Double Take: Should Parents Tell About Sexting?

Double Take: Should Parents Tell About Sexting?

Dear Dr. Wes & Miranda:

My 14-year-old son texted some pictures to his girlfriend of him not wearing a shirt. She sent some back in just a camisole. Neither one was completely nude, so we know this isn’t as bad as what some kids are doing now days. We’ve talked to him about this being inappropriate, but now we are wondering whether we should alert the girl’s parents. Obviously our son doesn’t want us to.

Dr. Wes: We always get good calls on KCUR’s Up To Date. This was an especially tough question from our last show, and one many parents are facing now. On one hand the listener is correct, this is pretty mild compared to a lot of things kids put out into cyberspace these days. In general I’d like to see teenagers become more conservative in their press releases (yes, that’s really what they are), but I find most to be rather deaf to my well-reasoned arguments.

I wouldn’t hesitate to have the listener call the girl’s parents if the pictures were nudes or clearly sexual in nature. As we’ve discussed many times that’s making and distributing child pornography. Parents keeping that to themselves would be enabling a very bad choice. But this is more complicated because neither picture constitutes a sexually explicit image. Boys run without shirts all the time and girls wear skimpy clothing all summer long and even in school. So it depends on her outfit as to the propriety of the photo.

In the end however, I advised the listener to contact the girl’s parents. Based on hundreds of these situations, my educated guess is that these two teens are in the early and experimental stages of sexting and that as they grow more comfortable with the medium, more clothes will start coming off. Now is the time to intervene.

That doesn’t mean I’d suggest a harsh punishment…yet. Every point of contact on teen technology is a teachable moment and hopefully these kids will be just embarrassed enough to listen up. Unfortunately, such photos are so common now that many teens are desensitized to them, so parents may have to push a little harder if the kids don’t get the point. Just remember to keep a measured response in such matters, so you’ll have room to escalate things later. In the end you can’t stop teens from doing things like this. You have to offer them the values you believe in and then influence them to see the wisdom in, for example, NOT posting your body all over the net. In this case, I’d take the opportunity to open a dialog and get ready to raise the stakes if things don’t improve.

Miranda: What strikes me most in this listener’s question is how young these teens are. I agree with Wes, if they are doing this at 14, what will they do at 16 or 18?” Your job is to try and reduce the chances that this will turn into a pattern of behavior that could get both kids in trouble.

It sounds like you’ve talked to your son, which is a good start, but your job isn’t done. I think telling the other set of parents is instrumental in resolving the problem. By getting the other parents involved you can create a unified game plan so one set of parents won’t come across as the bad guys.

In my house we had one golden rule—treat others as you want to be treated. I’d slightly revise this for your situation, treat other parents as you want to be treated. If the roles were reversed, would you want to know this about your son? The decision should be pretty easy when you look at it that way.

This may not be as big deal now as it has been for other, more adventurous kids, but if the girl has not spoken with her parents as you have with your son, then there could be problems for both families later on.

Wes Crenshaw, PhD owns Family Psychological Services, LLC. He is board certified in family and couples psychology (ABPP) and author of the books Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens and Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens. Learn about his writing and practice at Miranda Davis is a recent graduate of Free State High School who has co-authored the column since August 2011, and is the eighth in a series of teen co-authors. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to The column is reprinted from Double Take, published weekly since 2004 in The Lawrence Journal World. Opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.

Dr Wes

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