Listen: Dr Justin Coulson chats to Katrina Roe about preparing yourself and your kids for the sexting conversation.
Sexting has become an increasingly popular social norm among kids today. It has never been as easy for boys and girls to access and share sexually explicit photos, text messages, or e-mails using a mobile device.
Over the last two decades mainstream and social media platforms have played a significant part in creating an over-relaxed culture around sexualised content. On social apps like Snapchat, sexting is known to be prolific.
Mornings presenter Katrina Roe chatted to leading parenting expert and author of Nine Ways to a Resilient Child, Dr Justin Coulson, about why this has become so prolific among teens and children.
“The ever-present internet is especially a concern, as it is associated with the increase of easy-access pornographic content,” said Dr Coulson.
In fact, by the time girls (and boys) turn 14 or 15, they are likely to have been approached and asked for images, according to research. By then, they would have already been exposed to pornographic content.
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It’s a Matter of Values
Dr Coulson said boys and girls are feeding off what they think will give them value; the danger is that sexting does the opposite. In the long-term it will damage their behaviours, their beliefs about themselves and their relationships with others.
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“If a boy can show off an image to his mates, he gets enormous social capital. He becomes a ‘stud’ or ‘hero’ with the other boys,” said Dr Coulson.
Girls are happy to participate in the activity because in return they gain attention. This leads them to feel wanted, even if the popularity is for the wrong reason.
Create a Safe Space for Sharing
Dr Coulson is a dad of six daughters and has had to confront this issue in his own family.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with my kids about what may happen,” he said. “My daughter came to me with this situation and explained what this boy was doing. Generally speaking, it’s wonderful that my daughter came to me for advice.”
“Too many kids delete the evidence and tell no-one, which means the perpetrator will continue.”
Sadly, it may eventually be a matter of when and not if a sexting incident will happen, which is why it’s important to have a conversation earlier on, before a situation arises. Starting the conversation with your child can be awkward, but it’s important for them to feel safe about talking it through and sharing what evidence they may have of the situation.
“Too many kids delete the evidence and they tell no one, which means the perpetrator will continue to do it to somebody else,” Dr Coulson said.
If your child does tell you they have been sent an explicit image, make sure they’re not punished for coming to you about it.
“Don’t take the phone off them, because they haven’t done anything wrong,” he said.
What to Say to Your Kids About Sexting
In a blog post on his Happy Families website, Dr Coulson shares practical tips on what to say to children and teens who are involved in sexting.
His first tip to parents is to find out how their children feel about the sexting they have engaged in. Be prepared for a less-than-encouraging answer, he says.
“What we’ll likely find is that they think it’s normal to send pictures, (because) it develops trust in a relationship, and they feel that so long as it’s consensual everything’s fine,” he writes.
His second tip is to avoid arguing, but instead ask questions.
“Ask them how they would feel if things got out of hand, and if their image ended up being shared.”
“If you disagree, being disagreeable will be ineffective,” he writes. “Ask about experiences their friends have had with sexting. Find out whether they feel private images of their own might be shared if they ever sent them. Ask them how they would feel if things got out of hand, and if their image ended up being shared. Find out what they would do if someone posted the link to (social media).”
If you discover sexually explicit images, texts or emails in your child’s phone or email, he says, don’t threaten them, as that will only “drive sexting behaviour underground”. Talking about the consequences (legal impacts, and effects on friendships and reputation) is more likely to impact their behavior.
He offers a simple list of steps that parents should encourage their teen or child to take. Tell them they should:
- STOP. It really is dangerous.
- Remove any and all risqué pictures from all devices.
- Communicate with others who have images of you and ask them to remove them. (Do it digitally so there is evidence of the request).
- Google themselves from time to time, to make sure they’re not showing up online in ways they shouldn’t.
Other Advice for Parents
Dr Coulson also recommends that parents chat with the other parent about the situation, and how their child is involved. They may not even be aware of the issue. Do this with understanding; think about how you would want the conversation to go if it was your child who initiated the explicit text.
And he also suggests alerting authorities, especially if calling the other parent is uncomfortable. Let the school know what is going on. Depending on how far the situation has gone, alert the authorities such as the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner, as they are equipped to handle these scenarios. The Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner provides online safety education for Australian children and young people.
Instilling value in the lives of young children will be an on-going journey as they compete with an overwhelming load of information about their worth. By speaking to children positively about their worth, parents can help change the way their children think about themselves, says Dr Coulson. This will help them to change where they find their value—and hopefully set a different standard rather than following the crowd.