, and club or travel teams were the exception, not the rule.

I went to volleyball tryouts at my high school as a ninth grader in 2000 having never played before. Without any club experience, I was able to make a small NAIA college team four years later. If I could transport my ninth grade self to 2021, I wouldn’t have been able to make most middle school teams. Friends whose daughters have played on their schools’ sixth grade teams have received a lot of pressure to have their daughters play club ball. It’s common knowledge that they won’t be able to play in high school unless they spend time and money playing year-round. This for a sport in which less than 4% of high school players go on to play in the NCAA, with only 1.2% playing in Division I. 

This problem is not unique to volleyball. The statistics are similar for most sports. (Although, if you want your daughter to play college sports, ice hockey is your best bet; 26.2% of female high school ice hockey players go on to play in the NCAA.) 

As the popularity of travel sports has risen, the overall participation rate in sports has declined. Families who are able to pay are funneling money into more elite teams, while those who cannot pay are forced out of competitive athletics. A 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that the overall student participation rate in sports is now only 39%, with rates the lowest in urban (32%), high-poverty (27%), and charter (19%) schools. 

It can feel a bit like a chicken and egg scenario. We don’t want to do travel sports, but we want our kids to have the benefits of playing competitively. Because it’s so hard to make teams or get playing time, we pay the often exorbitant costs and sacrifice our time to ensure our kids get the experience of playing the sports we loved at their ages. For some families, it’s about setting kids up for college scholarships. But for many, they see the benefits of discipline, commitment, and team building — things we all want for our kids. Of course, the sacrifice often includes missing things like gathering with a local church family. And what we prioritize as a family speaks volumes to our kids about what’s important in life.

Where is wisdom?

These are just two out of many issues we are wrestling with as parents. Each generation has its own struggles, and in that way there’s nothing new under the sun. But even as we encounter new challenges, we need timeless wisdom.

I remember sitting in a Bible study as the mom of a 1-year-old when a new mom shared that she had been convicted to go to God in prayer, asking for wisdom in parenting decisions rather than just going straight to Google. It was as if a lightbulb went off in my mind. I was a Google mom. My kid wouldn’t sleep through the night, so I went to Google. She would only eat orange foods, so I went to Google. She wasn’t walking yet, so I went to Google. 

I didn’t solely look to Google for solutions; I often asked friends. We would compare notes on milestones and tips on what was working for us. Often, both the internet and my friends were helpful. God has given us the common grace of wisdom through experience and the research conducted by experts.

The problem I’ve found with looking to these conventional methods first for obtaining wisdom is that I’m prone to make and justify decisions based on what my peers are doing. In that way, I’m not much different from the children I’m trying to raise. We can easily find people arguing for one side or another of a difficult decision, and it’s convenient to look for opinions and evidence that confirm our natural inclinations. 

Twelve years later, I’m still trying to learn the lesson my friend taught me in that Bible study. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” It’s such a comfort to know that we can go to God first with all our needs for wisdom, and to know that he doesn’t reproach us for not already knowing the answers. 

God will often answer our prayers for wisdom through the words of Scripture, the words of another person, or through circumstances. As we wrestle through the challenges of parenting, there will always be new issues that arise, and we will frequently lack the wisdom we need. Statistics, firsthand reports, and the words of friends can be helpful and wise, but we need wisdom to sift through the noise and determine what is best for our individual children, and the grace to not fault our friends for the decisions they make. 

I am trying to learn to respond to my children’s requests with this statement: “I need to pray and ask God for wisdom about that.” Whatever the decision, I hope this reminds my children and myself that he is the ultimate authority in our lives and source of wisdom. I also hope it reminds my kids that we’re on the same team and that their parents want God’s best for them. 

As we prayerfully submit our decisions to the Lord, we can trust him to guide us in the right direction. And we can trust that he will do the same for our children when they leave our home one day. This is, after all, the message of the book of Proverbs: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight (Prov. 4:7b).

Whether our kids have phones or become college athletes, may our greater desire be that they get wisdom. And may God give us the wisdom that we need to impart to them. 

By / Nov 19

Emily Chapman Richards is the executive director of Show Hope, an orphan care organization founded by her parents, Mary Beth and Steven Curtis Chapman. But it’s Shaohannah Hope Chapman, or Shaoey (pronounced “Show-ee”), Richards’s 20-year-old sister, who had the idea for one of the organization’s initiatives.

"It was a very elementary idea at first,” Chapman said, describing what is now known as the Pause Campaign, Show Hope’s Student Initiative. But the Pause Campaign isn’t just Chapman’s brainchild; it’s also part of her own story of hope and healing.

A dream begins in Haiti

The summer before her junior year in high school, Chapman traveled to Haiti with her youth group and her dad. They spent the week at Hands and Feet Project’s Children’s Village serving children who had lost one or both parents or whose parents were unable to care for them. This trip made an impact on Chapman, not just because of the work they were doing and the children they served, but also because she experienced it undistracted by social media.

"The fact that I didn't have my phone allowed me to see this whole experience without the lens of social media," Chapman tells me. "You don't really connect through it. It's not a mutual connection; it's very one-sided. Social media is a great tool to use to get the word out, but there's also so much good in putting it down and actually going out and doing that thing that you said you wanted to do."

When she returned to her home in Franklin, Tennessee, she talked with her parents about the frustrations she had with her generation’s relationship to social media and lack of awareness about the needs of the world around them. Her parents encouraged her not to just talk about the problem, but to do something about it. 

So, 16-year-old Chapman got together with Emily Deemers, who was then in charge of Student Initiatives at Show Hope, and the two began developing a plan. Along with two high school friends, Chapman worked to create the Pause Campaign. 

Over the past few years, the campaign has been refined into its current structure, but the basic idea that came from Chapman’s heart after her trip to Haiti is still the vision behind it. Chapman explains the idea of Pause like this: "A student encourages all their friends to put down social media for a while—take a pause from it—and use that time that they would be on their phone to go advocate for something they care about."

Chapman credits Chris Wheeler, an early partner in Show Hope’s Student Initiatives, with frequently saying, “Nothing speaks to a student like a student.” 

“Honestly,” Chapman added, “nothing speaks to adults like students, because when a student actually cares about something, adults take notice."

"It's incredible how God weaves this story of brokenness, but without brokenness we wouldn't need hope."

Much of the Pre + Post Adoption Support Show Hope provides training for is built around the ideas of enabling and empowering children through attachment care. Chapman says this is needed not just by young children, but by students as well. “Students will lose their passion if they’re not nurtured.”

She has seen the positive side of this firsthand in her own family. 

"There was a big interruption in my childhood, obviously, with Maria passing away.” Maria, the youngest Chapman sibling, died in a tragic accident in 2008 when Chapman was eight. “Brokenness is felt collectively and individually. . . . We all had different guilt and different levels of grieving." 

But even in the aftermath of tragedy, she credits her parents with empowering her in her frequently changing interests. 

"My parents were never like, 'Shaoey, you just got off this other thing. Why are you doing this?' It was always, 'Okay, you're into bird-watching. Let's buy you some bird feeders. Let's buy you some bird-watching books and binoculars.’ Then it was cooking, then Greek mythology. They were like, 'We don't understand this, we don't even get why you like this, but we're going to enable this.' That was something I felt like I had the freedom to do my whole life, and so when the Pause Campaign came about, it wasn't like, 'Shaoey, no kid is going to fast from social media.' It was like, 'Okay, Shaoey, if you think that kids are going to do this, you're the one in this world, let's help you do that.'”

The first time God used Haiti to spark a dream

This wasn’t the first time the Chapman family enabled one of their children’s passions coming out of a trip to Haiti. Richards, who went on her own trip to Haiti with her mom when she was 11, has a journal that’s one of her most treasured possessions. The entry from the first day of the trip reads: “I hope this experience will change my life. I also hope that I will change someone's life.”

Chapman says, "I wouldn't be here without that."

That trip to Haiti inspired Richards to begin a campaign of her own in which she petitioned her parents to adopt a baby girl. Eventually, they did, and Shaohannah joined the family through adoption from China. That first adoption led to two more baby girls being added to the Chapman family, Stevey Joy and Maria.

"That's where Show Hope started,” Richards says. “Because we went on a trip, and my heart was captured and imagination was captured by what it would look like to help children." She says her parents may have thought she was crazy for suggesting they adopt, but she didn't get that message from them. "I got, 'Keep praying. If God means for it to happen, it will happen.'"

Mary Beth Chapman adds her perspective on both her oldest daughter’s pleas for a sister and the significant place Student Initiatives have in the life of Show Hope: “It was important when I went to Haiti with Emily and I saw that God does use the voices of the young, and when God puts something in their heart, you can write it off as, ‘She's 11.’  But you don't know what you don't know, and at 11 God can use where you are to say, 'I think we should do this. I think there's room at our table.’” 

She says she first thought, "[Emily] doesn't know what she's talking about, but yet it did crack the door for Steven and I to at least make a commitment to pray. . . . For me, there always has to be a place for Student Initiatives. We see what happened in our own family because of a student, and now God is raising up another generation of students."

Living on purpose

Richards echoes this, commending her sister’s idea behind the Pause Campaign and the meaning behind it. Not only does the initiative ask students to take a pause from social media, but it seeks to open their eyes to the relationships they take for granted every day—relationships that aren’t guaranteed and that aren’t experienced by many children around the world. She says there’s value in pausing from social media because it’s a distraction and an addiction, but the Pause Campaign also intends to help students live more intentionally by taking action not just through “clicktivism”—advocacy through social media—but more purposefully through flesh-and-blood relationships and service.

Geared toward high school and college groups, the Pause Campaign materials include a weeklong devotional that takes participants through a process of education about orphan care. Students will learn about the global need and how we got here, a definition of what an orphan is, and will receive devotional content and a call to get involved in practical ways in their communities. This could mean helping a family in their church who may be adopting or fostering, or finding local orphan care organizations to serve.

But, the idea behind local action is not to teach students that it’s their responsibility to save people. “God’s the Savior,” Richards says, “but you can choose to participate in that redemptive work this side of eternity.”

Last year, the Pause Campaign had 358 students participate in 13 groups. Momentum is growing as students are getting more excited about the initiative. One high school boy was so inspired by his experience that he donated his whole tax return to Show Hope and got up and shared what he learned with his church.

On her internships the past two summers at the Care Center that Show Hope partners with in China, Maria’s Big House of Hope (named after her youngest sister), Chapman chose not to have phone service for the weeks she was there. "I thought, ‘I'm not here to be on my phone,’” she explains. “‘I'm here to invest in some kids that need love and need this care, and I’m here to invest in this city that doesn't know the Lord.’"

For Chapman, the first summer in China without the distraction of social media was the beginning of a healing process for her. At the age of eight, when many children of adoption are beginning to process their adoption stories, Chapman was instead dealing with the trauma of her sister’s death. God used that time at Maria’s Big House of Hope to help her process many things from her past. 

"You sit there in a place that is supposed to be healing for the kids being cared for at the Care Center, and you find that more healing comes to you than has for 18 years."

Her eyes light up when she talks about falling in love with a little girl who was under care during her internship. This little girl is now home in an adoptive family, and Chapman video chats with her weekly. Over the recent Show Hope Fellowship Weekend in Franklin, Chapman’s family surprised her by reuniting her with the little girl and giving her the opportunity to meet the adoptive family in person.

"It's incredible how God weaves this story of brokenness, but without brokenness we wouldn't need hope,” Chapman says, with wisdom beyond her years. “It didn't make sense to me until I felt it in my own life . . .”

This hope, born out of adversity, has led Chapman to take an active role in the organization that bears her name (Show Hope was originally “Shaohannah’s Hope”). As she watches her peers be challenged and changed through the Pause Campaign, it represents more than just an idea; it’s a testament to the work of grace and hope in her own life. And she looks forward to seeing it continue in the future.

"It's grown into something that I never expected, and I hope it continues to grow."

Visit showhope.org/pause-campaign or email [email protected] to find out more.

By / Jan 2

The best ideas happen when we least expect it.

At least, that was the case for Bobby Gruenewald in the fall of 2006 while standing in a long TSA line at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

“For whatever reason,” he said, “that particular day in the security line I was processing [this], ‘I wonder if there is a way that I could leverage technology to help me engage with the Bible? And perhaps, if I could, maybe it would help others as well.’”

As is the case for many Christians, Gruenewald had always struggled to consistently interact with Scripture. With a background in entrepreneurship, it’s no surprise he had an idea about how to tackle this challenge. And with a specialty in technology, it only makes sense that this vision would eventually involve the thing that most humans are never more than a few feet away from—the smartphone.

YouVersion was born

In that TSA line, the idea for YouVersion was born. It’s an app available on any smartphone or tablet, and it contains more than 1,700 versions of the Bible in more than 1,200 languages. It has a wide array of features including the Verse of the Day, Bookmarks, Highlights, Notes Bible Plans, Plans with Friends, audio versions of the Bible, sharable Verse Images, a community aspect for shared engagement, and more.

According to Gruenewald, “YouVersion is basically a digital tool to help people engage [with] Scripture.”

But it didn’t start out as an app, nor was it a “success.” Initially, the idea for YouVersion was a website, Bible.com. But, for Gruenewald, the features weren’t ones that helped him naturally connect with the Bible.

“So, basically, the first idea for YouVersion was a failure.”

Isn’t that where all good stories begin, though?

YouVersion becomes an app

The initial concept for YouVersion was on the verge of being shut down in 2008. The website didn’t have a good mobile component, which was a large part of the problem. So, the team redesigned a mobile-friendly version with small, simple changes that Gruenewald found made all the difference.

The timing of that change, as many say, was everything.

“Apple announced, at that same time, they were going to make it possible to develop apps for the iPhone and that they were going to create something called an App Store,” he recalled. So, his team developed an app called “Bible” for the new store in order to further the benefit of the mobile website. It’s now known interchangeably as YouVersion—which was the initial name Gruenewald came up with at the airport—because it just caught on.

“The App Store launched in July 2008, and The Bible App, YouVersion, was among the very first 200 apps that were available the day that the App Store launched.”

That was on a Thursday. From Thursday to Sunday, they saw 83,000 people download The Bible App—represented by a Bible icon—and actually utilize it. As a result, Gruenewald’s team reallocated resources and decided this was something they needed to give attention to full time.

“It started as an effort for me to try to figure out how to use technology to help me engage in the Bible—an effort that actually didn’t work but led us to an idea that God took and really ran with,” Gruenewald said, as he reflected on YouVersion’s beginning.

YouVersion’s amazing reach

Gruenewald and his team are continually amazed at how they see God using this app. As of the day of our interview, 315 million unique devices had installed The Bible App.

“And it is growing by about four million new devices every month.”

Even more amazing is that most of the app’s growth is outside of North America. “We have a lot of growth happening—I mean triple-digit growth happening—in many, many regions of the world [like] India, Russia, Syria, Central Africa, Brazil,” Gruenewald pointed out.

In fact, “it has been used in every single country and territory on earth.”

The YouVersion team has been able to see firsthand how digital distribution and the growth of mobile technology has meant “that the Bible has been able to slip right over the borders of places that people have been trying to smuggle [it] into for years,” as Gruenewald put it. And there’s a great irony in how this feat is being accomplished.

“Many of these countries want to advance their mobile technology and feel this is a high priority for their country,” he explained, “so much so that they didn’t realize they brought along with it things that they have been trying to keep out—the Scripture being the most important of those.”

The YouVersion team is humbled that the app is being accessed in places where people have lost their lives for the sake of the Word.

YouVersion highlights technology’s potential

The mission of Gruenewald’s team is literally a direct result of the local church. The team’s employer is also their church home, Life.Church. Yet, the app isn’t used as a tool to promote their congregation. Instead, it’s a natural overflow of the ministry Life.Church has already been doing.

“For many years, our church has really had the desire to figure out how we can use new tools and new methods to help connect people to the gospel,” Gruenewald recounted.

This is especially true of technology. In fact, one of the pastors on staff helped Gruenewald consider the possibility that he could use his technological gifts and skills to serve the church.

“I spent hours and hours at the church serving, and in spite of all that I never—not a single time—thought that what I did with technology had applications inside the church.”

His pastor’s encouragement and insight was invaluable. Though many churches

can be skeptical about technology because of its potential dangers, which Gruenewald encourages being thoughtful and careful about, he takes a view similar to his pastor’s.

“I feel like God has placed us here at this moment in history when all of these people are alive, and he has also put us in an environment where there are tools and the potential to reach those people with the gospel.”

Because of this mindset at Life.Church, what began as an individual’s idea and a tool for their congregation has turned into a global movement.

YouVersion’s success

So, what made Gruenewald’s idea so successful?

“We attribute it to [God] completely,” Gruenewald said, “but we definitely are always trying to make adjustments. And oftentimes, what are our plans—like that initial website, as an example—are not necessarily the things that work. But when we simply look at what [God] is already using, already doing, those have tended to be where we see the most significant results.”

“If there is a secret sauce to it, that has probably been [it],” he quipped.

For example, the YouVersion team is [preparing] to unveil a new app to aid in their mission. This app will build upon something that’s already a part of YouVersion called Verse Images, where people share pictures with Scripture on them. The new app will help people connect the Word to their everyday lives by allowing them to pick any image—a new or existing one—and the app will apply Scripture to it by identifying objects within that picture and picking a corresponding verse to overlay on top of it.

To go a step further, the team wants to “redeem the selfie” by emphasizing with Scripture the importance of what God thinks about individuals when they upload an image, instead of what their peers think.

The team is excited about the potential of this new endeavor, especially because the verse images are well-received already, being shared about 350,000 times per day.

Conclusion

Gruenewald and his team never expected to be a part of something so vast. Though their vision started out small in comparison, God expanded it far beyond what they could have asked or imagined. As a result, Gruenewald said their faith has grown, and they’ve learned to dream bigger because of what they’ve seen, believing that 315 million users could turn into a billion, and that YouVersion could be the type of tool God uses to help transform, not just this generation, but generations to come for his kingdom.

However it’s used, the team’s ultimate desire is to see people engaging with Scripture, whether through their app or another’s idea.

The man standing in the TSA line in 2006 wasn’t trying to be a success. And the church that worked so hard to expound on his vision wasn’t trying to be known as a pioneer. Neither could have envisioned how God would use their dreams, desires, and efforts.

“I think God chose to use a church in Oklahoma and a group of people that are not necessarily known for being the leaders in technology,” Gruenewald reflected, “because it lets himself be known in the story, and not us. We can’t claim it was our abilities or our knowledge or our depth of experience that made this happen. It [is] completely something he has done.”   

By / Dec 2

An adolescent boy came into my office a couple of years ago and said, “I’ve been talking with this girl.” He had a big grin on his face, which opened up the door to many interpretations on my part. He proceeded to say that she had sent him “some pictures,” and his smile continued. He knew what I would say, but told me anyway. He was oozing with excitement, curiosity and arousal.

He had received a sext.

Getting hooked on a text

When people send sexually explicit or revealing pictures or texts, it is called sexting. This young man was “hooked,” which means captivated by or enamored by, dependent or addicted to something or someone. In other words, this teen was now under the influence of this young woman who had sent him pictures of herself. In many ways, it’s similar to being dependent on a drug. He did not know how to handle the sudden onslaught of emotion and arousal in response to what had been sent to him. Sexting presents an opportunity for getting someone “hooked on you,” and it happens more than parents think.

In my experience as a therapist, teens sext for various reasons and trust that the other person will keep the pictures or texts to themselves. They do not think that others will end up seeing the nude pictures or texts. They are thinking short term and not long term. I usually ask them what would happen to the pictures or texts once they broke up. Teens don’t usually think that far ahead because they really don’t feel they need to. They are going for a ride in the emotion of the moment and enjoying it, which is why the teen years can tend to be tumultuous.  

Asking for a sext can be an exciting risk that a teen is willing to take, especially if there is a potentially willing participant on the other end. A person willing to send the photo is most likely confident that the other person will like what they see and want to be with them (hooked).  It opens up the door to sexual fantasizing and, most likely, actual sexual contact at some point. It’s like the old way of sending a note to “test the waters,” but much more sexually overt. It is a quick way to explore curiosities, get someone to think about you more often, and see if the other person is open to continuing sexual fantasies. Usually kids sext to get attention, show off and prove their commitment or interest and to get a person’s attention. Once the picture is sent, however, no one really knows what will happen from there.  Teens, most of the time, do not have a long-term view of life due to an emotional world that requires their immediate attention. This reality, many times, leaves them blind to consequences.  

Taking a dangerous risk

The adolescent brain loves to “toy” with various risks, and adolescence offers plenty of opportunities for risks, which can be both good and bad at the same time. Risk is necessary to “grow up” and pursue life, but it can also be dangerous and destructive. Technological advances have significantly increased the potential risks that can be pursued in society, and mobile devices have stretched the limits for all of us—from learning how to use them to sending explicit photos and texts.  

One very real danger within the world of technology is the dopamine rush that sexual images, sexual communication and sexual encounters provide. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter within our neuro-communication system that helps us anticipate rewards, and it is very actively triggered by sexual behavior. It initiates the process of getting “hooked” and pursuing risk. Sexting can trigger a dopamine surge increasing the “seeking out,” curiosity and goal-directed behaviors that can quickly engulf a person’s social judgment and perception of consequences. This physiological anticipation of rewards can be overwhelming and addictive, but it eventually depletes dopamine and makes it harder to get excited about life—many times, it creates even more “poor decision-making.”

Sexting is a quick and easy way to enter an adult world of sexuality with less inhibition. It provides a novel “excitement” and the potential for immediate gratification. Sexting leads to all sorts of misperceptions and distortions. Parents need to set guidelines with teens regarding the use of mobile devices and talk openly with their teens about sex with the purpose of teaching them how to manage impulsive urges driven by emotions, hormones, and a transition to more adult-like freedoms and stages.  

Practical advice for parents

  1. Remind your teen that you are on their team and want them to successfully transition into adulthood and full freedom.  Many teens and parents don’t know that sending (including forwarding) naked pictures of people under the age of 18 is illegal and can result in criminal prosecution. Remind your teen that this applies even if they are just sending the photo to their boyfriend or girlfriend. It is against the law and is considered distribution of child pornography.
  2. Help your teen identify helpful risks and destructive risks. Make a list together and talk through the different risks and their potentially good and bad consequences.  Discuss the reality that in this tech-saturated world, once the image is sent, it cannot be retrieved. You cannot just change your mind. It is out for people to see, and they do not have control over where the picture lands. Discuss what it would be like if their peers, teachers, the entire school or their parents saw the images. This happens a lot, so they need to be prepared for the possibility of this happening, if they choose to send sexual photos.
  3. Phones and all mobile devices should be “open for review” with the expectation that there is nothing to hide. If there is any defensiveness about the devices being able to be checked at night without an erased history or erased messages, then guilt should be assumed and freedoms are lost. Again, remind your teen that you are on their team and want them to have ultimate freedoms. Sexting can get a person “hooked” resulting in less control of their own life.  
  4. Give teens the opportunity for personal ownership.  What is theirs to own emotionally and what is for other people to own. Many times, teens engage in this behavior because of emotional needs and trying to change or manipulate someone else’s emotions, which usually does not lead to smart decision-making. Discuss the possible pressures to send or receive sexual photos or texts. The potential social costs of sending a nude photo and others seeing the photo far outweigh any pressure they encounter initially from peers to send the picture. Also, the long-term negative impacts of receiving sexual photos or texts also outweigh any positive immediate impact of refusing or immediately deleting a photo.
  5. Develop a ceremony or a celebration for major transitions (i.e., pre-teen to teen and teen to adult). Teens need a ceremony or celebration to help clearly define their transition into adulthood and the responsibilities that are increasingly becoming “theirs,” including their decision-making and their boundaries.
  6. Make sure your home has a lot of openness regarding conversations having to do with sexuality and the foundation to sex: the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control). Adolescence offers plenty of opportunities to grow amazing spiritual fruit. Also, have some discussion regarding self-esteem and self-respect. Talk about their viewpoint regarding sexting. Get to know their beliefs and perceptions.

Parents can visit focusonthefamily.com, pureintimacy.com, and thatsnotcool.com for more information and helpful resources.