Sexting—digitally sharing sexually explicit messages or pictures—has become a common part of young people’s lives. According to a review of 39 studies, about 15 percent of teens report sending sexts and 27 percent report receiving them (JAMA Pediatrics, 2018).
Teens’ digital lives are rich and varied, and much of their flirtation and sexual exploration now happens online. While many adults have valid concerns about teen sexting, we know from decades of research that using “just say no” approaches and abstinence-only sex education is ineffective. Therefore, it’s important to have open and constructive conversations with teens about sexting. This can help them mitigate the risks, learn about and utilize affirmative consent, and think more carefully about their decisions.
Here’s how you can help develop productive conversations about sexting:
1. Talk about it.
Acknowledge that students may decide to sext. Even if students aren’t planning on sexting themselves, it’s useful for them to reflect on how they might support a friend or handle an unsolicited message in their inbox.
2. Create a non-judgmental space.
Avoid using excessive fear tactics. Focusing exclusively on the risks of sexting can increase shame and victim blame, decreasing the likelihood that people who receive unwanted sexts or who have their image shared without their consent will seek help. Assume a non-judgmental attitude and invite students to reflect on ways they can minimize the risks of their sexual choices.
- Suggest that students talk to the person they’re messaging with about what types of messages they’re both comfortable with (e.g., they could agree to only send sexy messages instead of images). When both parties explicitly agree to participate and agree on exactly what they’re OK with, they’re practicing affirmative consent.
- If they decide to send images, recommend that they leave out their faces and identifying marks.
- Stress the importance of maintaining privacy and respect by never sharing or forwarding sexts to others.
3. Broaden the conversation.
Sexting is just one piece of the broader culture surrounding sexuality. Give students opportunities to reflect on their core values and to consider ways to live out these values in all areas of their lives.
When explicit images are shared
If you learn that sexual images of a student were shared without their consent, offer the student support. This is a serious violation of trust, and—depending on the specific circumstances—may constitute sexual harassment and may be a crime. Refer students to school counseling and/or mental health support in the community.
To learn more about effective ways to discuss sexting with teens, read the chapter “From media abstinence to media production: Sexting, young people and education” in the Palgrave Handbook of Sexuality Education.