Teens and Sexting: What Happens Before the Picture is Sent
Where Does Sexting Begin?
When I first had my daughter, I would read about any number of concerns about babies, from peanut allergies to RSV, and have a moment of mentally covering my ears with my hands and yelling “la la la la la.” I didn’t want to hear anything worrisome. But since the seed was planted, my mind would tend to make things up that were way worse than the actual information. I learned that after a brief moment of anxiety, I actually felt better learning more about the topic. My point is that when a tough subject comes up, there are people who bury their heads in the sand and avoid the topic altogether. And then there are those who dive in head first to learn everything they can about it. If you are in the latter category, you have come to the right place. If you are in the former, I still hope you take a deep breath and keep reading anyway.
The thought of our daughters taking or sharing any inappropriate pictures of themselves can make parents with the steadiest of nerves come unhinged. So, dear parents, we must either simply say “my daughter would never do that” and move on or dig a little deeper into how sexting even finds its root. Because your daughter really might never do that, but do you know if she is even targeted or how the discussion even gets to that point of decision? A major eye-opener is that it’s unlikely that she gets a request for a picture out of the blue. What we need to look at is the series of events and conversations that lead up to the request. This is where the battle is won.
The fact that snapping a photo on a phone and hitting send takes less than 10 seconds combined with the infamous tween/teen impulsivity is tough. It’s hard to overcome the fact that kids lack the executive function to be stellar at reasoning, problem solving, and considering consequences. And I’m not making excuses for them or permitting it, it is just something that we need to acknowledge and work with – not ignore.
I have a few guidelines to round out the topic of sexting, but if I accomplish anything in the post, it will be that you recognize that the idea for sexting doesn’t appear out of thin air – there’s a back story. And it’s that back story that I want you to focus on.
To be clear, I am not trying to vilify boys, or make it sound like they are creepy little perverts who hatch master plans to convince girls to send pictures. And of course there are girls asking for pictures from boys as well. And then to our collective horror there are stories of teams or clubs that have contests and initiations to collect pictures. While all of these are awful, I am speaking about the girls who send a picture of themselves either naked or partially naked to a boy.
It’s not likely that the boy your daughter sits next to in math class just turned to her one day and said “hey, can you send me a picture of….” So how does it get to that point? It begins with standards and boundaries. Kids in their tweens are interested in sounding more grown up, they are trying out conversations about drinking, smoking, even drugs and sex. They don’t want to feel like little kids anymore, and so they naturally look to what they believe those just a little older than them are doing, and even what they believe their peers are doing (whether or not it’s true). Sometimes this means that during lunch or other social times, kids start talking about inappropriate things. Clumsy and awkward though this may be, the reactions and results can widely vary, and this is the key.
Kids who are looking to others to determine what is normal and expected will probably assume this is the norm and at least tolerate it, if not participate in it. Kids who are looking to others for validation and acceptance might contribute to the conversations out of a sense of obligation. Other kids – I hope to encourage all kids to be these kids – will recognize that conversations, particularly those in mixed company, about nudity and sexiness are not okay and stop the conversation.
Read that last sentence again. It’s such a small sentence, but it is my main point. Sexting doesn’t begin with the use of the camera on her phone and hitting send. It begins when someone realizes that a young lady is willing to participate in conversations that suggest that part of her value lies in her looks and her belief that taking and sending inappropriate pictures will allow her to make or keep friends. The longer these conversations go on, the more likely they are to escalate to sending pictures.
There are entire books on self-esteem and values, but I have only one paragraph in which to stress the importance of these traits. Talk to your girls about their worth; and that while it’s great to be cute and pretty, that is only a small part of what they are, not who they are. No friend or boyfriend should ever tell them what they should do with their body. And mostly, teach them the value of modesty and dignity. Being judged for your body is never flattering. A saying I love is “showing inappropriate pictures of yourself is like rolling around in manure – yes, you’ll get attention, but mostly by pigs.”
Explain to her that she may get pressure to take pictures by friends or a boyfriend/crush, or it may be peer pressure to keep up with others. Or she may even come up with the idea herself if she has heard about other girls sending pictures as a way to flirt or earn popularity. And make clear that whenever she hears anyone start talking inappropriately about pictures, girls, bodies, or sex and sexiness that it should be a red flag. This is not okay talk and she should either change the subject, or otherwise make it clear that she will not participate in this conversation.
Sometimes it helps to have some external reinforcement, so it is also important to point out that having pictures of a minor who is undressed is illegal, and may have other serious ramifications at school or in other programs in which they participate. But the awareness of parental values regarding any situation is one the biggest factors in influencing kids’ behavior. It doesn’t always feel like this, because they don’t always seem to take these things in while they are rolling their eyes and huffing. But I promise you, they hear you. And best of all – once they’ve heard it from you, they can never un-hear it.
About the Author
Debi Smith-Racanelli has two advanced degrees in Psychology, and is a passionate advocate of parenting education. Her book Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends addresses all aspects of raising tween girls using wit and wisdom, and even has a spot called Kendall’s Corner at the end of each chapter, where her own tween daughter lends her perspective on how tweens will respond to the advice given. Connect with Debi at www.betweenbabydollsandboyfriends.com or on Twitter @debijsr