Parenting in the digital age is tough! Parents are constantly asking: “Should I monitor my teens Facebook? What are they posting on Snapchat? Should I even be worried?”I mean, it’s not like you get a “How To” guide on monitoring Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook or YouTube! It’s natural to be a little anxious on what your teen is possibly being exposed to or doing online. (Especially after you’ve already being declined as a ‘friend’ on your teens’ facebook.)
Disclaimer: this article covers a particularly sensitive topic—teens sending one another graphic or revealing pictures. If this isn’t a topic you want to explore, best to stop reading here.
However, if you want some preventative ideas or could use some tips on how to respond if you find that your teen has sent or received pictures electronically that are graphic/nude/revealing/pornographic, etc., read on. (Also, know that you’re not alone—families and schools all over the country are grappling with this issue.)
Scenario: You find out from another parent that your teen is sending graphic pictures of their body to a peer they’re interested in dating.
1. Take a giant leap back from the situation for a moment and just breathe. Go ahead and go on a long walk around the neighborhood, scream into a pillow or call your significant other or a supportive friend. Being faced with the possibility that your teen is sexually active can feel scary and out of your control (though it may only be pictures they are sending and/or receiving and not that they're having sex yet). Even so, learning that your teen may be making unwise choices online is definitely upsetting!
This is why it’s so important to calm your own emotions before talking with your teen. Being emotionally activated and attempting to talk about an already confusing and difficult subject can inadvertently produce shame in any child. If you’re really anxious, angry or worked up—even though you may have only your kid’s safety in mind—your teen may perceive you as shaming them for their curiosity and sexuality, with are both normal developmental behavior.
2. Once you have collected your emotions (maybe even with the help of talking and brainstorming with your partner, journaling or writing a letter to your child, or educating yourself on normal developmental child sexuality), sit down with your teen and have an open discussion about sex. You can even start with, “I understand you may be texting/chatting/sharing nude/revealing photos, and it’s really important that we talk about some things.” They may get defensive or deny the photos--that's fine. They're probably going to feel instantly humiliated that you're bringing this up, even if they'd never admit it. But, the important part is that you have an honest conversation with your kiddo.
I know—talking about sex with your kid is difficult and, trust me, no kid wants to have this talk with their parents! It is perfectly fine to acknowledge how awkward this is and that you’re bringing it up because you care and it’s just that important. (This kind of acknowledgement is also great modeling for your teen that things can be hard, and we can do them anyway.)
Talking about sex and online safety is one of the most defining conversations you can have with your child, ESPECIALLY if you are calm, cool, and receptive.
3. Normalize their sexual curiosity and desire. Hormones are going haywire in their bodies, and they have NO IDEA how to deal with it. Validate that their peers are all dealing with this too, especially if they’re convinced that they’re the only one struggling. Be realistic about the consequences and possible effects of being sexually active. Talk about safety (without freaking them out or over-exaggerating—teens have an ultrasonic radar for that kind of inflammatory talk!).
Discuss or review issues like online safety—including how sometimes situations begin as fun and mutually respectful, but sometimes people aren’t honest and sometimes things go bad (like if a peer used those photos as blackmail). You can also review STDs/HPV, protection, pregnancy and maybe even encourage your teen to check out the Planned Parenthood website, if they are unable to open up to you and ask you questions (they can even call the Planned Parenthood hotline for free and talk to a nurse).
Even if you really, really, really want to tell your kid NOT to be sexually active, remember that forbidding a teen to do something is actually more like encouraging them to do that very thing. Remember having any similar reactions to your own parents?
4. Developmentally, tweens and teens are NOT thinking about the future consequences of their actions. So, sending that graphic picture of their body seems like an okay or exciting idea at the time. They may not even fully grasp the conversation you have with them. And that’s okay! Your job is to be open and honest with them.
Share your values around sexuality, love, relationships, and what you hope for your teen, WITHOUT shame, judgment or questioning.
5. Set limits, and inform your teen of what will happen if another nude/graphic/revealing picture is sent. I would recommend a trust deal. Trust, if you can, your child at first, and let them know that you believe they will make the right decision (especially if this is the first time you have ever talked with them about sending graphic pics). But if they violate your trust, you are allowed to parent and, if necessary, take away their privilege to their phone, or limit their time on it.
6. Understand the culture and technology you are up against. Snapchat designed the 10 second or less disappearing photo, so it is pretty easy for a kid to take a picture and press send. Snapchat also recently developed a feature on the app that will notify the person who sent a picture that the recipient took a screen shot (an alert pops up on the screen). Porn is also free online, so googling ‘big boobs’ can bring up hundreds of images in about 2.3 seconds. For better or worse, this is the world we live in, and no matter how much you want to, you can't protect them from it all.
Remember, tween and teens all have a lot of questions and curiosity about sex and the emotions surrounding it. You may not understand why your child sent those graphic/nude pictures, but you can make your best effort in accepting it, educating your teen, talking openly with them about sex and online safety, setting limits and moving forward with your teen, rather than without them!
By Arielle Grossman
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Here are some more great resources online for you and your family:
Hall, K. S., Sales, J. M., Komro, K. A., & Santelli, J. (2016). The State of Sex Education in the United States. The Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 58(6), 595–597. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2016.03.032
Be knowledgeable about the sex education your kid receives outside of your household. It is absolutely okay to call the school and find out if they are teaching sexual education and what the curriculum entails. There are only 22 states that mandate sexual education and 13 states require that the information be medically accurate.
On sexual consent (another topic that needs to be addressed in your conversation)
Sex-ed for Teen Boys
Sex-ed for Teen Girls