49% of young people have sent a sexually suggestive image and 67% of young people have received a sexually suggestive image.
I want you to take away two things from these statistics – Sexting is a serious issue but a very common one. If your daughter has sent a nude image remember she is not the only one who has done so. Remember too that teenagers can recover from doing so. It is not a mistake that they can’t bounce back from. I actually think it can teach them a huge amount of resilience and self-protection if dealt with properly.
While some teenagers say that sending a nude image was exciting and thrilling, there is no such thing as safe sexting. The consequences of this type of sexual experimentation can’t be ignored and there is definitely a gender bias when it comes to the consequences associated with this issue. I often see girls’ reputations damaged in a split second while guys walk away relatively unscathed. I see girls humiliated, violated and at times even blackmailed with nudes. The digital footprint that potential employees can now uncover (for relatively little dollars) is absolutely scary so yes, it is very concerning.
Parents this is what I want you to do if you suspect your daughter might be sexting.
Simply ask a very direct question (without a lot of warning or lead in time). “Have you ever sent or received a naked picture?” A direct question gives a teenager zero wiggle room. It also gives parents the best indication as to whether their daughter is lying.
Once you know what you are dealing with you can respond thoughtfully. Most parents will feel a sense of shame or anger when they find out their daughter has sent a nude. I have seen parents absolutely torn apart when they found out that their 12-year-old sent a nude to a 15-year-old boy. It is a normal, protective and healthy reaction. However, when a parent transfers this emotion to a teenager it doesn’t help. Process your emotions away from your daughter so you can be as positive as possible when you are with them.
Lots of constructive talking to a young person goes a long way. This will help them reflect, evaluate and learn from the experience. Sometimes girls show a range of strong emotions including anger, shame, grief and loss and are feeling the weight of their poor choices. Other times they aren’t taking things as seriously as their parents are. I have heard a lot of girls say, “It’s no big deal” to which I sometimes wonder if things just haven’t caught up with them yet.
Keep as many positive in their lives as possible. Unless there are safety issues to consider, don’t limit her access to her friends or her usual positive activities. You also need to reinforce your need and desire to protect her by saying ‘no’ to potentially dangerous environments or making any changes you need to ensure her safety. One example that comes to mind is if sexting has happened in a teenager’s bedroom at night, perhaps social media needs to have a shut down time and remain out of her bedroom.
The Difficult Questions
These are some of the tougher questions that parents ask me, which I am going to answer with the help of great resources like www.esafety.gov.au:
Can teenagers or parents recover nude photos?
When it comes to recovering nudes, you can do your best but there is no guarantee that you (or the school or even the police) can retrieve or delete them. Schools and police may carry a bit more weight when it comes to retrieving photos but even then, there are no guarantees. It depends where they have gone once they have been sent.
What are the legal issues relating to sexting?
When teenagers sext, it is a criminal offense because it creates child pornography. It is illegal to ask for, take or create, receive and keep, be in possession of, send or upload a sexually explicit image or video of anyone under the age of 18, even if they are your boyfriend or girlfriend and even if they approve of you doing so. The penalties can include jail sentences and sex offender registration. The police may choose to charge youth with a less serious crime, send them to youth counselling, give them a warning or caution or let their parents or school decide on the consequences. Police are more likely to press serious charges when the incident involves harassment or threats.
When should parents contact the police?
Definitely contact them if your daughter is in any danger, being bullied or threatened or if an image has been spread without her consent. Many parents go to the police in the hope they will be able to retrieve photos, which in some cases police will assist with and other times they are unable to. Authorities see thousands of cases of teenage sexting and are most concerned about young people’s safety. They do become very active when bullying or blackmail is involved with sexting.
When should parents contact the school?
Schools must report incidents of sexting to the police and they will have their own internal policy on associated punishment like expulsion or suspension. It may only be necessary to disclose an incident of sexting if it is likely to become public, impact their education or you needed the school’s help to retrieve photos.
When should parents contact other families?
I personally would be very cautious about contacting other families but this is my opinion. I also need to say that every situation is different but I image your daughter needs you on her team right now and it is critical that parents parent their own child not everyone else’s. If there is a need to contact another family my guess is that the incident would be serious enough for the school or police to be involved and therefore you could leave that job to them.
Michelle Mitchell is the founder and CEO of Youth Excel, a charity which helps young people make positive life choices during difficult times. As a national speaker, Michelle has a unique ability to transfer years of knowledge and experience to people of all ages and professions. Her latest book Parenting Teenage Girls in the Age of a New Normal is out now and available globally. For more information vivist www.michellemitchell.org.