Talking to teens about sexting

May 14, 2010 at 7:03 p.m. ET

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.

Sexting Girl

Experts cannot overemphasize the prevalence of sexting. Rosalind Wiseman is the author of groundbreaking books such as Queen Bees & Wannabes (the basis for the movie Mean Girls), and Boys, Girls, & Other Hazardous Materials, and is an educator on children, teens, parenting and education. Based on her extensive experience with children and teens, and the adults in their lives, she says that most teens will be exposed to sexting in one way or another.

Is your teen sexting?

How do you know? Should you snoop? Should you assume your child is involved? How you approach this largely depends upon your parenting style, but no matter what you decide, do not ignore the issue.

Prevention: A hard line in the sand or open communication?

Wiseman contends that the best method is to discuss sexting with your child before it actually becomes a real issue for her. She advises all parents to begin talking to their children about it by sixth grade, as her experience has taught her that it really becomes a problem in seventh and eighth grade. In sixth grade, begin discussing the topic in general terms. Wiseman suggests saying something like, "Unfortunately, it's common for children your age to send embarrassing pictures of themselves to other people. If that happens, I want you to come to me."

By seventh grade, Wiseman recommends changing the tone and making it clear how serious you are. Tell your child that you know she is using social networking but that you expect her to behave in a way that's consistent with your family's values. She suggests setting up expectations and consequences if they are not met — for example, loss of technology, chores your child really dislikes and/or restrictions of freedoms. She also suggests drawing very clear parameters, such as telling your child, "I demand that you do not participate in the humiliation and embarrassment of other people or yourself. If you do participate, I will be your parent and hold you accountable. This includes forwarding, not just creating."

Another approach is to create an environment of openness. Dr Jennifer Austin Leigh, PsyD, is a life coach and award-winning author of books such as Laid or Loved? The Secrets Guys Wish You Knew About Being a Dream Girl Instead of a Just-in-His-Jeans Girl.

She emphasizes that there may be no obvious indications that your child is involved in sexting. You may be looking for signs, such as secrecy with her cell phone or suddenly stopping texting when you enter the room — actions that could indeed be warnings — but even without these signs, your teen could still be sexting.

Next up: So what do you do? >>

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