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How to talk to teens about sexting, nudes and online safety

The desire to see and send photos of naked bodies is totally normal, said Devorah Heitner, the founder of family advocacy organization Raising Digital Natives. Teens are no exception, but they are particularly vulnerable to the dangers that come with sharing or receiving sensitive images. Once a teen hits “send,” it’s tough to control where the sext ends up, whether that’s in the hands of cruel classmates or strangers online.

Teens’ growing reliance on social media exposes them to more predators: From 2019 to 2020, reports of adults enticing minors online doubled to about 38,000 from 19,000, according to data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Sexts could lead to cyberbullying, privacy violations and blackmailing, experts say. And the social stigma of sexting often leads communities to punish victims of sexting violations more harshly than offenders while insufficient sex education leaves teens confused about consent.

“I don’t suggest locking up a 13-year-old the first time they experiment with this behavior, but there has to be a way to respond, especially for middle school kids who got so impaired by the pandemic in their social development the last few years,” Heitner said.

To parents, tech may seem like the problem, but it can also be part of the solution. Some apps give parents visibility into their children’s’ online activity, and a new feature on Apple devices prompts minors before they send or receive nude images. But more important than phone settings is talking to your teens about sexting and what role they want technology to play in their relationships.

Here’s what every parent needs to know.

For minors, sexting is illegal

Sending or receiving explicit photos of people under 18 is child pornography under federal law — even if you’re both minors and the exchange was consensual. Teen sexting is rarely treated as a criminal offense, said Carrie Goldberg, a New York City-based attorney at C.A. Goldberg, who specializes in sexual privacy violations, but both parties open themselves to legal trouble. (To read about sexting laws in your state, check out this fact sheet from the Cyberbullying Research Center.)

Set digital boundaries and talk about tech’s role in relationships

Teens shouldn’t have to navigate this tricky topic alone. As a parent, let them know you’ll be spot-checking their phones and other devices, then do so at unpredictable intervals, said Lexx Brown-James, a sex therapist and educator.

If you have Apple devices and Family Sharing set up, you can turn on alerts in your child’s Messages app that warn them before sending or receiving nude photos. Photos containing nudity appear blurred before they deliver, Apple says, and minors get a prompt asking whether they want to view or send the photo or alert a trusted adult instead. (Apple analyzes images right on the devices, it says, so the company doesn’t have access to the photos themselves.)

You can also set up a content-monitoring system such as Bark, which scans a variety of apps for what it calls “worrisome content” such as bullying, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, violence and sexual content, and flags it to parents. Here’s a list of apps and devices Bark supports. Make sure to disclose to your child what you’re monitoring, experts advise.

Next, help your teen set some digital boundaries, Brown-James said. Is sexting allowed in your household — and what should the consequence be for breaking that rule?

A teenager’s brain is different from an adult’s, which can make it harder for them to weigh payoffs and consequences, Brown-James said. Helping them think through the reasons they want to sext and the potential repercussions will set them up to make better decisions, she said.

Of course, this means acknowledging there are benefits to sexting, she noted: It’s fun to feel attractive, get your crush’s attention, admire your own body and see other people’s. Validating these feelings is more realistic than pretending they don’t exist, she said.

Teens also need straightforward information about the risks of sexting. Goldberg said her firm has served hundreds of clients — some as young as 11 — who have been blackmailed, cyberbullied or otherwise had their privacy violated after sharing nude images of themselves. People frequently pass along nudes without permission from the sender. Predators use nudes to extort victims, threatening to release the photos to friends or parents. Once photos have spread on social media, tech companies can be slow to take them down, Goldberg said. (Although, Google has a tool that lets minors and their guardians request the removal of photos from the search engine’s image results.)

Continue to check in with your teen after your first conversation, Brown-James said. If you’re not comfortable, she recommends you connect your teen with a trusted friend or family member.

‘Safe sexting’ doesn’t exist, but there are ways to be safer

Ephemeral messaging apps like Snapchat don’t prevent recipients from screenshotting messages, and there are ways to screenshot without notifying the sender. Even if an app doesn’t allow screenshots, someone could still snap the photo from another device.

If someone sends a sext, they can do it more safely by leaving out their face and any identifying marks or tattoos, Brown-James said. Avoid storing sensitive photos in apps that sync to the cloud, such as Apple Photos or Google Photos. And “alluring” photos that don’t reveal sensitive body parts are safer than explicit ones, she noted.

Even if you tell them not to, your teen might decide to sext. A frank conversation about consent can help protect them from exploitation, according to experts.

If someone sends them an explicit photo without their permission — even as a joke — that’s not okay, Heitner said, and they are allowed to report it to an adult.

Sexting is not reciprocal, Goldberg said. Some teens feel compelled to send a photo if they receive one first. If someone pressures them to send a nude photo or asks again after they say no, that’s disrespectful, she added. Let your teen know it’s okay to be turned off by people who get pushy.

Shifting the behavior of recipients will do more to prevent abuse than shifting the behavior of senders, she said. Let teens know it’s never acceptable to pass along or look at images without permission from the sender.

You’re there to help if something bad happens

Goldberg’s top-line advice to parents is to let your teen know that if they’re ever being pressured or shamed because of a sext, they can come to you for help.

Many times, exploitation is prolonged because victims are too afraid to tell their parents what’s going on. When children and teens can’t see a way out of bullying or abuse, they often harm themselves, Goldberg said. By letting your child know they won’t get in trouble for being exploited, you give them a lifeline if something goes wrong.

Shame belongs with abusers, not victims

Often, leaked nudes get passed around school and victims receive more scorn than perpetrators, Goldberg said. Kids learn this behavior from parents and educators, she said. When someone is a victim of a sexual privacy violation, model compassion for your kids, and place the blame where it belongs: with the violator.

“Don’t talk about victims. Shift the shame to perpetrators,” Goldberg said. “It’s not gossip; it’s not your entertainment. It’s a crime.”

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