Let’s be honest. Most parents are horrified at the thought of their child sexting. What parent actually wants their kid to sext?

It feels like a coercive, emotionally scarring act.   But what if the two teens believe they are “in love?”  What if their parents are sexting as well? Do your adult friends sext? How would you look at sexting then?  Today in our Mumtastic Series on Sexting we’re looking at sexting from a new angle, a teenager’s personal viewpoint.

Sexting is defined as:

“the sending or receiving of sexually explicit or sexually ­suggestive images or video via a mobile phone.”

Teens are not only sending nude pictures, they are engaging in sexual fantasy via text. Times have changed not just behaviourally for our t(w)eens but developmentally and psychologically.

Let’s draw a framework for our story.

It’s Out There:

1. Research shows a meaningful number of kids have sent or received a personal communication including nude photos via text (around 37% of kids according to one Australian study and 50% according to another).

The 2014 National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health found that:

  • More than half of those surveyed had previously received a sexually explicit text
  • 26% reported sending a sext themselves
  • Of those who reported being physically sexually active, 84% said they had received a sext and 72% said they had sent one.

2.  Research shows us that tweens and teens make impulsive decisions and poor choices all the time – (driving, risk behaviours, etc.) – it is part of their development.

3.   Tweens and teens are emerging in their sexual development and it’s often a confusing and bewildering time.

4.   Sexting is a new expression of sexuality – one made possible by technology that was not around even a 10 years ago.

5.   Kids see sexting as a low risk (no physical involvement) way to express their sexual interest and fantasy life.

It’s In Here:

With over half of teens reporting that they sending or receiving sext messages, this is an issue that affects Australian families and cannot be ignored. What is a family to do? How can they respond effectively and not create more harm? How should schools respond? After all, the most common setting in which sexting is exposed is in the hallway at the local high school.

I spoke with several teens and adults to get their inside views. Here is one family’s story.

Jessica is a 16 year old A+ student at a suburban high school. She lives in a loving family, participates in community service and plans to attend university.

A Teen’s Perspective

“I sexted with my boyfriend, it just happened, then his mum found out.”

What Happened:

When I was 14, I was dating a guy one year older than me, we were dating for two months, and we started to text each other sexual stuff.  Nobody said “Hey let’s do this” it was never pictures it was just texts. Like fantasy. I’ll do this, you’ll do that stuff. He got extremely into it like every day and I got tired of it, but it became our relationship. It was phone sex via text.  He’d just fantasise and I’d go along with it. It changed our relationship; it went from being far away to being closer. I guess that’s why we were comfortable with it. I liked him a lot then and we’re still good friends.

How It Was Discovered:

“One day his phone beeped and his mum read the texts. She freaked out.” She printed them out, and wanted to show them to my parents. His mother’s reaction was worse than the sexting for me. She called me names, she called my parents horrible parents and she grounded my boyfriend forever. The way it was dealt with was so immature on his mum’s part it ended up scarring him more than me.

Her Parents Response:

I was grounded, my parents took my phone away and I had to earn it all back. I think they did the right thing, I knew I needed to be punished. But they also talked with me about it. I understood why it was wrong and how it could have hurt me worse.

My Advice:

“What I learned, even though he didn’t share our texts, is that if a relationship goes rocky after you have sexted, then a jilted boyfriend or girlfriend can use them for blackmail or revenge.  As much as you may trust a person as some point that can go haywire. It’s not a good idea, it’s not safe, and it’s not worth it.”

You may think it makes you cooler with the guy or girl you’re trying to impress, but it’s not worth it at all. There are so many better things that you can be doing or talking about or taking pictures of. Relationships shouldn’t be based on fantasy. If you are stuck in a relationship where someone is expecting things that make you feel uncomfortable, talk to an adult and get help.

A Mum’s Perspective

Colleen is an accomplished business woman, wife and mother to three children.

“It’s such a different time. When we were young we experimented with sex that was part of development. But today teens have iPads, webcams and all sorts of technology that allows for so many opportunities and situations teens are not ready to handle.”

What Happened:

In our case, my daughter sexted her boyfriend. I truly believe my daughter and her boyfriend really liked each other. They were respectful to each other. They were best friends.  He was also respectful to my husband and me. My husband and I discussed the hazards of sexting with our daughter on many occasions, prior to the event. But, sometimes our teens don’t take our advice and engage in risky behaviour.

My daughter and her boyfriend crossed that line, a line I don’t approve of. When I found out what happened, I made a conscious effort to not freak out, I wanted to make sure she knew we were angry but I didn’t want to ruin her sexuality forever. That is very tricky; we all know how our parent’s behaviour toward us has effected how we react as adults now.  I knew what she was doing wasn’t okay, yet I wanted to respond in a way that protected her future sexual development as a woman.”

How It Was Discovered:

“The way I learned was she called me and told me.  She was worried I would hear from another person. The panic in her voice truly scared me, I have never heard her so upset and scared. She knew she did something wrong and was scared how we were going to react.”

Her Own Response:

“My first reaction was to calm my very panicked child down so she could talk to me.” I had to reassure her over and over that I still loved her, I was angry, but I still loved her. She calmed down and only then could we talk about what to do to resolve the issue. Our approach was, ‘People don’t die from this. Daddy and I spoke with you several times not to do this sort of thing, but you gotta calm down you made a mistake, we’ll talk it out and work it through.'”

The Other Parents’ Response:

“The boy’s parents called and wanted to know how we were going to punish our child. We reassured the boy’s mother that we were going to speak with our daughter and deal with the situation based on our family’s values. We would use communication, logical consequences, respect and understanding. The boy’s mother wanted us to react the same way she did, with anger and severe punishment.  To this day, the boy’s mother continues to display her anger toward my daughter and my family. Really, these are teenagers who made a mistake, when is she going to give it up?”

Sexting is A Family Experience:

Sexting is a complicated social activity borne from advances in technology combined with natural sexual inclinations and curiousity within us all.  Having spoken with many mums, dads and teens, here are our takeaways:

  1. The first line of defence is open communication with your t(w)eens. When you give your t(w)eens mobile phones (which you usually fund) it is important to review your privacy policies and standards for healthy mobile phone use. Once the phone is in their hands you cannot control their behaviour but you can monitor it. Speak with your teens often and openly about your safe use policies.  Even consider having everyone in the family sign a “Safe Use” contract.
  2. If your children make a mistake and use the mobile phone in a way that is unsafe for them or not in keeping with your family culture, have a plan for your response. Beyond your initial removal of the phone make sure you explore with your family ahead of time your plan for healthy behaviour.
  3. With all of the data now available to us as parents, shock and awe are a mindset implying lack of education and a failure to communicate. Be mindful, your teens need your help, guidance and love, especially when they are indiscreet. Above all their mistakes are landscape for exploration, mentoring and healing.

We have learned a lot from our exploration of sexting and families, and we continue to learn. Thank you for all your tweets, comments and contributions so far, let’s continue to keep the dialog going.

More from the series:

Image: Getty