From the April 2018 issue

The Sext Talk: More Kids Are Sending Explicit Text Messages

Kids as young as age 11 are sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages, a new study notes. How can parents address this risky behavior?

Long before you could send pics on Snapchat, you took film to the pharmacy to be developed. So you thought twice about snapping nudes – knowing the dude developing your photos would see way more of you than you’d want him to. But today’s adolescents send racy shots in seconds – minus the middle man.

And while it seems like they’re sending snaps to just one person, that’s not always the case, says Judith Malinowski, a clinical psychologist at St. John Providence Eastwood Clinics in Novi. Those texts and pictures can easily be forwarded.

“Where I think it crosses the line is the thinking that ‘it’s safe because I’m doing it with one person’ – and then it starts to go viral, and that’s where it goes out of control,” Malinowski says.

And while sexting is risky, that doesn’t stop kids from sending explicit messages back and forth. In fact, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics found sexting is growing more common among kids under age 18 – some as young as 11.

It’s not surprising, says Christie Mikell, a licensed clinical psychologist with Great Lakes Psychology Group’s Shelby Township and Roseville locations.

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“I think that the age of kids getting cellphones is probably the biggest part of that,” she says. According to TechCrunch, the average age for that first cell is around 10.

As today’s kids are navigating their sexuality, technology has added a riskier layer to this time of exploration – one that parents didn’t deal with when they were young.

Sexting stats

In order to measure the prevalence of sexting – sending explicit images, video and messages – researchers looked at 39 studies that took place between January 1990 and June 2016 and had more than 110,000 participants.

Studies included details on sending and receiving sexts, forwarding sexts without consent and having a sext forwarded without consent. Researchers found 1 in 4 tweens and teens have received sexts while 1 in 7 report sending them.

It’s becoming the norm for teen girls, Mikell adds – it’s just part of talking with a guy or flirting. And because kids’ brains aren’t fully developed, they are more impulsive and more likely to be coerced into sending these messages.

Still, it’s concerning, Malinowski says. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, this is a fun thing to do.’ That’s where I think we’re missing the mark. Are we really talking about the cost, what that means?”

And in the #MeToo era, it’s more important than ever to talk to kids about consent and how to explore sexuality in respectful ways.

Sext education

Both Mikell and Malinowski agree that parents have to start conversations early, have them often and remain calm.

“It’s not going to be this one-and-done conversation,” Malinowki says. “And it’s not going to be so simple as, ‘Don’t do that.'”

In fact, the “sext talk” is really four conversations in one, touching on peer pressure, self-esteem, sex education and cyber safety, Mikell explains.

Parents should encourage children not to get caught up in peer pressure or feel they need to conform by sending these messages.

“I do think that exploring sex and sexuality in different ways is appropriate as teens are growing up,” Mikell says, but sexting isn’t necessarily a reciprocal sexual relationship – especially if a guy is sending a sexual pic that a girl didn’t ask for or requesting she send one to him. Parents of boys in particular, she says, need to be talking about respecting girls’ boundaries.

Address consent in an age-appropriate way. “Everyone is entitled to their own choices, and when someone says ‘no,’ we should respect that,” Mikell says. Tell kids they shouldn’t keep pushing for a “yes” when someone says “no.”

And when you’re done talking, it’s time to listen. “I think a parent really needs to listen to conversations their kids are having,” Malinowki says, whether it’s in the basement or backseat of the car. Know who your kids’ friends are, who they are hanging out with and pay attention to any changes in their dress or behavior.

“Which comes to basically spending time with your kids, which really comes down to the parent putting down their phone,” she says.

If your kid receives an unwanted sext, Malinowski says to ask your child how she feels about it. Other questions: Who is this person? How do you know this person? What is your gut reaction? What could be something you could send back that could shut this down? Do you want to respond or not?

“As much as you can empower them, the better off – because at some point in time, you’re not going to be sitting next to them,” Malinowski says.

Art by Jay Holladay

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