Skip to main content

The Dangers of Sexting: What Parents Need to Know

Sexting — the act of sending or receiving sexually explicit or suggestive images, messages, or videos — is an increasingly popular activity among teens. It is reported that one in seven teens sends sexts and one in four receives them.

Teens may be unaware of the serious consequences that sexting poses. One in twelve teens says that the sexts they’ve sent have been shared with others without their consent. As noted in a 2018 study, “the negative outcomes of this behavior have increasingly gained attention in the media as a growing number of cases highlight how the non-consensual forwarding of sexts can lead to harassment by peers, cyberbullying, or blackmailing.”

How can parents and caregivers keep their children safe from the dangers of sexting? The best way to protect them is to help them understand the potential consequences. Here, the Culture Reframed team explores how sexting became so popular, discusses the harm these actions can cause, and offers advice on how to address the dangers of sexting with young people.

Why is Culture Reframed concerned about sexting?

Sexting is one part of the wider incursion of pornography into the everyday lives of youth. It is pervasive among young people, with many girls reporting that they feel pressured by boys to send sexts. This is a form of sexual coercion. At Culture Reframed, we take sexting very seriously for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it normalizes the idea that girls can only be valued if they present themselves as sexualized objects. In many states, when sexts are exchanged with a minor, it is considered sexual exploitation and can result in criminal charges. In states where sexting constitutes child pornography, the person sending a sext may end up on the sex offender registry, which follows them for life.

Based on your experience in the field, how has sexting changed in recent years? How has the rise in pornography helped drive this phenomenon?

The major change in recent years is that sexting is now pervasive, and its rise can be attributed to the mainstreaming of porn. Multiple studies have identified links between the online use of pornography and sexting, as noted in our white paper “The Harms of Sexting.” The widespread availability of online pornography is linked to the fact that so many young people believe that intimacy and relationships include the sending and receiving of naked and sexual images.

What are the most common questions you receive from parents and caregivers about sexting?

Parents tend to become especially concerned about sexting when they give their kids smartphones. Most parents want to know how to protect their kids from sexting and what to do if their young person receives or sends a sext. We also hear from parents whose kids, typically daughters, have sent sexts to someone who has then shared the images with friends, and often the entire school. For many children and families, this can have devastating consequences. Parents want to know how to talk with their kids about this, how to help them heal if they have been a victim, and how to protect them from further image abuse.

What should parents and caregivers know about sexting? What advice would you give parents to keep their kids safe from sexting?

Young people, especially girls, are pressured by boys, peers, and the wider culture into sending sexually explicit images of themselves. Speak to your child about the dangers of sending sexts or doing anything intimate on camera. Encourage them to resist this dangerous trend and peer pressure while acknowledging that you understand how difficult it is to go against the tide — especially when the tide promises to raise social standing. (As noted above, sexting often does the exact opposite, leading to extreme ridicule if messages are forwarded.)

Let kids know how common it is for content that is shared virtually to be circulated widely, despite promises of confidentiality. In reality, sexting is as private as walking down the school hallway naked. 

We want young people, especially girls, to know that anybody who truly likes them would never pressure them into anything sexual and that someone who does is not deserving of their affection.

Parents of boys need to be equally engaged in conversations with their sons about the dangers of sexting. Boys should understand their own (and others’) bodily boundaries, respect their bodies, and should not be pressuring others to send sexts. Parents should also explore ways they can talk to their boys about playing an active role in stopping sexting by encouraging their peer group not to pressure or coerce others into sexting.

At the same time, it is important not to catastrophize sexting. If your child has engaged in sexting, you do not want to inadvertently make them think they have ruined their life. Kids are impulsive and do not foresee future consequences in the same way that adults do. Stay calm, set limits with them, and do not shame or blame them.

To learn more about sexting and how to start these important conversations, register today for our FREE online course for Parents of Teens and see especially Module 7: Sexting & the Online Digital Footprint.