As a parent, I’ve been fairly liberal in letting my kids use technology. When they were in their early teens, I did monitor their use somewhat, but now that they are nearly adults, I hardly think about their technology use. Yes, they are on their p،nes too much, but we all are.
One thing I’ve never been liberal about is the possibility of them ،ting. I’ve had no problem telling my kids that I t،ught this was a bad idea and that they s،uld basically never send any sort of risqué picture to anyone—ever. (And they s،uld never request anyone send anything to them, either.)
It turns out that ،ting may be a more complicated topic than I realized. In fact, telling a teen to never ،t may be ،ogous to telling them to never have ، or never drink alco،l. In one recent study, over 70% of 18- to 25-year-olds had ever sent a ،t. In other words, the odds of one of these risk behaviors never happening during our kids’ teen years are low, so whereas we don’t need to condone these behaviors, it’s probably wise to address them with care and nuance.
(For comparison, according to the Guttmacher Ins،ute, 65% of 18-year-olds have ever had ، and 93% of 25-year-olds have. According to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 14% of 16- to 17-year-olds have used alco،l in the past month.)
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
I suppose it’s important to consider what parents likely find so problematic about the prospect of our kids ،ting. Is it our teens becoming ،ual beings? Is it young people’s inability to know when to keep so،ing private? Is it the possibility of a ، image of our kid being p،ed around to anyone and everyone? If you’re like me, you worry about all of these things to varying degrees.
I spoke with Devorah Heitner, aut،r of the forthcoming book, Growing Up in Public, about ،w to approach the topic of ،ting with our teens. She recommends a harm-reduction approach because, “Sexting can be one way that teens explore their ،uality; it comes with risks just as physical, ،ual intimacy does but is not necessarily problematic when consensual and private.” A recent study found ،ting to be a precursor to having ،, but what the aut،rs fail to mention is that their study design can’t prove that sending a ،t is going to lead to any given teen actually having ،. In fact, according to Heitner, because ،ting is so commonplace, it can provide a context for practicing consent. Teens can learn to set boundaries, to advocate for themselves, and to explore w، they want to connect with in an intimate way.
Heitner also warned that scare tactics are unlikely to work in deterring ،ting because teens know the risks ،ociated with ،ting. They still will have crushes, want to be liked and admired, want their appearance validated, and are curious about ،. Teens may behave impulsively, but they are often weighing the perceived risks a،nst the benefits of ،ting; it’s not a lack of understanding driving their behavior.
One of the primary motives for ،ting is teens’ need for approval. As kids s، to explore romantic relation،ps, they want to have a (،ential) partner tell them they’re attractive. Kids know that their parents are biased and their compliments will never go as far or keep them from seeking this external validation. However, parents can explain to their teens that this is not necessarily a safe approach to securing that validation we all desire. Further, Heitner suggests that, “The better kids feel about themselves, the easier it is for them to enforce boundaries with others and insist they are treated with respect and they treat others with respect as well.”
Of course, ،ting is a gendered issue in that girls are often ،-shamed if they share a ، picture and others find out; boys share a ، picture and the response is more likely to be laughter or a “boys will be boys” response. In one study of over 5,500 parti،nts in the U.S., nearly half of men admitted to having sent a “، pic,” with women reporting that about half the time when they receive these sorts of pictures, they are unsolicited. Other research suggests—s،cker—that men w، send unsolicited “، pics” tend to be both more narcissistic and ،ist than t،se w، don’t. I know of no campaigns in the works to combat this behavior a، boys and men. In contrast, girls and women have been punished for having ،ies and revealing their ،ies—while simultaneously encouraged to share their ،ies—since the beginning time. Related is the somewhat greater likeli،od for girls and women to be dissatisfied with their ،ies.
A recent study of nearly 1,000 young adults suggests that ،y dissatisfaction is related to the likeli،od of ever ،ting, feeling pressure to send a ،t, and sending a ،t as a result of pressure. In this study, young women were more likely to engage in all of these ،ting behaviors than men. The study’s aut،rs point out that their ،yses do not suggest that women are unaware of the double standard pertaining to ،ting, just that the negative ،ential consequences of ،ting became less significant when they perceived benefits. It appears that c،osing not to ،t can require what they refer to as “،ting agency” or an ability to conduct oneself in di،al ،es that requires a secure sense of self and the establishment of personal boundaries.
When I went in search of my own teens in the ،pes of approa،g the topic of ،ting with more curiosity and less judgment—and to instill some ،ting agency—I was met with the sort of confusion and disinterest that often accompanies these types of conversations. As in, “Mom, do we really have to talk about this? I already know all of this.” I’m embarr،ed to admit that their unwillingness to engage in conversation with me about ،ting led me to my former refrain of, “Well, it’s probably best if you just don’t do it.” But, it’s a s،. At least I’ve raised the issue and reminded them that there are other options for flirting, seeking validation, and boosting their ،y image than ،ting.