May 9, 2024/Parenting

Sexting: The Risks and How To Talk to Your Children About It

Sexting has become all too common among kids, putting them at risk for bullying, blackmailing and human trafficking

Teen lying on bed holding cell phone up reading it

In today’s digital age, it’s become much more common for children to interact with smartphones, social media and online platforms at a much earlier age than older generations who never had access to such technology. But with a universal level of access comes greater responsibility and a whole new set of risks related to stranger danger, human trafficking and sexting.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

“Sexting” means sending sexually explicit videos, images or messages through text, direct messages and online social media platforms. It has become prevalent among youth ages 11 to 17, though children even younger than that have also been reported to participate in sexting. One in seven teens say they’ve sent sexts, while 1 in 4 say they’ve received them.

While nearly all studies agree that sexting has become part of modern-day sexual behavior, there’s a dark side, too: Nonconsensual sexting, unauthorized distribution and coercion are on the rise. For example, research shows that 14.5% of sexts are forwarded to other people without the original sender’s consent.

When sexting is coerced, or when sexts are shared without consent, it can lead to harassment by friends, cyberbullying, blackmailing, and a slew of problems related to the safety and well-being of a young person’s emotional, mental and physical health.

To help protect your kids from these risks, child psychologist Kate Eshleman, PsyD, says it’s important to talk about the dangers of sexting early and often and to find ways to support your kids as they navigate the nuances of internet safety.

Talking points about the dangers of sexting

Dr. Eshleman shares that the dangers of sexting revolve around three problem areas related to permanence, loss of control and legality. When you talk to your children about the risks of sexting, these talking points will help put those dangers into perspective:

  1. What you put out into the world is permanent. When you send someone sexually explicit messages, images or videos, you’re tangibly giving that part of yourself away — and you can’t fully take that back. Even on platforms like Snapchat, where images are meant to be temporary, they can still be saved, screenshot and shared with other people without your consent, even if you delete them on your end. Suffice it to say: Anything that lives on the internet, lives forever.
  2. You lose control over the things you give away. “Once you put something out there, what happens to it is no longer under your control and people can do whatever they wish with it,” says Dr. Eshleman. Like anything else that lives on the internet, whatever you send can be copied again and again and shared with anyone outside of your intended audience. They can be used against you by abusers for sexploitation, sexual coercion, bullying or blackmail. But they can also be mishandled by people you’ve developed crushes on, people you know and trust, and people who seem to have the best intentions. Letting your guard down and thinking, This will never happen to me, is misguided, because when these events do happen, it may be too late.
  3. There could be legal consequences. When sexting happens between two consenting individuals of legal age, it can be a healthy means of expressing intimacy. But if you’re under 18 (a minor), sexting may present serious legal risks for you and anyone who interacts with that content — yes, even if you’re knowingly sharing sexually explicit images of yourself with another minor. Avoiding this kind of behavior altogether protects you and others from any legal repercussions that can stick with you for a very long time, if not forever.

Advertisement

How sexting can affect teens’ mental health

When you post photos online or send them to other people, you always run the risk of your images and messages being intercepted, mishandled or shared without your consent. And, again, if you’re under the age of 18, these nonconsensual behaviors can have widespread legal consequences, as well as a significant impact on your mental health. All of this can impact your physical health and overall safety and well-being.

“We have to be mindful of the potential for something bad to happen and not take any unnecessary risks, and we have to help kids understand what could happen,” emphasizes Dr. Eshleman. “We often see in the media situations where young people complete suicide because of situations that occur where they’re being blackmailed or bullied or they feel like there’s no way out of a situation, and all of these things can cause significant mental health issues.”

Our mental health and physical health are very closely tied together. You can think of both areas of your life as two sides of the same coin — when one side falters, the other side reels from the effects. That’s why we talk about the importance of supporting youth mental health at the same time we talk about the physical risks associated with mental health crises.

“If you’re losing sleep or you’re not doing well in school or you’re not spending time with your friends and you can’t eat because of the stress that’s going on related to nonconsensual sexual behaviors or sexting, these are all going to have a significant impact on your mental and physical health,” warns Dr. Eshleman.

Ways you can help protect your children

There’s no surefire way to make sure your kids aren’t sexting (or having sex). But as parents and caregivers, you can certainly put guardrails in place to help protect them and educate them about the risks associated with sexting — including what to do if they feel like there’s no way out of a dangerous situation.

Dr. Eshleman offers advice for concerned parents, children and teens alike on how to navigate the nuances of sexting.

Have the sexting talk early and often

“As soon as kids begin to have independent access to this technology, that’s when the conversation around sexting should begin,” advises Dr. Eshleman. Have these conversations using terms and tones that are developmentally appropriate.

For example, if you have younger children who have access to online video games, tablets, laptops or your phone, set expectations for how those devices are used and introduce the idea that they shouldn’t talk to strangers they don’t know online.

Advertisement

Maybe they can play certain games, but they’re not allowed to use the camera or take and share photos or use social media until they reach a certain age. And when it comes to using social media, put specific rules in place for what platforms they can access, and then monitor that access accordingly.

“As the child gets older, you start to discuss why those expectations are in place and what the potential dangers and risks are,” says Dr. Eshleman. “You can be a bit more explicit about sexting and sexual behaviors — not with the intent to scare, but so they can make informed decisions and be aware of those risks when they’re making their choices.”

This is all in an effort to increase your child’s understanding of the importance of consent and personal boundaries.

Encourage a foundation of trust

Making friends and establishing relationships is important for kids at any age — so, if they find themselves in a relationship where they feel comfortable with the idea of sexting, or if they come to you to discuss those curiosities, it’s important to validate their feelings while also being realistic about the risks.

One of the hardest lessons to teach a young person is the fleeting nature of relationships and the difficulty of establishing and maintaining trust. As your children age and gain experience in these areas, their understanding of those concepts will also continue to evolve.

“You want to validate the nature of their relationship and these feelings and help them recognize that while this is an important relationship that’s currently filled with trust, it may not always be that way,” advises Dr. Eshleman. “Acknowledge that it’s hard to think about that right now, but that it is a possibility they have to consider for the future.”

Inspire them to be protective of their body and safety

Like any conversation related to “the birds and the bees” and safe sex practices, you want to empower your child to have ownership over their body and feel safe and protected when it comes to engaging in sexual behaviors, when the time is right.

When it comes to sexting in particular, it’s important to remind them that they’re in control of the situation — up until they send the sext. But once that material is sent, it’s effectively out of their hands — and that comes with acknowledging a certain loss of control.

Advertisement

“We don’t know who else has access to the other person’s phone or devices,” reminds Dr. Eshleman. “Are their friends or siblings going to see what you’re sending? What about their parents? These things we send each other aren’t necessarily protected, even if the person you’re sending them to has the best intentions.

“When it comes to sexting, it’s not just about honoring the relationship you have. It’s also about being aware of all the possibilities of what could happen and who else could be involved and what all these pieces and parts are going to look like in the future.”

Build a solid foundation of communication

You should maintain open lines of communication with your child long before these tougher conversations on sexting are needed.

“You want to talk about really benign things like, ‘How was your day today? What was the best part of your day? Did anything funny happen today or did anything make you angry?’” suggests Dr. Eshleman. “You want to start that communication as often and as early as you can with benign topics so rapport and that opportunity are established so that if something difficult does come up, your kids are more willing and comfortable to come to you with more serious issues.”

Help them find other ways to establish intimacy

Relationships are a lot of work. And when you’re young, there’s real, significant pressure to feel like you need to do or say all the “right” things to achieve a meaningful relationship. But most adults know that real, genuine intimacy takes time, and it’s about so much more than simply satisfying your partner’s needs.

Remind your children that they should never feel forced into a situation that makes them uncomfortable. Knowing how to set up healthy boundaries and protect themselves is always important. But let them know there are other ways to be intimate with someone they care about that don’t involve physical intimacy or sexual behavior.

“You can encourage them to talk on the phone, text each other and FaceTime when you’re apart,” says Dr. Eshleman. “They can send appropriate pictures with an outfit they like or share pictures of them with the family on a family vacation. It’s important to show that there are other ways to establish a bond with someone you care about that doesn’t have the related risks associated with sexting.”

What should your child do if they send a sext and regret it?

Make it clear to your child that they can always come to you for help or seek out other trusted adults for help in any situation that involves sex, sexting and nonconsensual behaviors. Knowing they’re never alone when faced with these situations is crucial to their health and safety.

Advertisement

This way, if something goes wrong or your child finds themselves in a situation where they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, they’ll know that you have their back — no matter what.

“What we really want to emphasize is that it’s always OK to ask for help,” says Dr. Eshleman. “Find a trusted adult to speak to. Maybe it’s your parents, maybe it’s your pediatrician, or your coach or a friend’s parent. But you want to find a trusted adult to share this with and get help navigating it.”

The same goes for parents who are dealing with these issues for the first time and are concerned about their children.

“We don’t expect the kids or the parents to have all the answers,” Dr. Eshleman continues. “So, you can call your pediatrician, call somebody from the school, call somebody from the police station. People aren’t expected to navigate this alone. And while it may be difficult, it’s better than letting it continue and/or escalate.”

At the end of the day, you likely know your kid better than most. If you educate them early about the dangers of sexting, reinforce positive behaviors and healthy boundaries, and keep lines of communication open between you and your child, you can help reduce the risks of sexting — and strengthen your child’s safety and sense of self along the way.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person observing a loving couple
May 15, 2024/Mental Health
Resentment: How It Can Creep In and Take Hold

The key to letting go of resentment is unpacking complex emotions and learning how to express them

Two caregivers, with one holding a child on shoulders, walking happily outside
May 1, 2024/Parenting
Our Safe and Responsible Guide To Co-Parenting

Keeping open lines of communication and working together as a team for your children are key to co-parenting

yin-yang-type hands in black and red
April 30, 2024/Sex & Relationships
What Are Karmic Relationships?

Don’t let the romantic terminology fool you: Karmic relationships are dysfunctional by definition

Caregiver and child sitting in front of toilet holding toilet paper rolls
April 24, 2024/Children's Health
How To Potty Train: Our Best Tips

Set your child up for potty training success by waiting until they’re ready, keeping the pressure low and going heavy on the praise

Male and female in embrace in foreground with contraception choices circling in background
February 2, 2024/Sex & Relationships
What You Should Know About Safe Sex Practices

‘Safer sex’ means STI prevention, avoiding unintended pregnancies and psychologically safe practices for everyone

person standing on exclamation point holding up a No. 1 finger, wearing cape and mask in front of crowd
February 1, 2024/Mental Health
How To Make the Most of Your ‘Villain Era’

It’s not about embracing your dark side — it’s about showing up for yourself

Child hiding behind grandmother and a stranger at a park
January 31, 2024/Children's Health
How To Teach Your Kids About ‘Stranger Danger’ (Without Scaring the Daylights Out of Them)

It’s never too early to teach your kids who strangers are and how to avoid unsafe situations

person looking at reflection in hand-held mirror
January 22, 2024/Mental Health
9 Signs You’re Dealing With a ‘Narcissist’ (and Why That’s the Wrong Word to Use)

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition, not an insult

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey

Ad