How to Deal With Sexting and Teens: A How-To Guide for Parents

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Summary: How to Deal with Sexting and Teens

Sexting is the act of sending sexual images, videos, or texts to a partner or someone else. The biggest risk of sexting is the possibility a sext is shared publicly without consent.

Unfortunately, this is not the only danger that comes with sexting. Other dangers include sext-shaming, sextortion, revenge porn, cyberbullying, and emotional distress. There could also be serious legal implications if one of the people involved is a minor.

Parents should talk to kids early and often about sex-related topics, like sexting. Though many professionals consider it a normal part of teen development, explain the risks of sexting to your teen, and what you are doing to protect them.

Learn more about what you can do to protect your child from the risks of sexting or what to do if your child is a victim of sext-shaming in our full article below.

Today, many teens explore their sexuality through “sexting,” or the act of sending sexually explicit content as part of flirting. Flirting and sexting are normal for teen sexual development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Still, there are risks for young adults who text sexual pictures.

In this article, we use research and data-backed studies to help parents understand what sexting is, the dangers, and how to talk to young adults about sexting.

What is Sexting?

Sexting iconThe term “sexting” is a contraction of the words “sex” and “texting.” Scholars describe sexting as the sharing or receiving of self-made sexually explicit messages, photos, or videos via smartphone, cell phone, computer, video camera, or video game. It’s not just an activity for young adults, either. The American Psychological Association published a study that showed 88% of participants (aged 18 to 82) have sexted at some point.

While some of the risks are the same for adults and teens sexting, young adults are more vulnerable to the risks of sexting like cyberbullying, sextortion, child pornography, and mental health issues.

Sexting online is part of young adult development

According to a 2019 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, most experts agree sexting is a modern form of flirting. More often than not, it’s consensual. Psychologists say that this modern form of flirting is a normal part of sexual development in young adults and does not mean that a teen is more likely to engage in harmful behaviors or poor mental health down the road.

Some studies claim that when a teen starts sexting, it increases a teen’s likelihood of drug use, mental health problems, or sexual activity. However, it’s important to note experts at AAP say that those studies represent correlation at best, not causation. Sexting starts to become problematic when there is an unequal balance of power (such as if there is a large age difference between participants), or if the trust between two parties is damaged.

What is sext-shaming?

Sext-shaming iconSext-shaming, also called “revenge porn” or “cyber rape,” is what happens when sexual images, videos, or sexual messages are made public without consent.

Victims of sext-shaming — whether it’s caused by an ex-partner, former friend, or stranger — experience mental and emotional distress. They become subject to humiliation, and some end up receiving backlash from family and friends.

Unfortunately, victims (especially girls and women) are often blamed for sending “promiscuous” photos as the perception is that victims brought this on themselves. This is not true. Sext-shaming is the result of a person breaking trust in a relationship or shifting a power dynamic. Flirting is normal. Hurting someone publicly is shameful and cruel.

How Common is Sexting?

Sexting is a fairly new phenomenon. The term has only existed since 2005. But as technology advanced and smartphones became more common, sexting experienced a surge.

A 2019 study on sexting and high school students (with 5,593 American teen participants) showed that sexting was no longer taboo in this age group. It’s common for teens to explore sexting, and these teens have had both positive and negative experiences while sexting.

Here’s what the study reported:

Infographic showing how common is sexting

Of the participants, 13% of participants reported sending a sext in the past, while 18.5% of teens have received a sext. Online predators often target kids for sexting, so it’s important to be careful.

Then, of those who have been asked to send a sext by someone who was not a current romantic partner, as many as 43% complied. Meanwhile, 9% of the students who were asked by a current romantic partner to send a sext chose to do so.

Most people use smartphones to text photos, images, or send sexts. Teens also like to download apps like WhatsApp or Snapchat to send images or sexual messages because they think their messages, photos, or videos are more private.

However, within these apps, users take screenshots and save images and videos. This means that anything someone sends on these apps can be forwarded to others.

The Dangers of Sending Nude Photos

In 2020, conducted a study on the risks of young adults and sexting. 78% of participants said that nothing bad happened after they shared a nude photo. However, this doesn’t mean sexting is without dangers.

While teens run the same risks as adults who sext, there are unique challenges for teens and minors.

Infographic showing the dangers of sending nude photos

  1. Negative online footprint or reputation: A sexual image can follow a person online for years. Once online, it’s accessible to future employers, partners, or colleges reviewing applicants’ online presence. Subjects of sexts may also be perceived as “slutty” or “asking for it” even though sexting is a normal activity among the youth.
  2. Sextortion: If your teen is being blackmailed with sexually explicit content by an ex or criminal online, this is sextortion. “Sextorters” threaten victims of sharing their nude images online unless the victims pay them or agree to sexual acts.
  3. Cyberbullying: When a person is harassed or bullied online, this is called cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is just as detrimental to the victim as in-person bullying. Bullies can attack victims on any social media platform or send harmful texts, emails, or other messages.
  4. Revenge porn: When an ex-partner or another person shares someone’s sexually explicit images or videos online without consent, it’s called revenge porn. Sometimes personal information about victims like a home address and contact details are shared online, too. Unfortunately, 95% of cases like these involve teenage girls.
  5. Depression, anxiety, and other kinds of emotional distress: Teenage years are hard enough. It’s unbearable if an ex-partner or bully decides to go rogue with a nude photo. Because victims are often bullied, they end up struggling to manage the humiliation and social anxiety in the aftermath of a private photo going public. Low self-esteem, loneliness, and suicide are known to accompany victims of revenge porn or sext-shaming.
  6. Groomers and pedophiles: With sexting, there’s a risk of a groomer or pedophile coercing your child to send photos. Once a photo is sent, criminals threaten to blackmail teens (also called sextortion) with it if they don’t comply with other demands like prostitution or sex. This is a criminal offense and if you think your child is a victim of grooming, report it to your local police immediately.
  7. Legal implications: Sharing sexually explicit photos of children under 18 is illegal. This can make for a legal nightmare if your child is convicted of distributing photos of themselves, which is possible in some states.

What the Law Says About Sexting

Laws governing sexting seek to protect teens from underage sexual activity and breaches of consent. In the U.S. and Europe, sexting isn’t prohibited. Of course, laws vary by location, so it’s best to perform research before making any decisions.

Is sexting legal icon

Sexting laws in the U.S.

In the United States, sexting that involves someone under the age of 18 violates state and federal laws, even if those involved are intimate partners. However, the specificity of those laws differs by state.

State legal language doesn’t always include details about whether consensual sexting between minors is a criminal offense. In some states, sexting is a “strict liability” crime (which means it’s a crime regardless of intentions). States, like Indiana, are proposing and passing new laws which include specific language around crimes like revenge porn.

Child pornography laws in the U.S. state that having any sext of a minor is a strict liability crime. Even if a teen thinks they are messaging an adult (who is actually under 18 years old), having an image of that minor is a crime.

Anyone convicted of child pornography charges is considered a sex offender and is sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. However, some states, like Texas, have “Romeo and Juliet” laws that protect consensual minors from serious sexual charges.

It’s important to look up the most up-to-date laws in your state. Then, explain what the potential consequences are to your teen if they sext another minor.

Sexting laws in Europe

Lady JusticeEuropean law sees sexting between two consensual minors as a possible part of normal sexual development. In 2019, the Council of Europe’s Lanzarote Committee published an opinion on sexually explicit messages or images sent to and from minors.

It says that sexting between consensual minors is not automatically child pornography nor does it result in a crime as long as both parties consent and the sexts are not distributed.

However, as soon as unsolicited images are sent to others without consent, it is a crime of child pornography and privacy regulations.

What to Do If Your Teen is Sexting

Sexting is a normal part of teenage sexual development. However, parents may find it disturbing to find out their teens are sexting, especially because there are very real risks involved. Here are some steps you can take if you find out your teen is sexually active online.

Infographic showing what to do if your teen is sexting

1. Stay cool

Regardless of the reason behind your teen’s decision to start texting, it’s important that you refrain from judgment and that you listen to them with an open mind.

If your teen feels like they’re in trouble, being judged, or about to be punished, then they may choose not to keep talking to you or keep secrets from you in the future. Without an open line of communication, it becomes difficult to assess the situation, make a plan, or offer solutions.

2. Respond fast

Sexting can get out of hand quickly. Remind your child why sexting explicit images is not a good idea. They probably have no idea they could be breaking a law or that their photos might be used to victimize them.

Since sexting has become common and “normal,” it’s possible that your teen has never been warned about the dangers of sexting. It’s also possible that they don’t yet understand the gravity of the situations they can get into.

By telling them about the risks of sexting, you can inform them about the possible consequences of their actions. Supporting your statements with research and examples strengthens your argument. An especially important step is to research sexting-related laws in your state.

For instance, in some states, a 14-year-old who sends sexual photos of another minor could be charged with a felony. It’s happened to kids before. The law takes child pornography incredibly seriously, and there are consequences — even if your teen never meant to hurt anyone.

3. Monitor the situation and set boundaries

Consider putting parental software on your teen’s device, like Qustodio or Bark. These apps can flag explicit content, set screen time schedules, and block users or apps. There are also phone services like Gabb Wireless which prevent a teen from sending any images, including sexual images. Gabb Wireless also allows parents to access texts after they are deleted.

Depending on your child’s age, some of these apps may be too extreme a measure. One risk of using parental control apps is that you make your kids feel like you don’t trust them. Make sure to talk to your child about why you’re taking these steps. Additionally, avoid installing the app or software secretly. Doing so degrades trust — which can lead to an escalation in behaviors.

If you’re allowing your teen to participate in sexting, then rules and boundaries need to be set. Here are some you can use:

  • Only share information online if there is trust. Tell your child that they shouldn’t send photos of themselves to strangers and people they don’t trust, especially if these photos have a sexual touch. They should trust the person before they even consider sending sensitive photos and videos, especially because there’s always a chance that these can be used against them.
  • Is a photo really necessary? In many cases, exchanging messages is also very exciting. Before taking and sending a photo of themselves, teens should think twice and really consider if the person is worth sending photos or videos to.
  • Never share photos of others. Private photos sent to your teen should remain just that: private. Under no circumstances should they show others photos that have been sent to them in confidence. No reason is good enough to break the law, not even impressing friends or seeking revenge.

4. Explain the consequences

After you’ve talked to your child about the risks of sexting and your concerns and about the boundaries you put in place, it’s time to explain what will happen if they don’t respect these rules.

Make sure that the rules you set for your child are followed. Otherwise, your teen may end up breaking the law or causing someone harm. If they don’t follow your rules, ensure that there are consequences. Will they lose app or phone privileges? Will you set an earlier curfew?

It’s also wise to make sure they know the consequences beforehand, so it doesn’t come as a surprise and end up turning a bad situation worse.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Sexting

Having a conversation iconThere are a lot of reasons young adults start sexting online. They may be curious, feel pressured, or want to show affection to a partner. Teens may be unaware of the dangers of sexting, so it’s important to start talking about sex, consent, and privacy at a young age.

According to research, kids and teens get the majority of their information about sex from friends, teachers, parents (usually mothers), and the media. Friends are a great support system but can’t be relied on as sources of information about teen sexting.

It’s important parents step in to make sure teens have access to reliable information about sexting that is educational and non-judgmental.

Be clear that you are open to talking about sex

Research shows that children and teens want parents to create a non-judgmental environment and talk to them often and early about sexting and other sex-related topics. If you haven’t talked about sexting or sexual health before with your child, tell them you are writing a new chapter with them.

If your teen doesn’t want to talk about themselves, try talking about hypothetical situations or examples from movies or shows instead. You can and should also ask them how they feel about the topic. Maybe they’re not interested in sex at all. Maybe they’re worried about a friend’s sexual activity. Do they find their school’s sex education helpful? What other topics do they want information on?

Tell your teens that any questions or concerns can be shared with you freely — you’re not going to judge them or love them less. You are proud of your teen, even if they slip up sometimes. After all, everyone makes mistakes.

Consent is a very important topic to talk about with teens. Make sure teens know that consent is mandatory in any sexual activity, whether that’s through sexting or in-person. If they feel even a little bit hesitant or reluctant, they can and should say no and stop the activity in progress.

This is also a good point to ask if they have ever felt pressured to engage in sexting behavior. Here are some examples of how to bring up the topic:

  • “What’s been your experience with texting partners? Do they ever ask you to send something you don’t want to?”
  • “Has anyone ever sent you something inappropriate on Snapchat you didn’t want them to?”
  • “Have your friends ever had problems with sexting?”

Teach them what language to use

It’s one thing to teach your kids that they should say no. It’s another to actually give them the proper tools for saying no. Teach your child some phrases they can use, like:

  • “No, thanks, that makes me uncomfortable.”
  • “I see that you are upset that I won’t share a photo with you, but I’ve made my decision.”
  • “I won’t do that. It’s a rule my parents set.”

They can throw you under the bus if that’s what it takes for them to remove themselves from an unsafe or uncomfortable conversation. You can also give your child phrases that buy them time in uncomfortable situations, such as “Let me think about that. I’ll let you know later.”

Respect their boundaries

Some space between a teen and their parents is very normal. They won’t tell you all their secrets, so don’t expect them to. At this age, they want to start living their own lives, with all the responsibility and independence that comes with it. Moreover, privacy is important. Teens are entitled to their privacy, as much as you are.

When opening conversations about sex and relationships, focus on the topics they do want to talk about. Avoid pressuring them into talking about things they’re not comfortable discussing.

This ties directly to our earlier point about consent. If they don’t feel comfortable talking about a certain topic, then it’s best to respect their decision. Lead by example by showing your teen that you respect their boundaries.

Show your teen what a healthy relationship looks like

Sometimes, understanding what a healthy relationship looks like is difficult. Just think about how many relationships depicted in media are bad examples of healthy relationships. If some adults still have trouble spotting toxic, abusive, and harmful relationships, then how can we expect the same thing of teens?

Talk to your teen about what kinds of behaviors are unacceptable in a relationship (whether platonic or romantic), such as stalking, bullying, harassment, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and more. If you can think of examples, then all the better for driving the point home.

Additionally, keep your eyes open for depictions of unacceptable behaviors in TV shows, movies, books, and social media posts. Point these out to your teens whenever you can so they can learn how to spot such behaviors on their own.

What to Do If Your Teen Has a Nude Photo Shared Online

Even if you and your teen do everything right, there’s a chance a photo can get shared without consent. First, stay calm. It’s completely normal for you to be angry and scared, but that doesn’t help your teen.

Next, praise them for coming to you. Right now, all they need is your support. Reassure them that you will make things better for them. The next step is to remediate the situation.

Infographic showing how to intervene when the sext is shared online

1. Report it

In the U.S., 46 states and the District of Columbia have laws against revenge porn. You can report crimes of revenge porn to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If the case involves child pornography, report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCME).

2. Ask the person who shared the photo to delete it

Whether it’s you or your child, someone needs to request the perpetrator to remove the photo. However, be prepared for the perpetrator to ignore your request. Make sure to document any and all communication you have with the perpetrator.

3. Contact the site or app where the image is posted

If you don’t know who it is, contact the site or social media it was posted on and have them remove it. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative has an online removal guide that can help you figure out how to get nude photos removed from places on the internet.

Because sharing photos of minors is illegal, websites will work quickly to remove it. Most apps these days also have their own policies about cyberbullying and will take down a sexual image or sexual message as part of their app terms and conditions.

4. When it involves classmates, tell the school

Schools usually have plans in place on how to deal with sexting and revenge porn. Organizations like also have resources for educators and parents.

5. Consider connecting your child with a mental health professional

A child psychologist or therapist can help your child cope with the trauma of exploitation. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children also has support resources for families who are victims of sexual exploitation.

Sexting is a normal part of your teen’s sexual development. Flirting and exploring their sexuality is part of human behavior and is not a punishable offense, as long as everything is consensual. Sext-shaming, revenge porn, and non-consensual photo-sharing are crimes.

Keep your child well informed on how to set healthy boundaries and what to do if they feel uncomfortable in a situation. If something goes wrong, help your child fight shame sexting and call in the school or the police if necessary.

For more resources on teens, kids, and navigating the online world, check our articles below:

How to Deal with Sexting and Teens: Frequently Asked Questions

Talking to your teens about sexting is not easy. Read what other people are asking about sexting and teens in our FAQs below.

Pediatric professionals state that sexting is a modern form of flirting for young people and adults. There is nothing wrong with flirting and exploring one’s sexuality in a relationship — as long as both parties clearly express content.

However, if two minors sext, certain states in the U.S. consider it child pornography, even if it’s consensual. Sexting is also risky because one person may share the other’s personal sexts publicly, without consent. Before you sext in a relationship, think about the legal as well as emotional consequences. Learn more in our article about sexting among teens.

Sexting can help two people connect and explore the intimacy of their relationship. For young adults, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that sexting is part of normal sexual development. However, there are certain risks to sexting, like revenge porn, sextortion, sext-shaming, and emotional and mental distress. For more information, visit our article on teens and sexting.

If one or more people involved in sexting are under 18, it is considered a state and federal crime. However, the specifics of those laws differ by state. Some states have “Romeo and Juliet” laws that protect consensual minors from serious sexual charges. Other states consider sexting and child pornography as strict liability crimes, meaning that they are a crime regardless of intent.

For consenting adults, sexting is not a crime until someone shares a sexual image without consent. In the U.S., 46 states have laws against revenge porn. There are also laws on distributing obscene materials via mail or computers. Look up the laws in your state to understand what protections are in place for victims of sexting crimes.

Online Safety Journalist
Allison has an impressive research background and a drive to stay on top of the latest trends in cybersecurity to help others combat cybercrime and stay safe online. She has covered a variety of topics but is passionate about informing the VPNOverview readers on online safety and privacy, especially for children and teens.