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Talking to teens about sexting

Laura Willard is a law school grad who has successfully avoided using her education for eight years and counting. She's a wife and an adoptive mom to two kids. Motherhood is the best job she never knew she wanted so much until she had it...

Is your child sexting?

Sexting. If you are a parent of an older elementary school student, tween or teen and you haven’t heard this term or don’t really know what it means, it's time to educate yourself. Sexting is sending suggestive or explicit texts, photos or videos via cell phone or instant messaging. Why is it important? It’s quite possible that your child has sent a sext, received a sext, seen someone else’s sext or at least heard about someone doing it. Unfortunately, this use of technology — one that can have serious consequences — is not going away. These guidelines can help parents deal with the issue.

So what do you do?

Like Wiseman, Austin (also known simply as "Dr Jenn") also emphasizes that you should keep an open mind — sexting could be happening now or could happen in the future, so discussing it is key. Her advice is based on her knowledge of teenage brain development. She explains the importance of C.O.A.L. — curiosity, acceptance, openness and love: If parents change the way they approach and communicate with their children, they'll see more positive results. Her new manual, Dandelion Daughters, offers parents guidance on how to raise girls to promote positive brain development so they can make better decisions on their own.

Sit down with your child, tell her you've been reading about sexting and ask her how she feels about it. Create an open dialogue where your child feels comfortable talking to you honestly. Your child needs to be able to tell you how she really feels, not what she thinks you want to hear. "Guide the conversation and temper in facts about sexting -- that it's dangerous — and ask if she knows of situations in which some of her friends have gotten in trouble," says Austin. "Ask your child if she's aware that it's illegal, ask if they've been tempted to do it, whether they have done it."

No matter how you go about it, the bottom line is to educate your child about how serious sexting is and how severe the consequences can be in the long term. She needs to understand that the photos she sends to one person will very likely be seen by others, and how she treats herself is generally how others will treat her — so if she shows she doesn't respect herself by sharing nude or suggestive photos, her peers won't respect her, either. Help her understand that nothing really goes away on the Internet — even if she deletes a photo, it could always be out there for others to see. Her actions today may seem harmless to a 14-year-old, but a few years later, if college admission boards or employers see these photos, they could seriously affect her chances of getting into her preferred college or getting a job .

Next up: How do you stop it? >>

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