Looking for ways to make it safer for your child growing up in a sexting world? In Part One of what every parent needs to know about sexting, I looked at the general issue of sexting and some of the inherent risks. Here in Part 2, we’ll take a look at why people sext, how different personality and attachment styles may influence the likelihood of sexting, and finally shares some practical tips and potential approaches to issues with sexting.
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In many cases sexting can be a healthy part of a relationship. The issues arise when we have children, either mimicking adult behaviours, or finding themselves caught in a situation of dis-empowerment, when they don’t know how to either say no to, stop or withdraw from a sexting situation.
What Every Parent Needs to Know About Sexting – Part 2
Before we go too far into this discussion it’s important to remember that curiosity about our bodies and sexuality is a normal behavior. The timeless exploratory “you show me yours” has always been there. Posting a note in a school locker that says “you’re pretty, or you’re hot” has always been the way for teens in high school.
Image courtesy of The Intrepid Mompreneur
What has changed is the widespread exposure of sexualized imagery in the media, on television, in movies and music videos, the terminology used and the use of technology to rapidly share and distribute such imagery, including personal images.
We as a society have become complacent when it comes to what is acceptable.
Large billboards proclaim various sexually orientated medical issues and desires, we allow children to watch movies or play video games which can have strong sexual content but say “it’s okay it’s not real”.
We listen to songs which repeatedly have disrespectful and sexual lyrics in them. We turn poorly written literature into million dollar movies highlighting someone else’s fantasy forgetting that for our young people we are normalising behaviours which they are not yet ready to discern.
“The lines between reality and virtual reality blur continually…”
The lines between reality and virtual reality blur continually, and we need to allow our children time to develop the ability to analyse and decide for themselves what feels comfortable.
Children observe so much as their brains develop. When all around them the focus is on sexuality, is it any wonder it appears to become more a priority for them? Children are very attuned to hypocrisy around them. It is hard to tell them that a behavior is wrong when they see it everyday.
It is human nature to develop curiosity and the art of titillation has been around a long time. Remember we were young once. Trying to scare young people often just makes them more curious.
We need to bring balanced discussions into the equation and we need to limit exposure to adult material when children are young so they have time to develop awareness and self respect.
Why do People Sext?
As an adult you may well have indulged in a little “dirty talk” or titillation, either as part of an existing relationship or within the context of a new one. It adds a connection in a long distance relationship and can bring a feeling of intimacy.
Often initially, this kind of behavior, especially in teens is about testing and pushing boundaries, feeling “naughty” and sometimes seeing how far they can go. In a healthy relationship it’s about sharing private and intimate moments with a person we trust.
These moments however are not meant to be shared beyond that relationship, and it is here we find the problems arising.
“Certain personality and attachment style…”
Recent studies have shown that there appears to be certain personality and attachment styles which influence sexting.
Studies by Rob Weisskirch at the California State University indicated that personality may influence decisions to engage in sexting. Backed by studies by Mckenne, Green & Gleason 2002 and Reid & Reid 2010, those who score more highly on social anxiety and shyness seemed to be more comfortable sending text messages.
For those who tend to engage in higher risk activities or were more sexually active, sending images within sexting transactions was three times more likely (Gordon Messer et al 2012). Weisskirch also discovered that problematic use of mobile devices seemed to also link to sexting behaviours.
Males who demonstrate high neuroticism (a fundamental personality trait in the study of psychology characterized by anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, envy, frustration, jealousy, and loneliness), it was observed, tend to send sexually suggestive message and images, whereas extraverted males may send texts which are sexual propositions.
“More focus into the education of our boys..”
This indicates that we need to put more focus into the education of our boys.
In a highly ‘pornified’ world, helping them to understand respect and to put perceptive on the images they see, and they way they treat others, must be paramount.
Giving our teens useful tools and guidance so that they understand and can manage feelings such as jealousy needs to be provided.
Why are Such Young Children Participating?
As we mentioned in the opening paragraphs, we must consider the world our children are growing up in, and some of the behaviours our young people observe on a daily basis.
We live in a world driven to always “push limits”, demonstrate “extreme” behaviours and take risks, then we wonder why our children do this?
Boys obsessing over their “6 packs” and they are not even heading into puberty yet? None of this is healthy. It is not balanced, but it is ALL they hear and see. Obsessions about food, weight, ‘health’ even though having a lot of muscles doesn’t necessarily indicate health at all.
Mental health should be paramount, because with self-respect and trust in one’s self comes resilience also.
We are seeing more and more young girls struggle because they copy adult behaviours, trying to fit in, trying to attract attention, but they, like the boys have not yet developed their cerebrum fully.
Peer pressure and the idea that “everyone is doing it”, which of course may not be the case at all, is often highly at play here. Bullying and harassment and vanity scoring also play a role.
“Sexting can be seen as a form of flattery…”
When it comes to self-esteem, sexting can be seen as a form of flattery. In fact, some children will participate because they feel left out and they are seeking to be included.
Tweens and teens brains are not able to properly calculate risks or anticipate how they will react. That topless pic that seemed kind of silly to do, when out in the public becomes a source of embarrassment, humiliation and ultimately unless you are very strong, even an adult will struggle with that sort of attention.
In our recent series on children’s self esteem, parents can learn how to help their children develop competence and confidence, a stronger sense of connection to themselves and others,and how they can feel better about themselves and recognise their unique value.
Maybe There’s a Lesson for Adults Here Too?
As adults we are constantly obsessing over the latest diet or “lifestyle” fad.
We tweak and prod and manipulate our bodies and faces into a perceived “beauty” with access to plastic surgery, fillers, botox and the like. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, provided it is in context with a healthy mindset.
When these behaviours evolve from lack of self-esteem, fear, worry or anxiety about our image, then we risk influencing our young people in a very negative way.
Recommended Reading: The One Secret Most Parents Don’t Know About Children’s Self Esteem
As adults how often do we say out loud, that “I will only feel good once I lose this weight”? So we are telling our kids that we can’t feel good unless we are trying to reach an ideal, one that actually may not be reasonable or possible, depending on the person.
As a child I recall the discussions around health and beauty were more about looking after your skin and body so that you remained flexible and healthy.
Exercise and yoga etc. were taught to me as a way of keeping your body supple. It was not about obtaining some society driven ideological body type. Men who worked out had some muscle definition but didn’t do it to the extreme. The pressure is constantly on to compete at a higher level.
We have to take a hard look at our own behaviours and consider whether there are benefits to some privacy.
Sitting with your teen together using Tinder isn’t the best choice for a bonding session. What is worthwhile is having a conversation around setting boundaries and rules for themselves, that make them feel comfortable if they are going to use such apps. Of course not using apps which are not intended for their age group should be paramount.
Leaving your phone around where your child picks it up and finds the texts and pictures that you’ve been sending your husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, lover. This is happening so regularly.
Put a lock code on your device. Remember for your own security that should you lose your device the images may be accessed. Deleting images as soon as possible is highly recommended.
Millennials and Sexting
A recent study by Melissa Meyer looked at the sexting from the point of view of Millennial’s (aged between 18-30). She found that “Sexting is likely to happen before sex, as a way to get to know one’s partner sexually and to build intimacy.
This explains why high school pupils who still identify as virgins would sext – to them, it’s a way to bridge the gap of distance between two interested, consenting partners who wish to be intimate, experiment or are just curious and wish to explore their sexuality. All of this can happen in the safety and comfort of their own rooms with the power to stop the interaction at any time”
It appears that sexting is very much a part of the sexual behavior of millennials, however the issues arise for both young people and adults around the concept of having the power to stop the interaction.
Meyer goes onto to say that in her study, participants were concerned about the “turn-taking repertoire of sexting…the expectation of returning a similar contribution”. It was noted there could be negative pressure here.
“Attachment and relationship anxiety play a role…”
Meyer also noted similar issues as discussed, that attachment and relationship anxiety play a role. Your attachment anxiety will be low where you were raised to feel secure and comfortable. That relationships were reciprocal and safe. If you are raised in an environment where parenting was absent or inattentive, there is a much higher level of anxiety.
In my exploration of sexting, Meyer’s study then raises the question as Millennial’s have their own children, what values they will be embracing for their own children? Having been the most protected generation if they struggle with pressure, how will they assist their children to be able to take control?
As parenting coach and child trauma specialist Laurie A Couture says, millennials have “remained perpetually childlike, feigning innocence and fragile senses of self, whilst playing with sexuality as if it is a secret object…… young women imitating animae characters…” (who hasn’t seen the memes about not wanting to “adult”?).
That said, Meyer also found that most sexting was done in the confines of a relationship.
Melissa Meyer also found, as my own studies have indicated, that issues of consent are what we need to be talking about.
We need to be teaching our youth how to manage situations where they may feel pressure, discomfort or even abuse (receiving information or images without consent or from unknown or unsolicited sources).
In this section we address some means by which we can start to empower our youth. Sexting is not all “bad”, but it needs to be put into context and participants need to respect boundaries.
It is important that our teens understand laws around sharing of images, but not just that they are a law, but why the laws exist. To protect the innocent from predators.
NSPCC has created a series of videos aimed at younger children to help them to understand consequences.
These are great for starting points, but in a very clinically politically correct environment it appears to the writer that there are points missing. In particular the need to highlight to children conversations around compassion and empathy to help build those values.
Without these values the lesson may be lost.
Conversations with Your Teens & Tweens
Getting into a power struggle is never going to end up well when it comes to speaking to teens.
Recent research has indicated that the best time to speak to your teen is at night, particularly when they have just come home. Even if it means you getting up and making them a hot chocolate. “Bump” into them in the passage way and offer. Ask how their night was. Often this is the time they are ready to speak, but you need to let them guide you. Don’t make it an inquisition.
Using advertising can be a great way to open up a conversation. If you see a questionable billboard or perhaps one of those ads on television for a dating site. These can be great ways to open a conversation. It might be along the lines of “oh Ashley Maddison are advertising again! Did you hear about the data hack a while back?” This way you can introduce the concepts of privacy etc. without being confrontational.
Recommended Reading: Engaging with Teens How To Get Your Teen to Listen
Top Issues To Discuss with Your Child
Understanding self respect and respect for others is paramount. From an early age demonstrate respect (including for your child).
Always explain why you are making a decision even if they don’t like the decision! You are the adult and have the direction and control, but you must respect your child’s voice and opinion.
Respect doesn’t mean backing down. Understanding respect in the event of a relationship breakdown is very important. Revenge posting and shaming practices are disrespectful and may also breach laws.
Once an image you have taken of yourself is shared then the risks start to appear. Here are some Important Tips & Advice on Posting Images Online.
Taking responsibility for what you share is a big part of protecting yourself and others.
If you are an adult, you must be responsible for keeping your images private and not allowing your young children to “accidentally” come across explicit photographs or texts.
Ensure they understand they have the right to say NO to anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, and that something they like doing may not appeal to others. This then builds back to the concept of respect.
Role of the Law
Depending on the country you live in, the laws around sexting vary.
In most countries sexting is a crime where it involves images of a person under 18. Depending on the age of the person who sent the image or is in possession, it may be deemed child pornography and the person may be registered as a sex offender.
Some states have made amendments to try and protect children from being registered as a sex offenders, however jail terms and fines can be substantial. In particular around distribution of images in situation of “revenge” porn.
Where Does Sex Education Come Into the Picture
According to some researchers, (Dr James O’Higgins Norman, Director of the Anti-Bullying Research Centre) we need more comprehensive sex education in schools.
Whilst this has much merit, I am mindful that schools are already subject to overload and teachers burdened increasingly with taking on more of a welfare role.
Careful consideration has to made into the way such education is delivered. We must be respectful of the children involved. Discovery and self-exploration of sexuality are part of growing up. Being made aware of risks without overwhelming children with information is a careful balance.
What does need to be discussed are healthy relationship behaviours. A study by Pew in 2015 showed that some teens are already experiencing negative or controlling behaviours by a current or former partner.
Behaviours are already being learned in the first 5 years of your child’s life. We need to make sure that children are being given the best opportunities to learn about self-respect and responsibilities from home, values which the schools can then strengthen. Parents should involve their children in value based discussions around use of technology in general.
Personally I strongly believe that more investment in parent education as part of antenatal and prenatal care might be another avenue to be considered. Drip feeding easy to understand guidelines around technology that parents can embrace from the start of their parenting journey seems a logical first step.
So What Can You Do?
- Encourage your child to chat with friends about these issues. Don’t judge on whether someone does or doesn’t sext, but talk about each of the risks and how they might affect them.
- Encourage your children to talk to you. If you as an adult are sexting, and your children are aware of it, and it makes them uncomfortable, tell them it’s ok to talk to you about it and respect them. Find our their views.
- Ensure you children understand that saying NO is ok. You are not a prude. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, guess what? It’s OK. It’s your very clever body and mind letting you know that it’s not the right time. (This is just as relevant for Adults too).
- If you have a old family photo album, get it out and have some fun chatting about the stories and memories. Even better if it goes into your great grandparents and beyond. Now look at your own photos and ask yourself will the images evoke such stories. If your news feed is full only of selfies and belfies.. maybe it’s time to start living YOUR life for you, not for someone else’s conceived idea that your bum makes the better picture.
- Encourage your children to know that if they are not sure about something that has happened, or someone has asked them to do, they seek advice from a trusted adult, or call a help line for advice (see link at end of story).
- Learn with your children and set boundaries from the start when it comes to technology.
- Have conversations around what is acceptable in a relationship, and what they can do to limit their risk.
- Practice the 4R’s of Reputation, build them into your family values. In particular Respect and Responsibility.
- Keep conversations going. Talk about the apps your child is using and the pros and cons of them. Celebrate the positive side, but don’t ignore the risks.
Useful Resources If You Need Help
There are some fantastic resources around globally that can help tweens and teens:
- UK: Childline
- USA: Boys Town
- Ireland: Childline
- Australia: Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner; Kids Helpline
- Fiona also a comprehensive list of Helpline numbers on her website iRespectOnline.
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